A Voice in the Wilderness

At 74 and with a new lease on life, Jack Dykinga is out to save national monuments from the Trump administration

Photographer Jack Dykinga studies a massive saguaro boasting downward circling arms, mentally envisioning the image he might capture. He ignores a cat's claw thorn puncture that produces trickling blood on his leg.

"It will have to be a morning shot," he says, using his hand to indicate the direction of eastern sun. "It will be four days until the flowers bloom."

He looks up and smiles. "My new favorite cactus. Ka-ching."

Dykinga used late afternoon hours to traverse the dirt road that crosses Ironwood Forest National Monument 15 miles west of Marana. He recorded the saguaro's GPS coordinates and made plans to return, either by camping overnight or by leaving his Oro Valley home at 4 a.m.

The internationally known landscape photographer always scouts before he shoots, and works to establish a relationship with his selected site.

"Usually, the first take doesn't take," he said. "I almost never get it right the first time."


Dykinga, 74, has spent decades using landscape photographs to influence public opinion in fights to protect pristine regions across the Americas.

"We're using beauty as bullets to fight this war," he said.

His latest battle involves an executive order that mandates review of 21 national monuments. Arizona sites include Ironwood Forest, Sonoran Desert, Grand Canyon-Parashant and Vermilion Cliffs. (See "Review re-ignites battle over federal land use".

Dykinga has also donated photos to Save the Confluence, a group of Navajo families dedicated to stopping a multimillion-dollar tourist proposal that includes a gondola to transport visitors from the Grand Canyon's east rim to the confluence of the Little and Colorado rivers.

Past activism includes working with four other photographers in 2007 to form the first Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition, or RAVE, for the International League of Conservation Photographers.

They documented the El Triunfo cloud forest in Chiapas, Mexico, to draw attention to its threatened habitat. Dykinga later participated in RAVEs in Mexico's Baja Sur and Yucatan regions, along the U.S.-Mexico border, in Chile and in Canada.

Visionary Wild photographer Justin Black served as executive director of ILCP in 2009 and 2010. He credits Dykinga's images with helping stop two proposed Chilean dams on the Rio Baker and Rio Pascua, located between the northern and southern Patagonian ice caps.

"His photographic coverage was instrumental in the ultimate success of the campaign," Black wrote via email. "Those rivers flow free and wild."

Dykinga also photographed Canada's Great Bear Rainforest in a successful effort to stop a proposed pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to the British Columbia coast.

Geoff Webb, who now runs FoundationWest in Santa Fe, New Mexico, worked for the U.S. Interior Department during the Clinton administration and was involved in national monument designations during the mid-1990s.

With former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt serving as Interior Secretary, the department turned its attention to the Colorado Plateau. Webb contacted Dykinga, and convinced him to share his "knockout" images of the region.

"The photos went to the president and vice-president, and together with all the rest of the work we did, they had an impact," Webb said via email.

After the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was established in September 1996, Webb worked on Arizona projects including Grand Canyon-Parashant, Vermilion Cliffs, Ironwood Forest, Sonoran Desert and Agua Fria national monuments and the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.

"Without the first one, the Grand Staircase, it's possible none of the rest would have happened," Webb said. "Land conservation and stewardship is a long-term enterprise, and Jack's dedication and contributions then and now have mattered."

A 1996 book, "Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau," features photos by Dykinga and text by his longtime collaborator, the late Charles Bowden.

ILCP named the book's cover image one of the 40 best nature photographs of all time, and Outdoor Photography honored Dykinga as one of the 40 most influential nature photographers. After an Outstanding Photographer of the Year award in 2011, the North America Nature Photography Association this year chose Dykinga for prestigious Lifetime Achievement honors.

Dykinga said photographs help personalize a slow-moving abstract topic.

"It's difficult for humans to stay focused on really big issues, and the environment is a really big issue," he said. "People just can't wrap their arms around it. It's hard to put a face on it, unless you use landscape photos."

He acknowledges that showcasing beautiful sites can lead to overcrowding. "The entire park service is having an issue with overuse," he said. "We are loving places to death, and I'm aware that I am part of the problem."


Dykinga's roots trace to the Chicago suburb of Riverside. He was raised in a conservative Republican family and says his first presidential vote was for Barry Goldwater.

After high school, he found work photographing celebrities arriving at O'Hare Airport. That connection led to a job as a press photographer for the tradition-bound Chicago Tribune.

He later moved to the more liberal Sun-Times, where he preferred covering Chicago's underbelly. Photographing race relations during the turbulent 1960s also helped shape a new world view.

Dykinga struck journalism gold at age 28, winning the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. Pulitzer judges honored his photos of institutionalized patients at Illinois mental hospitals.

After relocating to Tucson in 1976 to work as photo editor for the Arizona Daily Star, Dykinga decided in 1981 to become a wilderness guide.

He regularly contributes landscape photographs to magazines such as National Geographic and Arizona Highways, and has published more than a dozen photography books.

Despite the change in focus, he still considers himself a photojournalist.

"When I'm taking a picture, even if it's pretty, I'm trying to say something," he said.

Dykinga credits a journalism background for his discipline, ability to meet deadlines and an ingrained sense of ethics.

Digital photography makes it easy to lie, he says while discussing a photo he assembled that shows 10 minutes worth of monsoon lightning strikes.

"I would feel obligated to say it was a composite," he noted. "If you abuse that privilege, you've lost all credibility."

Outdoor photo excursions taught him the need for patience.

"A decisive moment may require a five-day wait," he said, laughing softly. "Nature's very good at giving you the finger and saying 'not today, my friend.'"

Time in the wilderness also turned the self-described Chicago kid into a naturalist by osmosis.

"I see too many photographers who take a photo of a cool tree with no interest in learning about the tree's biology," he said. "Photographers need a sense of curiosity and wonder."

Dykinga displays examples of his work at dykinga.com.


Dykinga coped for years with failing lungs caused by pulmonary fibrosis of unknown origin, and was told he had three years to live.

He enrolled in a double-blind study at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix from 2010-14, and later learned the experimental drug he received helped extend his life. Still, he ran into serious trouble in 2014 when a dust storm hit during a Grand Canyon rafting photo workshop.

"I had a massive shutdown of my lungs," he said. "I turned gray and had dangerously low levels of oxygen in my blood. It felt like I was drowning."

Justin Black drove Dykinga to the Mayo hospital in Phoenix for emergency care. Eventually, Dykinga underwent a double lung transplant that included coronary artery bypass surgery, at the Norton Thoracic Institute at Dignity Health St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.

Three months of difficult recuperation followed at the Editha House in Phoenix, during which Dykinga leaned heavily on his wife of 52 years, Margaret, and his two adult children. He must continue taking 25 anti-rejection pills per day.

Black said his friend emerged from the life-saving surgery with a new perspective.

"Jack felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude toward those who had been involved in his care, treatment and support, as well as those who had made a difference in his life and career," Black said. "In fact, I think he felt unworthy of his good fortune in general."

Dykinga concurs with Black's assessment. "I can't help but be grateful—you'd be kind of a fool if you weren't," he said.

As a young man, Dykinga often spent more than 250 days a year on photo expeditions. His post-surgical immune system means he must avoid crowds and can't use air transport, but he still drives to wilderness outings and conducts photo workshops.

He's also increased his environmental activism.

"He redoubled his commitment to fight for the causes and places he cares about, becoming more publicly transparent about his personal politics in the process," Black said.

Dykinga spent time compiling five decades worth of photographs, which were published last February in a retrospective titled "A Photographer's Life."

The book includes essays about his visual and human touchstones. "I was very lucky," he said. "I worked with the very best people."

The project involved scanning 4-by-5 view camera negatives, and reuniting with his Pulitzer Prize-winning photos. The negatives were lost for decades before Sun-Times executives discovered them locked in an office safe, and sent Dykinga high-quality scans.

He dedicated the book to his wife, writing "For Margaret—whose strength, courage, and love brought me back from the darkness."

"A Photographer's Life" has enjoyed good reviews, though Dykinga wishes the book would sell better. "I'm real proud of it," he said. "It was heartfelt."

Dykinga plans to donate his archives to a university, and is searching for a good prospect. The process helps him appreciate his lifelong good fortune.

"I've been afforded a lot of good, lucky circumstances and was able to capitalize on them," he said. "It's been an interesting ride."

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