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Local Wilderness Photographer Tim Ernst Presents "Arkansas Landscapes II" Tonight at Springfield

a Featured Photo from 'Arkansas Landscapes II' / Tim Ernst

Tim Ernst is a nationally renowned wilderness photographer from northwest Arkansas. He’s written Arkansas guide books, as well as articles for several national publications, including National Geographic, Outside Magazine, and the New York Times. Ernst is also the former president of the Ozark Highland Trail Association. Ernst is giving two presentations Friday night at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center about his new picture book, “Arkansas Landscapes II.”  He spoke with KSMU’s Samuel Crowe about the event, his career and love for the outdoors.

CROWE: “Tim, how did you get started in landscape photography?”

ERNST: “Well, I’ve always enjoyed being out in the woods. I started a party photography business when I was nineteen years old in my second year of college at the University of Arkansas. I ran that for a number of years and decided I would rather be outdoors taking pictures than indoors. So I sold that business and started freelancing, taking pictures of the things I’d always loved my entire life, which was the things I saw when I was out hunting and fishing and hiking. One thing led to another, and within a year or two I had already had some pictures accepted by some publishers like National Geographic, for instance – kind of a lucky first start. That was sort of the springboard I used for the rest of my career. That was a little over 30 years ago.

CROWE: “You’ve done work for several national publications besides National Geographic, including Outside Magazine and the New York Times. Was this just photographs, or did you write some articles for them too?”

ERNST: “Most of the work I’ve done for publication has been photographs. One of the first articles that I ever wrote was published in Backpacker Magazine, which is a national magazine, and it was written about the Ozark Highlands Trail, and that was back in 1983. That kind of helped bring that particular trail into the national focus. Since then, our little volunteer group has put in several hundred thousand hours building it, and is in the process of linking it up with the Ozark Trail, which is currently being built across the state of Missouri. So eventually the two states will have one common trans-Ozarks hiking trail that will go seven or 800 miles across the states.”

CROWE: “Do you think this seven or 800 mile hiking trail will bring in more hikers from across the country and possible around the world to Arkansas?”

ERNST: “I don’t think there’s any question that a major long distance trail in the central United States will bring in lots of folks – not only from the United States, but also from other countries. People love to hike long distance backpacking trails. Of course, they love short ones too, but there seems to be a growing interest in doing the big long trails, and this is certainly going to be the longest one in this part of the United States when it’s completed.

CROWE: “You’ve written several Arkansas guide books, including one on the Buffalo River Trail, and another on Arkansas waterfalls.. What inspired you to write such detailed descriptions of hundreds of different scenic areas, and was it exhausting doing all this research and information gathering?”

ERNST: “Well I think the first thing that led me to publish a map of a hiking trail was the fact that there was nothing reliable and accurate anywhere else. It seemed like the more I hiked in different places, the more bad information or lacking of information I found. It certainly was the case in Arkansas, because the hiking trail industry was just getting started back then. This was in the early 1980s. I saw a need to provide accurate information of maps and then eventually guide books  for people like myself who like to go find new trails to hike. It kind of gives you a preview of what’s up ahead and a map so you don’t get lost. One thing led to another, and we expanded, and now have a bunch of different trail guide books, as well as guide books to waterfalls and other scenic areas throughout Arkansas.”

CROWE: “So you’ve been at the forefront of improving the hiking trails and the overall outdoor recreation opportunities in Arkansas over the past thirty years.”

ERNST:  “Well, I have had my hand in being able to get out and work with volunteers, as a volunteer myself, to build and maintain new trails in Arkansas. In the process, we needed a larger workforce, because this volunteer work is pretty tough to do. So it really helped to get folks from other parts of the United States  and the region to help do this work. In doing so, they kind of discovered Arkansas and the Ozarks region in general, certainly including the Missouri Ozarks. A lot of people just didn’t realize we had the great beauty that we have around here. Especially right now is a perfect example. It’s winter in a lot of the other major hiking areas in the United States, but yet in the Ozarks, you can come hike, and it’s gonna be 60 or 70 degrees. Sometimes in the winter, when it’s frozen elsewhere, it’s wonderful hiking. We have kind of a year round outdoor recreation resource here in the Ozarks, and it’s great that we’re able to share that with a lot of people.”

CROWE: “Tim, tell me a little about the presentation you’re giving tomorrow night at the Nature Center.”

ERNST: “Yes, the program I’m giving at the Nature Center – which by the way, I looked up the other day, and I’ve been giving programs there ever since right after the center was built many years ago, and it’s wonderful for them to continue to have us back – it’s a side program that contains all of the new pictures from my newest picture book. I do a new picture book each year, and this one is about Arkansas. It’s just pictures put to music. The folks can get to sit back and kind of take a break from the holiday rush and enjoy some great music and some wonderful images of the outdoors.”

CROWE: “The event is called ‘Nature and the Arts.’ What sort of connection do you think the two have?”

ERNST:  “I think nature inspires artists from all genres – whether it be photographers or painters. I know people that live in very natural or wilderness type settings that do things like create jewelry by hand or some other type of artwork, and they are certainly inspired by nature. So I think the two are infinitely connected. I love what they do at the Nature Center, where they combine this visual outdoor experience with getting to open their trails and go on night hikes, and just enjoy the nature center itself. It makes for a great combination.”

CROWE: “What would you say has been your greatest achievement so far in your career?”

ERNST: “The greatest achievement in my career I think is anytime that someone who has never been out in the woods steps onto a trail for the first time as a result of one of my guidebooks or pictures they saw in a picture book somewhere, and they said ‘Oh, that sounds like or looks like a good place to go, how do I get there?’ That’s really what I consider my job, is to inspire people to get out in the outdoors and enjoy the great beauty that we’ve had here, and also along the way kind of give them a sense of ‘This is pretty neat, and we need to keep this, and we need to protect it for future generations.’ And it certainly is up to us, the recreating public, to see to it that great natural areas that we have in the Ozarks, as well as the rest of the country, are preserved and protected for the future.”  

CROWE: “And because of these efforts to preserve and protect, do you think outdoor recreation in the Ozarks is only going to get more popular?”

ERNST: “Yes, I think it’s going to get more popular, which I think is a wonderful thing, because I believe that time spent outdoors is the best time you can spend, and I think it enriches our lives and makes people happier. And I think happier people work better, they enjoy life a lot more, obviously. So I think the more we can do that for everyone, the better off the planet is.”

CROWE: “What sort of advice would you give hikers and backpackers? You’ve obviously been an avid hiker for the past few decades, any wisdom you’d mind imparting?”

ERNST: “Well, I think for anyone who want to get out and go hiking , there are a couple of things to remember. Number one, if you’re a little unsure about what you’re doing, try to join a group. Maybe a specific hiking group, or the local chapter of some outdoor organization that has hikes during the year, so that you can ease into it and go with likeminded people. If you decide to go by yourself,  my suggestion is to start short and grow from there. Don’t start off loading up your backpack with 60 pounds and thinking about hiking 20 miles a day, because it will probably hurt to do that a little bit, and you might not enjoy it as much. Take someone along with you that you enjoy spending time with, take it easy and enjoy yourself the first few times and you can get a good feel for what you’re capable of doing, then branch out and go longer. We have a lot of trails of all lengths in the Ozarks, and they’re just waiting for folks to go out and enjoy them.”

CROWE: “Tim, do you have a favorite place or a favorite area in Arkansas where you like to hike?”

ERNST: “Actually, I’ve got a lot of favorite places in Arkansas that I love to hike and take pictures at, which is what I fill up my books with, although I live and work in the Buffalo River area, just south of Springfield. I think one thing that continues to draw me here, and artists around the country actually, is the quality of light that we have here in the Buffalo River area. I think that’s one of the main things, as a visual artist, that keeps me here, and it’s light similar to what I’ve seen in Yosemite and the Tetons, and a few other places in the United States. I think the Buffalo River has that rare quality of light, and I think it’s my favorite spot in the state.”

CROWE: “You just mentioned Yosemite and Grand Teton National Parks.. Do you have a favorite hiking destination in the country or around the world?”

ERNST: “Well there are lots of great places to hike around the country. I worked for four years in the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming with the Forest Service, directing their volunteer trail operations. If I had to go one place besides Arkansas to hike, that would probably be first on my list. I think the Wind River Mountains have real spectacular scenery, they’re not quite as crowded as some other places, and it has that rare quality of light that we have on the Buffalo River also.”

CROWE: “So what’s next for you? Do you have any new trail guides coming out, more photography books, or personal hiking trips with your family?”

ERNST: “Well, my wife and I, who by the way is from the Springfield area, Pam, she is helping me work on six new books that are kind of in the works right now. One of  them is a guide book to the most scenic campgrounds all over Arkansas. We have literally hundreds and hundreds and thousands campgrounds, and a lot of them are small RV parks, and quite honestly some of them are parking lots. We want to calculate a hundred or more of the most scenic ones that people from Arkansas or people from other states want to go spend a night, spend a few days at. That’s whether you’re in a tent or a small RV, it doesn’t matter, we’re going to try and find the best ones – which requires that we visit hundreds and hundreds of them all over the state. We don’t do anything by computer, we have to get out and see this stuff first person.

We’re also working on a hiking trail guide book that is dog-friendly. Some trails don’t allow dogs, while other trails welcome dogs.  There’s a lot of people who want to take their family pets with them. In fact our daughter Amber, whose going to school at Drury University in Springfield, she’s doing a lot of the research to come up with the lists of the hundreds and hundreds of campgrounds in the state and some of the facilities that they have. Then we go out and spend a night at them and see what it’s like. So it truly is a family business. Plus, we’re working on a couple of picture books from scenes around Arkansas like we do every year, as well as a couple others in the works. So there’s always something going on.”

CROWE: And that was Tim Ernst, local wilderness photographer, author, and avid outdoorsman. Ernst is giving two free presentations on his new picture book, “Arkansas Landscapes II” Friday night at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center. The first presentation is at 5p.m. and the second is at 7p.m. You can reach the Nature Center at 417-888-4237 to reserve a seat. Click on the links to access more information about the event, Ernst’s website and personal online diary, the Cloudland Journal.

For KSMU News, I’m Samuel Crowe.