Professor Emeritus Ronald H. Chilcote has transformed art and natural beauty into political activism.
With a long-standing love of nature and landscape photography, Chilcote has combined the two passions into a project that has raised millions of dollars to preserve hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness.
“I’ve always been a photographer, but really started concentrating on it in the mid-90s,” Chilcote said. “I had several art shows, and finally got into the book production and the conservation cause.”
In 2003, Chilcote founded The Laguna Wilderness Press (LWP) with another photographer, Jerry Burchfield. “Our idea was to use photography as a means to raise awareness to protect and preserve natural areas,” Chilcote explained. Their books facilitated this cause. His original goal with the Laguna Wilderness Press was to preserve the Laguna Greenbelt, approximately 22,000 acres of open green space bordering Laguna Beach and its five neighboring cities.
Plans existed to develop these lands, once part of Spanish and Mexican land grants, but Chilcote and his colleagues felt the land should be protected as a nature preserve. Chilcote helped organize a Committee for the Preservation of the Laguna Legacy whose documentation and photography on the history, art, and culture of the region has recently been recognized as a Historic American Landscape (HALS) by the National Parks Service and the Library of Congress.
Chilcote explained that the committee has just published a book, Laguna Beach and the Greenbelt to celebrate this honor. “To have that quantity of undeveloped land, it’s something that’s very unusual in a highly urbanized region of the country,” he said.
Under LWP Chilcote initially published a photography book on the greenbelt, titled, Nature’s Laguna Wilderness (2003). It appeared as the formerly private lands opened to the public. The Los Angeles Times published a six-page spread with photos on Chilcote and his book. A substantially revised edition, The Laguna Wilderness, appeared in 2014.
Chilcote has published other books devoted to a similar purpose, yet with even higher stakes, including Wind River Wilderness (2006) and The Wild Wyoming Range (2013). Chilcote edited these books which featured the work of a dozen renowned photographers and essays by at least eight different writers, all associated with the state of Wyoming, where he and his wife, Frances, reside during summers.
Speaking of Wind River Wilderness, Chilcote said, “It was a photographic and written portrayal of a segment of the Rocky Mountains that is one of the most beautiful and important along the whole range.”
He collaborated with Susan Marsh on The Wild Wyoming Range, which was one of Chilcote’s most impactful endeavors in publishing. “We spent five years working on that book,” he reflected. “It focuses on another mountain range which is south of the Snake River, extending about 150 miles and reaching over to the Idaho border.”
He added that, until recently, there were 100,000 acres of leased land held via oil and gas companies. “They were determined to go in and drill, radically impacting the upper regions of the Hoback River, which flows into the Snake River,” Chilcote said. "Drilling would have altered the beautiful landscape and it would have affected the western waters.”
Chilcote’s book came out just before The Trust for Public Land in Washington reached an agreement with the oil companies to buy back the leases, at a cost of approximately $8.4 million. “The book was used for awareness and to raise some of the funds for that purpose, and finding a resolution,” Chilcote explained. “There were three large donors, and all of them were excited about the book. The book raised several hundred thousand dollars in other areas, too. Booksellers sold it and donated all funds toward that cause.”
It’s not often that we have a happily-ever-after conclusion to a real life story, but Chilcote’s tale is a wonderful exception. “Now all the leases have been bought back,” he said of the acres in Wyoming. “The area will hopefully endure and remain the same for future generations to enjoy.”