From passion to protection

Leith Sandness’ passion for photography sparked an intense appreciation and desire to protect nature. The Spearfish High School senior is pictured here with his dog taking in a summer sunset in a vibrant ecosystem near his home. Photo courtesy of Leith Sandness

BELLE FOURCHE –– Teddy Roosevelt said, “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

Leith Sandness, a Spearfish High School senior, agrees.

Armed with a deep appreciation for nature and a passion for photography, Leith shares his photos to showcase the natural beauty, illicit deeper thought about nature’s importance, and spark a desire to conserve all ecosystems.

Last year, for an AP English course, Leith submitted “The Importance and Power of Nature,” a personal narrative comprised of nearly 1,600 words which illustrated his lifelong fascination for the wonders of nature and his drive to protect its true integrity.

Formerly from southeast Minnesota, Leith said he’s been exploring the great outdoors since the time he could walk. Leith and his family - parents Laura and Stephan Sandness and three older siblings moved to the outskirts of Belle Fourche in 2013.

Leith’s fondness for nature continued to grow following the move.

The nature lover’s father, Stephan, is a bow hunter. Leith theorized that tagging along on his father’s hunting trips might have been the impetus for his affinity for nature.  

Even as a young child, Leith’s mother Laura said he was quiet and had more patience than that typically expected from children.

“He, at a young age, could sit for a long time, and just look at nature,” she said.

And now, Laura said not much has changed.

Leith is still quiet, she said, with a dash of stubbornness. Laura said that she believes stubbornness can lead to the development of tenacity and determination, which she hopes will benefit her son throughout his life.

“… Not stubborn in a bad way,” Laura said. “But determined when it’s something he cares about. It’s the key to success.”

Budding photographer

Leith developed an interest in photography when he was 11 years old. He said he’d take his sister’s camera, much to her chagrin, hop on his bike, and pedal to an area inhabited by a population of wild turkeys.

And that was only the beginning.

After realizing his level of enjoyment, Leith got his own smaller Cannon camera. Then, he saved for a few years to purchase the camera he’s now armed with – a Cannon 6D with a Tamron 150-600mm zoom lens which sports a 1.4x extender.

Once or twice a year for the last four or five years, Leith said he’s been meeting with Steve Babbitt, a photography professor at Black Hills State University, who’s served to mentor his craft.

“He made me into the photographer I am,” Leith said.

A special connection

Peering upon the natural environment through his camera lens, Leith perceives nature in ways that he believes are rare. For him, it’s about a connection and relationship that the average person cannot attain by merely viewing the prairie through their car window.

“Loving nature is not about admiring its beauty,” Leith said. “It’s about having a connection with it so deep that you’ll try as hard as you can to (protect) it …”

With a passion as deep as his, not even subzero temperatures can keep Leith from interacting with and photographing his muse, often devoting many hours each week to partake in his favorite pastime.

“He goes more frequently than he realizes,” Laura said.

And he’s not interested in merely providing a visual image to admire. The motivation behind Leith’s camerawork is much deeper.

“The hardest thing for a nature photographer to do is not to make something seemingly normal look special,” he said. “It’s to prove that it’s special.”

Proving it requires engaging people to provoke deeper thought, hopefully ushering them to decide for themselves that the natural content is not only important but deserving of careful preservation.  

“My goal was to get people to think about how we treat nature in general,” Leith said. “ … to get people to think in ways they don’t usually think.”

Although he feels a strong connection to all nature in general, Leith said he’s particularly fond of and especially protective of prairie grassland.

“So few people understand how special it is,” he said. “Very little prairie has been preserved. And when you see a preserved prairie, you can’t just look at it - you have to immerse yourself in it and look at the small things.”

Overlooking the richness of the prairie ecosystem that inhabits the seemingly barren grasses of the Plains can be all too easy, Leith said.

“We highly value visual beauty, and if you don’t see the small things in nature, you’re not going to care about them,” Leith said. “Seeing the small things in nature is essential in understanding how everything in nature is connected.”

Endeavoring the preservation of sanctuary

In the eight years that Leith and his family have called a bucolic Butte County subdivision home, the number of residences has nearly tripled, with more development currently underway.

The most recent development of the area, which he estimated encompassed approximately 50-60 acres of mainly prairie landscape in the epicenter of his photography pursuits, would have dire consequences to the habitat that houses a plethora of plant and animal species.

“And I explored that whole area, not just the 50 acres,” he said. “It was pretty obvious that most of the habitat for birds and some animals were centered in that 50 acres.”

Having spent countless hours observing the area in quiet contemplation, Leith believed that he saw the natural sprawling grassland in ways that no one else did. That belief compelled him to do more than utilize his passion as topical coursework.

In early May, with the dawn of the development’s expansion nearing, Leith attended a city planning and zoning committee meeting to express his concerns about the subdivision’s continued expansion, reading his personal narrative to the members present.

“I wanted to show a different perspective that they’ve probably never heard,” he said.

Essentially, Leith said that the committee members told him that the train had already left the station and that there was nothing he could do to prevent the subdivision’s further development.

Additionally, Leith made contact with the owner of the subdivision who was pursuing further development of the natural grassland, sharing a letter he’d composed describing the life that inhabited the land and a book of photographs he’d taken that he felt captured the essence of the rich ecosystem in the project area.

Laura said she and Stephan did not discourage Leith from attempting to communicate his concerns with the owner. However, they cautioned him to temper his expectations, as the landowner had no legal obligation to entertain Leith’s interests.

Although in the end, Leith did not prevent the further development of the subdivision, Laura said that standing up for what he believed in was a valuable exercise.

“I’m just proud of the passion he has for preserving natural spaces,” she said.

Although disappointed, Leith said the setback only further fueled his determination to protect all types of ecosystems.  

“Loving nature is the most important thing,” Leith said. “I’m not an expert in in. But, seeing something you love die in front of your eyes makes a big impact.”

Unseen impact

In a rural subdivision where most properties span at least two acres, Leith said that most of his neighbors regularly mow their lawns and properties. That can have dire consequences to the area’s bionetwork.

“If you cut it every week, it’s not natural,” he said. “If (the grass is) three inches long, there’s no habitat there for anything.”

The spreading urbanization of what was once sprawling grassland, accompanied by expanding urban property maintenance routines, essentially leveled the area’s natural habitat, displacing wildlife, and pushing away the lush nature that Leith treasured so dearly.

“We have forgotten how to live with nature,” he said. “Wherever we thrive, nature does not. It takes a lot of courage to leave nature be.”

Focus on what matters

Leith continues to move forward, working to educate and spread awareness and appreciation.

“We’re the only species that uses nature as we please, and not as we need,” Leith said. “We really take advantage of nature and we think nothing of it.”

Seeking to learn more about the prairie biome, Leith said he traveled to Bozeman, Mont., to visit the American Prairie Reserve.

At the reserve, he said he learned that prairies were once one of the ecologically richest landscapes on earth but are now one of the most globally impacted and threatened biomes.

According to the American Prairie Reserve, less than 2% percent of prairies around the world have been permanently conserved, resulting in the reduction of ecological function and the endangerment of numerous species within the ecosystem.

The reserve, the largest of its kind in North America, aims to restore a complete and fully functioning prairie ecosystem. With a focus on securing long-term conservation of the nation’s grasslands, the nonprofit organization aims to restore the natural abundance of species in the Northern Great Plains region.

According to the National Park Service, historically, prairies covered 170 million acres of North America, like a sea of grass spanning from the Rocky Mountains to east of the Mississippi River and from Saskatchewan, Canada, south to Texas. At that time, it was the continent’s largest continuous ecosystem supporting an enormous quantity of plants and animals, developing into one of the most complicated and diverse ecosystems in the world, surpassed only by the rainforest of Brazil.

This is just one example of ecosystems harmed by human inhabitation, but there are many more, Leith said.

“Nature dies quietly, which is why so few of us realize that it is,” he said. “Whatever we do to nature, we do to ourselves. The more we harm nature, the more we will end up harming ourselves.”

Leith said he hopes to attend college at the University of Wyoming to study ecology, wildlife biology, or some type of natural science related coursework.

To view Leith’s nature photography, find the Leith Sandness Photography page on Facebook.

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