Meeting People Where They Are

Just over a year ago, I wrote a post about the importance of each of us telling our personal stories as a way to build a constituency for conservation. If you missed it, I encourage you to read it. As I said in that post, getting public support is absolutely critical to our success. There’s no way conservation can succeed if the majority of the world doesn’t see it as relevant and important.

I feel very strongly that the best way to get those around us to think more and/or differently about nature and conservation is to share our individual perspectives with them. That includes talking about how much we enjoy outdoor experiences and showing how excited we are about recent observations. Even just mentioning that we’ve been out cutting trees in prairies or harvesting seeds for a restoration project helps normalize those activities and reminds people that conservation exists.

None of this means we have to walk the streets proclaiming the good news of conservation at the top of our lungs. It just helps to share our individual perspectives when we have an opportunity – in person, via social media posts, or in other ways. Don’t underestimate the value of showing your passion to your friends and acquaintances. People who have a connection with you will automatically feel a connection to what you’re interested in too.

Now, having said all that, it’s also really important to match our messages to our audience. We’d like to think that most people view nature the way we do – that they think hiking through a prairie full of wildflowers is a great way to spend a Saturday morning, or watching a big bumble bee land on the flower right in front of our noses is a magical experience. The reality is that most people don’t think about nature nearly as much as we do, many don’t see it as relevant to their lives, and more than we’d like to admit are simply afraid of it.

Not everyone is ready to let an adorable jumping spider crawl on their arm. My kid (years ago) was willing, but only because I’d spent lots of time getting him comfortable with invertebrates in general and spiders in particular.

We need to be aware of how those around us view nature and conservation in order to craft our messages appropriately. Many of us working in prairies have had the experience of people reacting negatively when we talk about cutting trees because they grew up learning that trees and nature are synchronous. “Why would you cut down trees? I thought you were trying to save nature??” Sometimes that reaction just leads to a productive conversation about trees and prairies, but there are also lots of examples of prairie restoration projects that have been shut down by public outcry over the removal of trees.

In addition, talking about how much we love snakes or why the smell of prairie smoke makes us happy isn’t going to connect well with people who view snakes and fire negatively. It’s just going to make us seem crazy, which isn’t helpful to our cause. Instead, we’d probably be smart to start by describing simple positive experiences we’ve had with animals and plants those people might be familiar and comfortable with. “Wow, the butterflies out in the prairie today were amazing!” Or, at the very least, if we’re going to talk about how much we enjoy conducting prairie fires, we should provide some context for those who can’t imagine why those fires might be positive.

Rather than keep blathering on about this, I’ve created what I hope is a humorous but helpful short video on the topic. Some of it will look familiar to a few of you who have seen one of my recent presentations, but I’ve tried to tweak it a little, so I hope you’ll still enjoy it. You can watch it below or just click on this link:

Keep sharing your stories. Let people see how much nature and conservation mean to you and they’ll start seeing the world a little more through your eyes. Just be careful to meet people where they are and craft your messages appropriately.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

18 thoughts on “Meeting People Where They Are

  1. Good thoughts, Chris, and good for the time of year we need to be planning our activities during the green season. I delivered a presentation to the Conservation Foundation on what I’m doing at home, and that presentation forced me to think a bit more strategically. I’ve got to focus on some things I can do to describe what I’m doing and why it’s useful, even if they’re just little signs next to the native plants in the front, while most of the work is in the back.
    And of course continue to talk and educate people while engaging their curiosity.

    Here’s the presentation if you don’t mind my sharing.

  2. This is a challenge that a lot of conservation professionals fail to meet, as often our own colleagues are the folks we “meet” the most. Great post and a good reminder for us all.

  3. As an overwhelming number of people support the environment (for example, see, I wonder if its more about how we define “nature”. For most conservationists, its about naturally functioning, native ecosystems, while for others, its likely about “green” spaces regardless of species or natural processes (such as an urban park). Maybe there’s a better way to tie the two together (e.g. planting more native species in our public parks and spaces) and use this approach as a means to create awareness and to “normalize” native species and systems (which I know TNC and others are already doing across the country).

  4. Really liked the video. I think video as a medium for ecosystem advocacy is very underutilized. A lot of what’s out there isn’t very good, or, maybe more importantly, is not compelling. But, there are some really good ones out there too. For example, the “Wild Wander” youtube channel informs and advocates for longleaf pine ecosystems in the Southeast US. The production quality is top notch. The host is good, a little nerdy, but engaging and compelling.
    I’ve learned as a Nebraskan, hundreds of miles from longleaf pines, that longleaf pine ecosystems are maybe even more fire dependant than prairie. I had no idea.
    Is there anyone doing something like that for prairie ecosystems?

  5. Thanks Chris! That’s a great video. Definitely sharing far and wide. Working in city parks, we encounter the entire spectrum of nature observers, lovers, and haters out there. It can be a challenge to find common ground if you don’t first take a step back and try to meet people where they are. We’re all about educating the public as much as we can. We need their support and most certainly can’t move forward without it.

  6. I have done this in a small way on my website. where I talk about stewardship — an old fashioned word that needs revival.

    Indeed stewardship is a word that deserves revival. Conservation is another word for this, but it’s taking a beating right now due to connotations of conservative as a political stance. And claiming to be a steward is easier to spell than conservationist.

  7. Pingback: What was it for you? | The Prairie Ecologist

  8. Note:This post ended up longer than anticipated and I don’t blame you if you don’t read it all, but I couldn’t decide what information to remove…. so I’ll begin: I thoroughly enjoy your posts. I’m incredibly interested in your perspective of conservation via targeted management rather than abandonment (your post on “letting nature take its course” comes to mind). I have a heart for grasslands via my background in western Texas ranching. Watching and listening to western Texas rancher’s comments over the years, I’ve realized traditional continuous grazing of small cattle herds in small pastures is likely a major culprit. To your point in this post, The Nature Conservancy in west Texas has gotten a bad wrap from locals due to their seeming abandonment and “let nature take its course” mindset. My goal is to work with Nature Conservacy scientists in Texas in an effort to restore management via application of graze/rest (and burn) concepts you write about extensively. I’m developing knowledge surrounding the concept of “rebooting herd instinct” in cattle in order to negate the need for forced rest via paddocks/fencing and allow for selective grazing of large herds across vast tracts of land (imagine 2000 head head of cattle grazing together in 1 herd across a single 100,000 acre paddock). West Texas is home to several ranches large enough to implement such experiments on varying scales, but not home to many owners willing to try. Have you any experience with or opinions about such an idea? Are you in contact with anyone at Nature Conservacy in Texas who may be interested?
    Thank you for your work and sharing your knowledge!!
    Hondo Davis
    Midland, Texas

    • Hondo – I can’t speak for Texas TNC and what they’re hoping to do, but I would suggest you contact Dan Snodgrass and start there. I believe they are in the process of doing some restructuring of their staff, so don’t know exactly who is your best contact, but Dan will know.

      There are certainly some fun things that can happen with the kind of large pasture, single herd approach you mention, but any grazing strategy needs to be tailored to a particular site and its objectives. Plus, there are lots of other considerations (would you be using fire to shift intensity from place to place over time? are there invasive plants that would be helped/hurt by a large pasture approach, as opposed to more targeted seasons/intensity? etc.). I can’t really comment on something like that as a general approach, but it could be very cool at the right site.

      • I appreciate the feedback. I’ll try to reach Mr. Snodgrass as I’d love to work with them on projects which use grazing techniques.

        I think using fire to increase intensity could be very helpful in cedar and other woody invasion management along draws, but it seems like in our desert environments frequent use of fire can be somewhat damaging if we are not careful. Also, it seems extremely long rest is helpful in our arid environment. Specifically in the Permian Basin region we struggle with Lehmans Lovegrass invasiveness.


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