Be The Spark Plug

Before jumping into today’s post, I want to put out a call for questions again. It’s been a while since we’ve done that, but if you have any questions about prairies, prairie management/restoration, prairie photography, or anything else you think I might be able to answer, please ask them in the comments section of this or other posts. Those questions often lead me to write a full post on a topic, but I also sometimes dedicate one post to answering a number of questions.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone (more than 60 of you!) who responded to my call for stories about how you were first drawn to prairies. A few more of you emailed me with your tale. While preparing to write this post, I re-read all those stories again and they are really lovely. In addition, as I was hoping, they provide some helpful insight into how people fall in love with prairies – and how we can help!

Bill Whitney, retired co-founder of Prairie Plains Resource Institute, has been a major inspiration to people around Nebraska, me included.

Based on those stories, most people discovered prairies when they were led to them by someone they knew. A friend, relative, professor, or local naturalist took them to a local prairie and showed them the wonders of grasslands. The second most common path was either growing up around prairies or moving to someplace where prairie was nearby and/or part of nearby recreational sites. Proximity led to familiarity, and that gradually built a relationship between that person and prairies.

Those who didn’t find prairies through a particular person or physical proximity tended to find them by either reading about prairies or because prairies were a place to pursue other interests such as birding, butterfly watching, or art/photography. For many of those people, of course, proximity still played a role. You have to have access to prairies in order to go look for birds, butterflies, or artistic opportunities. The path to those prairies, though, started with another pursuit.

Monarch butterflies are familiar to many people and their plight has helped bring attention to their habitat needs – which, around here, largely means native wildflowers and prairies.

Interestingly, a combination of factors was necessary to get most people hooked. The majority of people who said they grew up around prairies, for example, also mentioned an experience or a person who really got them to notice and appreciate those grasslands. People were fueled up by living near grasslands or by enjoying outdoor recreation, but it took a spark to finally ignite their prairie love.

My own story, it turns out, is a great example of that. I grew up in a prairie landscape and liked being outside, but it took a conversation with my friend Steve Winter to finally inspire me to fall in love with the prairies that had been in the background all along. Steve was my spark plug.

There’s a lot to learn from these stories. One takeaway for me is that for most people, there’s a two stage process to falling in love with prairies; a fueling stage and then a spark. The fuel can come from living in a landscape or neighborhood where prairie is nearby or all around you. Alternatively, the fuel might be a general love of the outdoors and/or a special attraction to a particular group of animals or plants. It might be gardening, birding, nature photography, or trail running. There are a lot of ways to fuel up a potential prairie enthusiast.

The second stage is the spark, and the spark almost always comes from another person. That person might be a relative or a field trip leader, a writer or photographer, or just a friend who is already excited about prairies and shares some of that enthusiasm. In one way or another, that person ignites the fuel within someone and off they go!

My kids had plenty of prairie experiences while growing up, but a lot of their friends will never associate their youth – or even their adulthood – with the prairies all around them. They need a spark.

Here’s where you come in – all of you reading this. How can you help built up the fuel in people around you? You can’t (usually) get people to move to a landscape full of prairie, but there are ways to bring prairie to people’s yards or neighborhoods – or to draw attention to what already exists. Initiating local prairie restoration projects, encouraging and facilitating the use of native wildflowers in gardens, and educational programs that get people interested in birds, butterflies, or plants are all terrific examples of building fuel. There are countless other options.

And then… Be the spark plug. Share your passion about prairies with those around you. You don’t have to be an expert, you just have to care. Talk about why you care. Invite people to visit the prairie with you so they can see it through your eyes. If you’re a photographer, don’t just share your photos, share the stories behind the photos – not just the subject matter, but how you felt and why you were there in the first place. If you’re someone who likes to organize things, organize an event at a local prairie. There are lots of ways to do this. Choose the ones that fit your personality.

However you do it, just do it. Be the spark plug.

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.

14 thoughts on “Be The Spark Plug

  1. When I tell people of my love for Nebraska, everyone nods politely, thinking of I-80 through the cornfields and truck stops. I almost hesitate to wax poetic about the prairies and grasslands and Sandhills, only a few miles off the beaten path. Watching Idaho under a tsunami of “nature lovers” inspires a protective secrecy regarding the landscapes of my long-ago childhood in open hills and Niobrara canyons. We will love our blessings to peril, I fear.

  2. I would comment publicly, but comments don’t accept pictures.

    This diagram came out of one of the U of A multidisciplinary groups. The link they usually appear is here: but they seem to be having some issues. I have written to their communications director to see what’s the scoop.

    This illustration is 5 years old. Since then we are *above* the estimates of the IPCC reports.

    For perspective the southern part of the province while labeled Dry Mixed grass, in practice is mostly sagebrush. All agriculture depends on irrigation. There are NO new water licenses being issued.

    We are at northern latitudes. (I live at 54’45”) and so climate change will hit us harder than most.

    I’d like to see a series on the impact of climate change on the prairie. What do you see happening. How will soils change?

    Drought and heat aren’t strangers here. Google “Palliser Triangle” A lot of this region is subject to decades long cycles of enough rain and drought, with the occasional way-too-much year. But my region (Aspen Parkland) is normally wetter and more consistent than the true prairie regions. And from the maps, the Boreal forest is due to become the Boreal savanah best.

    [image: BMCCA-alberta-hot-zones.png]



    On Tue, 9 Mar 2021 at 07:16, The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” Before jumping into today’s post, I want to put out > a call for questions again. It’s been a while since we’ve done that, but if > you have any questions about prairies, prairie management/restoration, > prairie photography, or anything else you think I migh” >

  3. Love reading the blog! Here’s a question for a future blog. Everyone’s always very excited about bison reintroduction on prairies, and rightfully so. But many other animals also are missing from many prairie landscapes and some are being reintroduced. Do you have any thoughts on over or underrated prairie species reintroductions (plants or animals)?

  4. Not sure if this falls under it. But during the process of moving to Kansas, I discovered that the state/cities, as a general whole, don’t seem to be very conducive/on board with an environmental consciousness. Practically every yard I see is a chemically/pesticide maintained turf lawn instead of more native, and even drought tolerant landscaping, among other practices that don’t seem very environmentally friendly. I’m wondering why that is…?

  5. Huge and important questions already posed here, and I would like to add to that by asking Chris if so-called rewilding could be an ambition and possibility somewhere?

  6. There is a very important intersection between mental health and well-being, and proximity to nature, interaction with nature, and restoration of nature. For the benefits to accrue to the most people and the most nature, we need large spaces restored to native habitats near where most people live. It seems like the best places to have that happen are floodplains and steep terrains that are not well-suited to agriculture. I have yet to see a compelling vision for how and where to accomplish this in the Lincoln-Omaha area where most people in Nebraska live. The areas that are available for public use are smallish and very busy. A large project like this (on the order 5-10k acres) would certainly “spark” the imagination, and perhaps the funding to do it. It would also help reach the 30×30 goal. How do we get there?

    • Hey Patrick,
      I think you’re probably right that a big project would be fundable in that area. The biggest obstacle is probably finding a chunk of land in the 5 to 10 thousand acre range. There aren’t many parcels of that size, so you’d have to buy from several adjacent landowners – presumably farmers. Finding an opportunity like that seems pretty unlikely. It would sure be fun, though – and definitely of great value!

  7. Great post, as always. As a future topic, I would love to hear about characteristics that modern prairie plants carry that were originally adaptations to living with the now extinct Pleistocene megafauna. Bois d’arc, black locust, and pawpaw, are a few examples. What else? Are there any grasses or forbs that have special adaptations for the wooly mammoth?


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