Advice for Future Prairie Conservationists

I was contacted yesterday by a high schooler interested in prairies and a future career in conservation. (Definitely the highlight of my week!) They were looking for any advice I could offer, so I took some time to come up with a thoughtful response. I quickly realized I had a lot more to say than I’d expected. After finishing the email, I decided to share my thoughts here as well in case others might find them interesting or helpful. I also hope many of you will build upon my suggestions by adding your own to the comments section of this post. Thanks in advance for that help. Maybe we can craft something that will help and encourage lots of future conservation heroes!

Here are some of the tidbits of advice I offered to a young person interested in a potential conservation career:

  • Conservation success relies on building ecological resilience, which relies on habitat size/connectivity and biological diversity. Biological diversity is formed mainly by small organisms like plants, invertebrates, and members of soil and other microbial communities.  Don’t ignore those small organisms.  Learn as much as you can.  It’s rare to find people, especially these days, who can identify plant species, let alone insect species or soil microbes.  Regardless of where you go with your career, learning as much as you can about these little organisms and their stories will serve you well.  If you’re so inclined, helping others to learn about them is even more important.
Healthy ecosystems are built upon biological diversity, including lots of small organisms like this little bee. Each of those organisms also has a fascinating story. In this case, females of this bee species (Epeolus sp.) are kleptoparasites – they sneak in and lay their eggs in the nests of other solitary bees.
  • Be a story teller.  Whether you decide to pursue science, land management, policy, or other aspects of conservation, the ability to tell compelling stories will be an important part of your skill set.  There are lots of ways to do it, but all of us working in conservation have an obligation to help build support among the public.  Without that support, nothing else we do will matter.  Convincing the public that conservation is important and relevant isn’t going to succeed if we just focus on the utilitarian values of nature – carbon sequestration, water filtration, etc.  Those are absolutely important, but our success will come through the sharing of stories that connect people to nature through emotion and empathy.  Sharing your passion with others (as it sounds like you’re already doing) is incredibly important. 
  • Don’t lock yourself into a specific career path too early.  Most people I know have changed their mind multiple times between starting college and settling into a career.  Many have had several careers because they’ve found more than one way to find joy and fulfillment (if not wealth) in the conservation arena.  If you go to college, you’ll have to make some decisions before picking a major, but even after that, there will be plenty of chances to learn about things you didn’t even think were career options and ways to shift your focus to those new interests.  I was sure I was going to become a forest ranger when I started college and ended up as a prairie manager focused largely on fighting trees trying to invade my grasslands.  Now I’m a scientist, photographer and story teller.
This year’s Hubbard Fellows, Emma Greenlee (left) and Brandon Cobb (right) are getting lots of land management and restoration experience this year. Here they are loading prairie seed into a planter as part of a restoration project.
  • Regardless of what role you aim for, I’d suggest trying to get some experience with land management, even if it’s just a summer job building trails or killing weeds.  It’s important and gratifying work, and worth doing for that reason.  However, I also think it’s really helpful for people to have that kind of experience in their background because it builds empathy and understanding that will help in whatever job you have afterward.  It’s easy to establish common ground with a rancher, farmer or other land manager if you can swap stories about trying to start a grumpy chainsaw, for example.  Even more importantly, understanding the kind of work that goes into land management will make you more effective at designing policy, raising money, or working on any other aspect of conservation. 
  • Conservation is really gratifying in some ways, but can also be depressing if you’re not careful.  There are always more challenges than we can solve and new ones pop up all the time.  There are few occasions when there is a defined end point to our work.  It is more of a long process that will continue well beyond any individual person’s career or life.  The way I deal with that is by reminding myself that my job isn’t to save the world, it’s to do what I can to make sure it’s still running when I hand it off to the next generation of conservationists.  We are just one link in a very long line of people who have been stewarding the earth for thousands of years.  All of us make mistakes and face new and daunting challenges and have to respond by finding creative and adaptive strategies.  Do the best you can and then let those who come after you deal with the next set of challenges.
A rancher ignites a prescribed fire in the Nebraska Sandhills. Prairies are a prime example of an ecosystem type that has been strongly shaped by human stewardship, including the application of prescribed fire.
  • Finally, and this is really important, don’t let anyone convince you that nature is better off in the absence of people.  For the last 15-30,000 years or so, most ecosystems on earth have been strongly shaped by the actions of people.  As a result much of our current biodiversity is adapted to the actions of humans, if not dependent upon us.  The western (and recent) concept of pristine wilderness (meaning separate from people) as an ideal is mostly inaccurate and problematic.  Not only does it disrespect the long and crucial history of stewardship by indigenous people, it also absolves all of us (indigenous and otherwise) from our stewardship responsibility both today and tomorrow.  Sure, we often screw things up, and our actions and those of our predecessors have sometimes led to extinctions and other major negative impacts.  That doesn’t mean we should just pull out and ‘let nature take its course’.  Nature and people are interconnected and mutually reliant upon each other. Let’s focus on finding the best ways to bring ecosystems and species into the future with us. 

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Please add your thoughts to mine by putting them in the comments section.

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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.

17 thoughts on “Advice for Future Prairie Conservationists

  1. I would also add that many people who are making a valuable contribution are people who started out as volunteers with some local conservation organization and “got hooked”. There is deep and committed knowledge residing in some of these volunteers – some of whom have been contributing their work, understanding and advocacy for decades. One of my own mentors is a gentleman going on 97 years who inspired so many people and landowners. He was originally an agricultural columnist, as I recall.

    • Yes, this, 100%. Be willing to engage the public in ecosystem restoration AND let them take the lead when they are ready. Understand that not only the ecosystem benefits from this work, but the people do to, in so many ways that they might not initially realize. And never forget Margaret Meads words:

      “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

      Well maybe not always change the world, but at least make your part of it better. I can vouch for that.

      https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2688-8319.12063

  2. As a person who was once in the same place and got wise before it was too late that there are more people than jobs in the natural resource related job market. Be aware that your dream job maybe a just that, a dream. Do some serious research into the field, the openings and the pay before spending the time and money. Alot of the jobs are Gov’t jobs, very hard to get and merit is not top priority. Its best to look for a career that has lots of private demand and possibility of Gov’t demand as a bonus. Do an analysis of the cost of the education and the potential for payback, makes little sense to borrow 100K for a job that pays 30K if you can even find one.

    Sometimes a enjoyable life consists of a decent job with a very enjoyable “hobby” on the side.

    Alot of this depends upon ones finances and expectations.

    I have seen many young people that work low paying jobs (20-30K) related to their degrees in fields that they have no hope of getting a job in.

    Imagine an internship for a study on Wolves with applicants that have Doctorate degrees What is the chance of even getting an internship with just a BS?

  3. I would add that trying to forget a connection with a particular spot in Nature can be a helpful way to stay grounded and inspired when the going gets rough. Going back to the same spot regularly (like 2-4 times a month) and getting to really know it throughout the seasons, different weather, at different times of day, etc. can be a wonderful experience. Keeping a bird list, a journal, or making sketches can add to the experience, if you are so inclined.

  4. Wow, great post. Thanks! I especially liked the last point about the importance of human stewardship and particularly the overlooked role of indigenous land stewardship. This perspective was almost entirely missing from my formal ecological education.

  5. Seek out partnerships and prioritize collaboration.

    In my early experiences, I developed a mindset of head down, win the race of conservation. For anyone else out there which may be inherently competitive, this is not the field for a competition-drive. We, individuals who care about prairies, are all in this together. To no surprise, much value is had within building connections and learning from one another. While this lesson is inherent, it can be more easily forgotten when you may feel isolated, such as being the only one in an organization overseeing conservation work or exclusive manager of a particular prairie.

    When establishing connections, do not feel intimidated to reach out to prairie conservationists from all geographical areas and/or titles or assumed status. All conservationists had to start their career at some point and will likely be gracious in providing support or answers in any way possible. Prairies are incredibly complex ecosystems. In addition, throw in the human dynamic of management, landowner relationships, and others and you are working with a large dynamic puzzle. One cannot put it on themselves to know all the answers (as much as that can be a hard lesson, back to naturally competitive).

    Prairie conservation is a marathon, and having teammates helps. Building connections, from all backgrounds and organization types, is sustaining. Particularly in this field which can be bleak at moments.

    Thank you for highlighting such conversations, Chris. This community of prairie enthusiasts you have brought together provides invaluable support.

  6. This post absolutely hits the nail on the head. One of the better distillations of conservation career advice I’ve seen.

  7. “Finally, and this is really important, don’t let anyone convince you that nature is better off in the absence of people.”
    That is a powerful statement, and I’m glad you brought that up!

    I would add to start gaining experience before graduating with your degrees, whether that is summer jobs, volunteering, school research ect. Also don’t discredit the skills you gain from that other job you hold while paying for school (waitress? That’s public relations!)

    And remember some basic professionalism. When you apply and interview for jobs, please dress up formally and conduct yourself accordingly. Not only are we hiring you because of your knowledge and experience, we are hiring someone who is representing our agency.

  8. Chris, this is…mind-blowingly excellent, and I would like to share it with my native plant group as written below (credited to you, of course). Hope that is ok.

    “Chris Helzer a prairie ecologist whose wonderful work I have followed for years, put a number of thoughts together for a student interested in a career for conservation. These passages resonated strongly with me as a Native Plant Enthusiast/Habitat Promoter, so I am sharing them here, as I think they are worthy of thought and discussion. Gardening with native plants is a form of conservation (ethically practiced) where we humans have some control and ability to be supportive rather than destructive in our respective ecologies where we live. Each and every plant has a story and will add dimension and life to your living spaces.

    “Conservation success relies on building ecological resilience, which relies on habitat size/connectivity and biological diversity. Biological diversity is formed mainly by small organisms like plants, invertebrates, and members of soil and other microbial communities. Don’t ignore those small organisms. Learn as much as you can. It’s rare to find people, especially these days, who can identify plant species, let alone insect species or soil microbes. Learning as much as you can about these little organisms and their stories will serve you well. If you’re so inclined, helping others to learn about them is even more important.”

    “Conservation is really gratifying in some ways, but can also be depressing if you’re not careful. There are always more challenges than we can solve and new ones pop up all the time. There are few occasions when there is a defined end point to our work. It is more of a long process that will continue well beyond any individual person’s life. The way I deal with that is by reminding myself that my job isn’t to save the world, it’s to do what I can to make sure it’s still running when I hand it off to the next generation. We are just one link in a very long line of people who have been stewarding the earth for thousands of years. All of us make mistakes and face new and daunting challenges and have to respond by finding creative and adaptive strategies. Do the best you can and then let those who come after you deal with the next set of challenges.”

    “Finally, and this is really important, don’t let anyone convince you that nature is better off in the absence of people. For the last 15-30,000 years or so, most ecosystems on earth have been strongly shaped by the actions of people. As a result much of our current biodiversity is adapted to the actions of humans, if not dependent upon us. The western (and recent) concept of pristine wilderness (meaning separate from people) as an ideal is mostly inaccurate and problematic. Not only does it disrespect the long and crucial history of stewardship by indigenous people, it also absolves all of us (indigenous and otherwise) from our stewardship responsibility both today and tomorrow. Sure, we often screw things up, and our actions and those of our predecessors have sometimes led to extinctions and other major negative impacts. That doesn’t mean we should just pull out and ‘let nature take its course’. Nature and people are interconnected and mutually reliant upon each other. Let’s focus on finding the best ways to bring ecosystems and species into the future with us.””

    Thank you Chris. I hope there is a book in you…no pressure, but it would be wonderful.

  9. One more thumbs up for the final paragraph. I think one on the great success stories of many of the conservation NGO’s has been that realization that people are integral, and have to be the agents of the changes we need.
    Also, the passage about multiple iterations of career paths has great relevance. I had an agronomic consulting business for 40 years after getting a degree in park management, but now am returning to the conservation field in retirement with 230 acres of prairie restoration on my farm. And I am using ideas and references from my college days 45 years ago, as well as the lessons from my time as an agronomist. It all counts.

  10. Can law make a law saying your pollinator prairie, Pollintor gardens..regatsred/certified, the owner can not be tampered with , no harassment , not threatened, intimidationms,rvenge not just pollinator health!?
    I have a 10+acres owned land trying to work with pollinators and a group of persons want me to tear down my praisie garden ..they don’t like it and I am rgeistered with Nationla Wildlife Federation, Monarch Watch and By Way and Mr, President Carter’s wife’s Monarch trailand other groups also and very proud of that ..Pay a yearly due for some and those people think it is all fake and because we just have local laws they think they can run the property and we have locl laws not don’t hunter protecion laws… which we do the same thing only in reverse.. and they would not have animals to hunt if we did help feed those animals they hunt and it is scarey when i am outside working with tools just as sharp that could cause harm if they came in to hurt you. and while working on a tractor or lawn mower, working with with sharp tools…..and i am threatenned and tampered with! Now if i am out doing something thier hunting they could complain what about us?Conservation Pollinator enthusiast!They say it’s emberassing and fake…not when your regstered with real assocaitions that helps with that wildlife and Pollinator conservation!
    I found stuff you know the wind could not do..tracks in my filked, stuff torn down under something and stuff broken that wind could not do!!! we deserve respect also! We nly have that one spot they can hunt in most other places and we get this big deal you can’t win….and that was told to me also!another person said they would stop me if i complained!

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