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.

Meet the 2021 Hubbard Fellows

Sarah (left) and Kate practice photography along the edge of a restored prairie slough last week.

Our latest class of Hubbard Fellows has been here at the Platte River Prairies for three weeks now. After the most competitive selection process we’ve had yet, Sarah Lueder (pronounced ‘leader’) and Kate Nootenboom (pronounced just as you’d expect) joined us just in time for heavy snow and extra-frigid temperatures. As a combined result of the weather and COVID protocols, we’ve spent much of our time getting acquainted via Zoom, which is far from ideal. Late last week, though, we took advantage of warming temperatures to wander the prairie together and I finally got some photos of them.

Now that I have photos, I can share the short introductions I asked each of them to write for themselves. I think reading these will give you a pretty good feel for why they were selected for this experience. We’re thrilled to have them and will be sharing much more from them in the coming year.

Sarah Lueder.

SARAH LUEDER:

Hello prairie people! Thanks for having me… I am excited to join the ranks of prairie lovers here.

I have been fortunate enough in life to get to experience the outdoors in a fashion that fostered a sense of appreciation for the environment. Growing up my dream was to live like Tarzan, and I could often be found practicing swinging off the low hanging tree branches in my backyard in St. Louis, Missouri. Through this lens of “the outdoors are awesome!” I slowly but surely developed a sense of obligation towards conservation.

This led me to the field of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Here I was able to study the complex ecological interactions I had become so fond of observing. Getting to do this surrounded by the swampy magic that the gulf coast exudes made it all the better. It’s not hard to feel impassioned about environmentalism when walking under live oak trees that appear ancient and shaggy, branches covered in Spanish moss and bark covered in resurrection ferns, or when exploring the wonderfully bizarre longleaf pine savannas, or when watching alligators silently glide in front of knobby cypress knees.

Along the way I was able to participate in some enlightening research opportunities and conservation efforts. A particularly influential experience was conducting a study in the Ecuadorian Chocó rainforest on palm tree communities and subsequently talking to community members on their perspectives on conservation in the area. It was great to be able to answer some ecological questions (let me know if anyone wants to hear about how secondary succession may be influencing the functional traits of palm communities there), but even better were the questions it sparked but left only partially answered (what are best practices for equitable, holistic, practical conservation efforts?).

My eyes were opened to how multiple avenues of environmental work can function in concert with robust outcomes for all involved. This left me wanting to explore everything: preserving and restoring the integrity of land via directly working with it, participating in outreach, and learning more about the topics of which I had barely scratched the surface (e.g., financing). Imagine my surprise when an opportunity came along to do… exactly that! I am greatly looking forward to learning and working on a wide variety of topics in a prairie landscape alongside a team of passionate people. With prescribed burns, bison roundups, seed gathering, chainsawing, and conservation strategizing on the horizon, this next year is looking like it’ll be extraordinary.

Kate Nootenboom

KATE NOOTENBOOM:

I didn’t grow up around prairie people. I grew up around mountain and old-growth forest people, so when I chose to go to college in a small Minnesota town surrounded by agriculture, I mistakenly thought I was giving up easy access to inspiring landscapes. I resigned myself to the loss of a connection to nature for four years. 

Luckily, I began working in the campus arboretum, and the nearly 900 acres of prairies, woods, and wetlands quickly corrected my misconceptions. I learned to make friends out of plant species, appreciate fire as a force for growth, and enjoy the drama of grassland seasons unfolding. In short, I became a prairie person.  

When not in the arboretum, I studied geology, and I can draw many parallels between my attraction to both. As a geologist, I learned to wonder about the stories in a landscape, to ask: what happened here, and when? I loved the humility of operating on geologic time scales, and the camaraderie I found in a community united by a common interest. Between my work in the arboretum and field-based geology courses, I developed an indelible love of the southern Minnesota landscape. And then I graduated last spring.

Graduating is an unnerving thing to do, even without a pandemic backdrop. My role in the world was suddenly undefined, and the career advice I received was as overwhelming as it was well-intentioned. “Have an impact. Grow and contribute your skills. Heal what needs healing. Be fulfilled!” I agree. But how?

Cue the Hubbard Fellowship, arriving like a signpost in my wanderings. Instantly this opportunity excited me more than any other, and I realized the work that had brought me the most joy over the past four years already matched the advice I was getting for the future. Continuing down the path of conservation will yield meaningful impact for the natural world and all communities that depend upon it, and it is genuinely the work I most want to do.

Now that I’m here, I feel immense gratitude to be in this beautiful place and learn from such a thoughtful array of people, all committed in their own ways to conservation. Though the forests of Oregon still call out ‘home’, the Nebraska prairie stretching outside my window this morning inspires me more than any other landscape I can imagine. I am so excited for the year ahead; for all the days of work, beauty, challenge, and growth that await us. Most of all, I am happy simply to be back among prairie people.

Photos of the Week – February 18, 2021

As extremely frigid temperatures finally slipped away yesterday, the two new Hubbard Fellows (stay tuned for introductions next week) and I spent some time exploring restored prairie and wetlands. Our Platte River Prairies land steward, Cody, joined us for a while too. We had a grand old time wandering and discussing prairie ecology and restoration. When we came across a wetland slough that looked particularly attractive, we switched topics, got cameras out, and started talking about photography.

This half-frozen wetland slough held a mystery. What made the long trails through the snow and slushy ice? The trails were roughly 2 1/2 or 3 inches wide. None of the scenarios we discussed seemed to fit. Also, the edge of the wetland on the right side of this photo was the location for the frozen bubble images below. Nikon D7100 camera with Tokina 11-20mm lens @ 11mm. ISO 250, f/11, 1/500 sec.

I assume the the water in the slough was still mostly unfrozen because it was being actively fed by slowly flowing groundwater. Even so, after a week of temperatures hovering below zero, I was surprised to see patches of slush and open water.

As we neared the slough, we watched a pheasant sneak into a patch of cattails, hunched over and doing its best to avoid attention. For fun, I went over to see if I could flush it out, but the only result was that my feet got wet when I stomped into the cattails and punched right through the thin ice. Serves me right.

These frozen bubbles reminded me of pebbles in a mosaic. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 250, f/22, 1/60.

Over the next half hour or so, the Fellows acquainted themselves with the camera, lenses, and tripod each was assigned as part of their fellowship. Trying to remain accessible for questions but giving them some space to experiment on their own, I started exploring the edge of the wetland with my own camera. Soon, I was kneeling down to photograph frozen bubbles floating in small patches of open, adding wet knees as a complement to my already soggy feet. Frozen bubbles though!

Frozen bubbles and crystals of snow/frost along the edge of the wetland. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 250, f/22, 1/60.
More frozen bubbles, with a wetland rush as an accent. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 250, f/29, 1/50.
Here’s a lucky series. As I was photographing these bubbles, one of them popped and I was able to capture a timelapse of the event! Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 250, f/22, 1/80.

I probably could have kept photographing frozen bubbles for another half hour or more, but we had more exploring to do. We did some winter plant identification, followed and tried to interpret tracks in the snow, discussed unexplained patterns of plant establishment across the site, and generally enjoyed tromping around in the deep snow. Goldenrod galls, leftover spirals of dodder flowers on sunflower stems, a cluster of deer bed sites, and tracks of sparrows around ragweed plants were just a few of our sightings. Toward the end of the hike, I got more of my body wet when I threw myself prone on the ground to photograph a cache of Canada wildrye seeds left by a foraging mouse of some kind. In other words, it was a great afternoon!

A mouse of some kind had been busily collecting (and maybe eating?) Canada wildrye seeds. This was one of two piles of seeds we found in the snow, surrounded by many many tracks. Tokina 11-20mm lens @ 11mm. ISO 250, f/22, 1/125 sec.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed stories this week about how they first encountered or fell in love with prairies. If you’d like to share, please add yours to the comment section of my previous post. Regardless of whether you include your own story, I’d encourage everyone to go back and what others wrote. I’ve enjoyed reading all of them. Thanks again.

Lastly, best wishes to all of you struggling with the cold this week. I hope your local temperatures are rising like ours are.