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.

Photo of the Week – June 14, 2019

The far western end of Nebraska bears little resemblance to the visual image most people have of Nebraska. A combination of geologic forces and climate have joined to create a landscape that appears desolate and/or beautiful, depending upon one’s individual aesthetic. I’ve always been drawn to that kind of wide open space, maybe because I lived there for part of my childhood. As is true across the state, the panhandle is mostly privately-owned, though there are some prominent exceptions within the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills landscapes, as well as the Oglala National Grassland.

Our staff stands on an escarpment at Cherry Ranch with Travis Krein, the rancher who leases the property from us for grazing. Travis is a smart and thoughtful rancher, who has been a strong partner for us over many years.

The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch, south of Harrison, Nebraska, is a prime example of the beauty and remoteness of the panhandle. The roughly 7,000 acre site supports populations of swift foxes, lark buntings, burrowing owls, and many other wildlife species. Plant communities include sedge meadows and mesic prairie down low and western mixed-grass prairie at higher elevation, much of which is dominated by threadleaf sedge, aka blackroot sedge (Carex filifolia), along with a strong diversity of grasses and wildflowers.

Dwarf Indian plantain (Castilleja sessiliflora) was thriving in large populations on some of the rockiest hilltops.

The site is also bisected by the upper reaches of the Niobrara River, which is considerably smaller there than it is as it passes through our Niobrara Valley Preserve, nearly 200 miles downstream. Most spectacularly, the ranch is characterized by a number of rocky escarpments, which provide both stunning views and distinct plant communities. The site is not currently open to public access, but hosts a number of research projects, as well as a working cattle operation.

The Niobrara River winds aimlessly through the landscape at The Nature Conservancy’s Cherry Ranch.

A small group of staff visited Cherry Ranch this week to discuss management with our lessee and explore/photograph the various habitats of the site. We had a great trip, full of wildlife and plant observations, the highlight of which was two gallivanting badger cubs that let us watch them for a few minutes. I was disappointed that we didn’t find a prairie rattlesnake, but that sentiment wasn’t unanimous. We spent part of an early evening on the site and then returned the next morning to catch the sunrise. The Fellows will likely have stories and photos to share in the near future, but here are a few of the photos I took during the visit…

Drone photography is really helpful for showing the scope and beauty of the grasslands at the Cherry Ranch.
Cattails are getting a little thicker than we’d like in a few stretches of the river, so we’ll be using some flash grazing by cattle to periodically thin them out. Travis has had success with that in the past, as have many others across the state, including our own experimentation in the Platte River Prairies.
Mary, one of Hubbard Fellows, waits for the sunrise atop one of the rocky ridges.
Early light.
Silvery lupine (Lupinus argenteus) was one of many spectacular flowers blooming at the site. Uncharacteristically, I found myself photographing the landscape much more than individual plants and insects this trip.
I’m pretty sure these are gumbo lilies (Oenothera caespitosa), but there are a lot of Oenothera species out west, though not nearly as many as there are Astragalus species, especially on rocky outcrops!

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Chelsea’s Sandhills Fire Day

This post was written by Chelsea Forehead, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year. Chelsea and Mary had a busy spring, including quite a few prescribed fires around the state. In this post, Chelsea writes about helping a Sandhills rancher with a successful burn to kill eastern red cedar trees.

Sore legs and blistered feet brought the satisfaction of another mission completed. The dust from over 400 miles of travel and the smell of burnt grass and cedar that had settled on our protective gear was lifted into the air as I hung each set – helmet, radio harness, fire shelter pack – back on its hooks in the shed. The scent of prescribed fire – a mix of sweat, ash and fuel – brought back the excitement I felt during our most recent burn. Despite the still-lingering exhaustion from working hard in hot smoke I ached for another chance to help fill the prairie’s next prescription. I smiled and sighed as I put the drip torches back where they would await their next call to action, standing at attention all the while. The red canisters of fuel once seemed heavy and intimidating, even dangerous. After seven burns I felt an admiration for them, the kind one feels for the tool most trusted to assist with hard work.

A drip torch sits in the grass during a temporary pause in ignition.

The adventure that would spark my romance with prescribed fire began one Wednesday as Mary, Olivia, Nelson and I packed our things into Bubba, our trusty diesel truck. As we headed north, things tucked strategically around the water pump in the bed of the pickup, I was filled with gratitude and excitement. While I have had many such moments thus far in my fellowship, this one was especially invigorating. My coworkers and I were a squad of prairie guardians on the move, called to assist other such units in preserving breathtaking bits of habitat nearly three hours away.

Bubba the truck, full of equipment and supplies.

Our journey brought us to the home of a rancher near Thedford, Nebraska. This prescribed burn would cover an area similar to previous burns, around 416 acres, but held a slightly different significance. Since the land was privately owned, we would complete the mission with the help of local ranchers. They were keepers of Sandhills prairie for whom prescribed fire was a treatment still in the clinical trial phase. The encroachment of cedars threatened the suitability of their lands for grazing, but using fire was a method of tree removal they weren’t very familiar with. The confidence and excited energy of participants in yellow Nomex mingled with the curiosity and uncertainty of those in plaid shirts and baseball caps. Together we ate from pizza boxes piled on the hoods of pickup trucks. With all our bellies and water bottles filled, our newly formed team headed out in a caravan of UTVs and rancher rigs to the staging area of the burn unit.

The line of vehicles heading toward the ignition point.

After some discussion about the fickle nature of the light winds that evening and a subsequent change in location for the burn’s ignition, the trucks and UTVs lined up in their respective positions. Each member of my squad from the Platte River, a land with much less variable topography, would be lighting the fire. Carrying drip torches on foot through hills steep enough to challenge the engines of diesel trucks seemed daunting, but I was excited to work up a sweat in the name of prairie conservation. Even more exciting was the potential to show the local ranchers that prescribed fire was a feasible and effective way to conserve their land for grazing while also maintaining a high-quality habitat for the wildlife of the Sandhills prairie.

As Mary and I climbed the steep hills of the parcel, dragging lines of hot flames behind us, the ranchers laying the wet line ahead of us were learning on-the-fly about how much water is needed to contain such a blaze. They were eager to learn and open to suggestion – “How are we doing? How’s this pace for you?” My experience with previous prescribed burns made me confident in my ability to give them some pointers. The fact that they were asking me for such advice was endearing and profound. A few hours earlier we had been total strangers. Now we were united to address a common concern, however different our reasons for that concern may have been.

Mary, doing some interior ignition, widening the black.

Night had fallen by the time Mary and I brought our lines of fire to meet those of Nelson and Olivia. By completing the ignition of the perimeter from both sides we were able to shift our efforts to monitoring the fire’s behavior as flames closed in around the hilly pasture. Keeping an eye on the parcel was hard to avoid. Its peaks and valleys were striped with glowing flames and dotted with torching cedars. While there had been stressful moments during the four-hour execution of the burn, the apprehension of the ranchers had evolved into enthusiasm for prescribed burning. It was clear that they felt right at home with work that was difficult, demanding, and a bit dangerous. As we discussed our experiences that night, the energy was one of a team who had just won the big game. Exhausted but exhilarated, we chatted for a while, smiling through our soot-smudged faces.

The crew gathers to watch the fire burn itself out.

While I learned so much about the efforts that go into conserving high-quality prairies during each burn this spring, the connection with private landowners created during that Sandhills experience taught me the most. Though the ranchers admitted that burning that night was the most fun they’d had in a while, their willingness to use prescribed fire on their own land would depend on the results. I knew a reduction in cedar density in the burn unit was likely and felt proud knowing I played a part, however small, in sharing conservation-friendly management techniques with a wider audience. In a state where most of the land is privately owned, having such an audience was a profound opportunity.