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.

Photos of the Week – January 8, 2021

Wow, what a week. This was not how I was hoping to start 2021. On Monday, I somehow managed to jam a wood splinter up underneath the edge of my left pinkie fingernail. It didn’t go in where you’d expect – through the tip of the finger – but rather on the outer edge of the nail, lodging itself between the nail, the skin beneath it, and the skin to the side of it. I pulled the wood out, and I think I got it all, but I’m not sure.

Clearly, this was a traumatic experience, and certainly not something that fits with the positive energy being generated around the beginning of a new year. I had a lot of plans for this week – including project ideas I’d come up with over the holidays but didn’t dive too deeply into (because it was the holidays and I was trying to take a break). This was supposed to be a week of fun productivity as I started fleshing out those ideas.

Instead, I was distracted all week by pain and negativity. Putting a band-aid on the finger didn’t help cushion the finger at all, and it’s amazing how often that little finger bumps into something during everyday activities. I had to remember to keep the finger up and out of the way during even mundane activities like washing my hair. Typing was difficult because I either had to slow down and avoid using that finger or try to remember to rotate my hand slightly when typing the letter ‘a’ so as (ow!) not to hit the painful (ow) part (ow) of the finger on the keyboard.

Anyway, it was just a disaster of a week. The finger is starting to feel a little better, but I can tell it’s going to hurt for a while – the aftereffects of this kind of event tend to linger, don’t they?

I hope your week was better than mine.

Anyway, here are a bunch of completely random nature photos that brought me a little peace in the face of this week’s ordeal. Healing will come. It might take a while, but I’m optimistic.

Autumn leaves in a stream at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. 2018.
Sunset and fourpoint evening primrose. Niobrara Valley Preserve. 2018.
Cattail seeds on ice. 2018.
Rock formations at Scotts Bluff National Monument. 2019.
Stiff sunflower with interesting red highlights. 2019.
Winter bison at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. 2019.
Leopard frog on ice. Who knows why. 2019.
Prairie violets. 2019.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Dat

Dat Ha and Ashley Oblander are in the last month of their Hubbard Fellowship. In this post, Dat reflects on his last year and a song that was with him through everything. I’m really excited to see where Dat goes in his career after he finishes graduate school (which starts next month!). He’s got a tremendous set of skills that are going to contribute mightily to conservation in whatever way he chooses to employ them. Perhaps most importantly, he approaches his work with a humility and thoughtfulness that is going to help make him even more successful – and popular with those around him. Don’t forget his name (pronunciation guide: it rhymes with ‘cat paw’). You’ll probably hear it again.

Dat holds a garter snake in the Platte River Prairies. Photo by Chris Helzer

By Dat Ha:

Certain songs have the power to transport us back to specific moments in time. The moment may not be grandiose or significantly memorable, but when tied to the right song at the right time, it can become something special. And when that song is played again, it triggers this memory and brings you back to the emotions and nostalgia of that time.

“Forever Young” by Alphaville teleports me back over a decade ago to the intersection of Staples Mill and Glenside Drive when my dad, who I didn’t know listened to American music at all, recognized it and started singing along. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee brings me back to Drew’s 21st birthday party when my duet partner, Fun Joe, and I utterly butchered it during karaoke. A little over a year ago, an unfamiliar tune on my Pandora radio caught my attention as I was counting zooplankton in lab – “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty.

My introduction to “Wildflowers” occurred during the same time I was applying for the Hubbard fellowship. The simple acoustic guitar folk rhythm paired with nostalgic and bittersweet lyrics always kept me coming back for more. I listened during the entire application process, when I first visited Nebraska, when I returned to Nebraska as a Fellow, and continuously throughout the year – I never got tired of listening. “Wildflowers” became the unofficial anthem of my fellowship.

Corn – stuffed toy corn from the Omaha airport when I first came to visit.
Cheesing with a chicken. Photo by Tehan Dassanyaka.

Go away, somewhere all bright and new. In case you couldn’t tell by the worn down V hat I always wear – I love Virginia. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would live in Nebraska working for The Nature Conservancy. In my short time here, I found myself in awe at the beauty of the prairies and the Great Plains. I’ll never forget the trumpet calls of the thousands of sandhill cranes migrating south, my first trip to the Niobrara Valley Preserve when I saw the sandhills and my first bison, or the liberating feeling of driving a tractor. How many people can say they’ve walked on remnant prairies before? I have seen no other that compares with Nebraska and the Great Plains.

First encounter with a bison! Niobrara Valley Preserve
Cranes – got a little too close!
Whooper – We Spotted Bob! (Editor’s note: ‘Bob’ is the local name given to a whooping crane that hangs around with sandhills cranes during spring migration on the Platte.)

I hate to admit this, but before this fellowship I never fully appreciated what was around me when I was walking or hiking. Before, I would always look down to make sure I wouldn’t trip. I was so focused on where I was going that I was missing out on the journey and the beautiful life right in front of me – the plants, insects, and what’s belowground. On our walks in the prairies, I learned just how diverse the plant community could be. When referring to any plant in the field, Chris performed his signature “soft pinch of the plant and shake lightly” and then talked about all of its interesting characteristics and interactions. (Editor’s note: He’s just describing the charming – and apparently memorable way – I indicated which plant I was talking about.)

Additionally, I never realized how much you could learn from just 10 grams of soil until I worked with Dr. Greg Pec for my independent project. His expertise made me appreciate the literal ground I walk on and all the mysteries that lies within the soil. These seemingly minor experiences have made me more eager to take time to inspect the minor details around me. I no longer take for granted the plants, insects, and soils that I walk upon.

Chris is usually the one behind the camera, but this is what he does when the roles are reversed. (Editor’s note: this is an accurate depiction of what I feel like most of the time.)
Willa Cather Memorial Prairie. “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” – Willa Cather

Far away from your troubles and worries. It is an understatement to say that 2020 was a brutally exhausting year – for everyone. I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I accepted Chris’s offer. I was leaving all of my friends and family on the East Coast and entering uncharted territory alone. I am privileged and grateful for the tremendous support from the TNC staff in Nebraska and my family and friends back home. Everyone enthusiastically answered all of my questions and repeated them when I forgot, guided me back on course when I was lost, and laughed at my jokes. I know genuine and good people when they respond kindly to my jokes (even the ones that aren’t funny, which are most of them).

You belong somewhere you feel free – I feel free when I’m outside exploring nature. From running the gravel roads and trails of the Platte River Prairies, driving across the rolling hills of the Sandhills and the Niobrara Valley Preserve, backpacking in the Panhandle, biking to the Kansas-Nebraska border, hiking parts of South Dakota and Wyoming with my best friends, and begrudgingly crawling to the top of the breath-taking mountains of Colorado – I tried to take advantage of every opportunity.

I’m beyond grateful to have friends who would drive across the country (from both coasts!) to share some of these experiences with me.
Just seconds after Kevin accidentally spat into the communal jet boil.
Longs Peak – The wind gusts were terrifyingly strong on this day and you had to be absolutely crazy to continue past the Keyhole. Many people turned around and I would’ve as well if I hadn’t met Danny and Will. Thanks for being fearless (maybe reckless?) and guiding me to the summit. Also shout out to Matt for hiking down Bross with me.  

My time working for The Nature Conservancy will always be stored in “Wildflowers.” Over a year of cherished memories of Nebraska, the prairies, and the Hubbard Fellowship – all in a 3 minute and 10 seconds song. It will always be one of my favorites because of what it represents. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity and for the people who took a chance on me. As for now, I’m heading back to UVA to pursue my Master’s in Environmental Sciences and to work in a boat out at sea on a lake – but I’ll never forget my time among the wildflowers as a Hubbard Fellow.

Here’s a link to the song

Cheesing in the Badlands. Photo by Becca Hostetter