Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Alex’s Work Pants

This post was written by Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year.  Alex has a great aptitude and personality for environmental law and policy work, but not to the detriment of his outdoor work ethic – as you’ll see here.  Also – Stay tuned for an announcement very soon about the application period for the next round of our Fellowship.

After graduating college with a degree in political science, I was convinced I was going to dive headfirst into a cubicle. There was something very exciting about it. I would have my own desk, the ability to throw on a sweater because the A/C is just a bit too chilly, and maybe, if I’m lucky, two monitors on my computer. This image was so idyllic because most of my work experience includes me being knee-high in mud (and probably not mud, if we are being honest), saturated in sweat, and consistently covered in perma-dirt, no matter how fancy I get with my laundry.

I was convinced I would have that dream cubicle. I wanted to, and still want to, pursue environmental law in some capacity: paralegal, administrative assistant, research, etc. Despite having plenty of outdoors jobs, I’ve had my fair share of indoor positions, slowly building a collection of slacks, khakis, corduroys, and dress pants for the day that I finally get my name on a desk. However, that collection will have to keep gathering dust, because my favorite pants are my workpants.

They are khaki canvas Dickies, with the classic red patch on the right butt cheek. They are size 32×32, but depending on the day, they would ideally be about two inches snugger and two inches longer. I’ve had them for four years. They were originally intended for my dad, but I intercepted them as they were my size.

Are these pants freshly laundered or have I worked in them for three weeks? You can never really tell by just looking at them.

Workpants are the physical manifestation of how much it takes to keep ecosystems in their desired condition. Without a little elbow grease, most of our prairies would be thickets of Siberian elm, a sea of musk thistles, or thatch dense enough you’d have to Bear Grylls your way out. Growing up, I marveled at how beautiful landscapes could regulate themselves without any intervention. However, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It takes folks out in the field every day of the week, not just when it is convenient, but when it’s raining, windy, hot, cold, summer, or winter. It is by no means glamorous work, but it’s rewarding, beautifully messy work. My pants have borne the brunt of that labor, from mud to paint. Every spot, snag, hole, wrinkle, or stain has a story.

In the last seven months, I have conducted a very scientific study regarding the reasons I have washed my workpants. Although the research is ongoing, I have some results that I think are notable for this audience. One might ask, “are most scientific studies done in colored pencil and marker?” The answer is that although it may seem archaic, I assure you it is still very scientific.

Life-long scientific research. Still trying to get it published in Workpants Quarterly.

Some of the preliminary findings are that there has been a lot of poison ivy this year and that I’ve done a lot of chainsaw work, as shown by the lingering smell of two-stroke exhaust. After looking at the raw data and punching some numbers, I found that there is a clear correlation between my pants not fitting and how long I have been chainsawing. On occasion, after I take off my chaps, one may think that I’m wearing a second pair of chaps underneath my chaps, however, that is merely the outline of my sweat from where the chaps were once occupying.

This is the Achilles’ heel of any good pair of pants, the classic backpocket wallet hole. I prefer the hole in my backpocket to be somewhere in between “that’ll be fine” and “I think I lost my wallet in the prairie.
Once upon a time, these pants used to be more of an orange-khaki color, as shown by the color under the cuff. Over the years they’ve been sunbleached and built up a good patina. They get better with time, like a fine wine.
Permadirt and blue stains. Really it’s a match made in heaven.

Although it made a small appearance in the above data, breaking through the ice was one of my favorite experiences. In February, I and the other field staff were preparing for crane season, and one of the objectives was to remove cattails to make a clear view of the roosting cranes on the river. The river was still frozen at this time, but I was still wary of the thickness of ice. From the bank of the river, I removed all the cattails that I could reach. However, there were still cattails out further that were blocking the view of the river from the blind. Thinking of the cranes, I braved the ice. As I reached the outer edge of the cattails, I knew my goose was cooked. I plunged two feet down into the brisk water and got stuck in the muck, the murky water flowing into my boots. Within an instant, the stale winter air became rank with pungent, marinating muck that had not been disturbed for months. The damage was done, my Muck Boots were filled with literal muck, and I wasn’t going anywhere. To my demise, I finished the job, removing the cattails. To exit the icy water, I laid the weedwhacker on ice near the bank and beached-whaled myself out of the mucky water. Like I said, it’s not glamorous work, but it’s rewarding. The science is still ongoing, but if you’d like to contribute to my (very scientific) research, I’d be curious if you have any good stories about your trusty workpants!

Quality Time

I was at the Niobrara Valley Preserve for two different events last week.  The first was a fantastic two day meeting/tour with university scientists that defined the likely focus of our primary research effort over the next several years.  The second was much more impactful – I spent two days with my 17 year old son.  We didn’t have much of an agenda for the two days, other than to kayak the Niobrara River on day two.  Apart from that, we were free to wander the prairie, splash in the river, or just hang out anywhere and anytime we felt like it.  It was pretty glorious.

As we were driving into the Niobrara Valley Preserve, we spotted a small group of bison from the road and drove over to take a look.  They were hanging around a low area that was clearly a well-used dusting area.
We parked close by, sat quietly, and just watched them.  After a while, the bison got pretty comfortable with our presence, with several coming over to lick the mineral deposits (I assume) off the side of the truck.

John is the only one of our kids who hasn’t floated the Niobrara River, so that clearly needed to be remedied.  More importantly, I was really looking forward to spending some quality time with my son before he enters his senior year of high school and prepares to go off to college.  John and I have similar senses of humor, though he’s usually a little quicker off the mark than I am.  He’s also brilliant at math and engineering, knowledgeable and opinionated about current events, passionate about soccer, and has matured over the last few years into an independent and responsible human being.  I’m incredibly proud of him.  (Also, he will probably read this, so I’m saying only nice things about him.)

When we drove up to the small group of bison at the beginning of our visit to the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I was worrying about how to keep John engaged and happy during our two days.  He’s a kid who is comfortable in the outdoors, but not necessarily someone who seeks out or finds inner peace when surrounded by nature.  When I first asked him if he wanted to spend a couple days at NVP with me, he said, “sure, as long as we can DO things.”  No pressure, Dad…

After about ten minutes of bison watching, with just a little quiet conversation about what they were doing and why, we lapsed into a long silence.  Concerned that he was bored, I asked John if he wanted to move on to something else.  “No,” he replied, “I like bison.  We can stay for a while longer.”  About twenty minutes later, the bison started wandering off over the next hill, and we drove off in the opposite direction toward a prairie dog town.

After watching the bison, we decided to go check out a small prairie dog town along the south end of the bison pasture.

My typical experience with prairie dog towns is that I get to see lots of prairie dogs from a distance, but they disappear into their holes well before I get into easy visual range.  One of the few exceptions to that came a couple years ago when I visited this same prairie dog town with my daughter.  As we drove into the town last week, I assumed the worst, and my expectations were confirmed by the first twenty or so dogs we saw – each of which squeaked and dove into their burrows as we approached.

The twenty-first prairie dog, however, hesitated, and as we inched a little closer, stayed alert but aboveground, along with one of its pups.  We slide quietly to a stop and watched them for a little bit.  After a few minutes, I moved the truck up even closer so John could get some better photos with his phone, and while the pup got nervous and left, the mother stuck around.  While we sat there, we also spotted a burrowing owl and a fledgling horned lark.

Most prairie dogs dove for cover long before we got close, but this one stayed aboveground long enough for us to get a good look at it.

Usually, when I’m at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, I try to maximize every minute of my time.  It’s over four hours away from my home, so it’s an effort to get there, and I always feel pressured to get as much done as I can during each trip.  As a result, I rarely have time to just relax and take whatever comes.  After John and I finished watching bison and prairie dogs, and it was clear that John was enjoying the laid back trip, I began to relax and sink into the bliss of some agenda-less time with my kid.  We decided to go see if we could find a small creek to explore.

We found the spot where this little creek flowed right out of the sand and started on its way through a wooded draw and down to the Niobrara River.

On the way to find the creek, we ran across a bigger group of bison and decided to launch the drone and get some footage for my slowly-growing video library.  John is a fan of the drone, but we only flew it for a little while before we moved on.  After all, this wasn’t a work trip.  We eventually stopped along the edge of the bluffs above the river and walked down into a draw that looked like a good place to find a stream.  Sure enough, we started to hear flowing water as we descended, and we found a cold clear creek and walked upstream until we saw where it was seeping right out of the ground.

Later that evening, we met up with a couple other friends who happened to be at NVP at the same time, and the four of us splashed around in the river for a while before playing cards and going to bed.  It was a good first day, but the main reason John had come was to kayak the river, and we needed to get up (fairly) early the next day to beat the crowd to the water.

Finally – the part of the trip John was really waiting for.

The next morning, we got to Rock Barn Outfitters and got a ride upriver to our drop off point, where we slid the kayaks into the water.  It was a Friday, and I was a little concerned that we might have to weave through early weekend tubers sharing the river with us, but while the scattered campgrounds along the river were full of people, we spent five hours on the water without seeing any tubers, canoers, or other kayakers.  It was perfect.

I made John stop and walk up to see Stairstep Falls, one of many waterfalls on the north side of the river (on land owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy).

We floated about 14 miles in five hours, stopping a few times to hike, swim, or eat lunch.  During the entire trip, the Niobrara Valley Preserve was to our right, helping to give John a feel for the immense size of the 56,000 acre property.  In fact, we only saw about half of the Preserve’s river frontage that day.  As we slipped quietly downriver, we also saw quite a few bald eagles, along with great blue herons, spotted sandpipers, dragonflies, frogs, and other animals.

It wasn’t all quiet and contemplative nature watching, though.  There were also a few kayak races, which included quite a bit of pushing, shoving, and splashing.  In addition, John was really hoping to paddle through some rapids, and while I tried to temper his expectations, the river was running pretty high and we did manage to find a fair number of (mild) whitewater stretches.  We also found a nice, quiet, and relatively deep stretch of river where he hopped into the water and just floated/swam downstream while I held onto his kayak for him.  I think we checked all his boxes for the day.

This was one of many short stretches of mild whitewater.  Most were rough enough to splash a little water into the kayaks, but not really enough to do much else.
Toward the end of the trip, we went through the Egelhoff rapids, where the entire river squeezes tightly into a very narrow run.  We got out and scouted it ahead of time, and then decided it was safe enough to paddle through.  I went first and then got out to watch John come through.
This might have been the best part of the day – we just floated slowly through a deep and gentle stretch of river, with John cooling off and relaxing in the water while I babysat the kayaks and tried not to float too far ahead.

We had a pretty quiet ride home after we got off the river.  John, as usual, slept through most of it.  I was pretty tired too, but also grateful for the opportunity to share one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people. Hopefully, John will remember the trip fondly as he goes off to become an engineer.  And hopefully, he’ll come back and float the river with me again sometime.

If you’re interested in visiting the Niobrara River Valley, here’s a good website that describes the National Scenic River and some of the choices available.  While you’re there, you can stop and hike the public trail at the Niobrara Valley Preserve.  We don’t (yet) offer public tours of the bison herd or prairie dog town, but the hiking trail (just south of the river bridge on the road between Johnstown and Norden) provides some great overlooks of the river, and a chance to wander through many of the different ecosystems found in the valley.

Field Day in the Platte River Prairies – July 21, 2018

If you’re in the area, please consider joining us at the Platte River Prairies on Saturday July 21 for a special event.  We’re combining our bi-weekly volunteer work day with our annual Field Day, during which participants can join a number of hikes and educational sessions.  You can help us harvest seed for our prairie restoration work or just enjoy the various session topics during the day – or both!  If you’d like to help harvest seed, it would be helpful to bring work gloves and heavy scissors/garden shears, but we will have supplies as well.

This event is free of charge and open to the public.  Please bring your own lunch, and RSVP by July 19th so that we have enough supplies.  RSVP and get directions from Mardell at mjasnowski@tnc.org or by phone at (402) 694-4191.

Here is a schedule for the day (subject to change):

Session Descriptions:

Seed Harvest – Help us with our prairie restoration efforts by hand-picking seeds.  These seeds will be used to enhance the plant diversity of prairies that have been degraded by a history of overgrazing and/or broadcast herbicide use.

Bird walk/dickcissel research talk – Join Chelsea Forehead, a UNO graduate student, on a walk through the prairies.  Learn about grassland bird ecology and identification, including Chelsea’s current research project on the interaction between brown-headed cowbirds, dickcissels, and perch site availability.

Prairie ecology tour – Chris Helzer will lead a hike through the prairie, discussing ecology, fire/grazing management, prairie restoration, and whatever the group stumbles upon during the walk.  The morning and afternoon hikes will pass through different habitats, so feel free to join both!

Insect sweep netting – Sweep netting in prairies is a lot like snorkeling in the ocean.  From the surface, you’d never know how much life is actually there.  Grab a net and discover (and learn about) the incredible diversity of invertebrates found in prairies.

Plant identification hike – Join Olivia Schouten (Hubbard Fellow) on a walk and learn how to identify common prairie plants.

Botanical/Landscape Sketching – Alex Brechbill (Hubbard Fellow) will lead a session in which participants will sketch, paint, or otherwise depict the landscape or portions of it.  Bring your own art supplies if you like, or we will provide some basic sketching supplies.

Abundant rainfall this year has brought on abundant wildflowers in the Platte River Prairies. Please come hike through the prairies with us on July 21.

2018 Hubbard Fellows

It’s well past time for me to provide an introduction to our latest class of Hubbard Fellows.  Alex Brechbill and Olivia Schouten are spending a year of their lives working with us here in Nebraska, helping us with all aspects of our conservation work.  At the same time, we are trying to give them the most well-rounded experience possible and prepare them for their future conservation careers.  This is the 5th class of Hubbard Fellows we’ve had now, and definitely the most local.  Olivia hails from Pella, Iowa and Alex is from right here in Aurora, Nebraska.  I could tell you lots more about them, but I’ll let them do it in their own words below.  Stay tuned for future blog posts by both Fellows throughout this year.

Olivia Schouten, Chris Helzer, Alex Brechbill.

Olivia –

I am a Midwesterner born and raised, growing up in Iowa among seemingly endless cornfields. Though there isn’t a lot of public land in the state, I was lucky enough to not only grow up near Lake Red Rock, one of the larger public recreation areas in the state, but to have parents that took their children on week-long camping vacations every year to our country’s amazing state and national parks. These trips gave me a love of the outdoors and our wilderness areas, those places where human’s touch was minimal and the plants and animals living in these places could do so in relative peace.

For most of my childhood, I didn’t think that Iowa could offer the same sense of wildness as our parks out west. There were just too many humans, and our impact was too great. That perception changed in high school, however, when I realized that just down the road from my hometown was one of the most ambitious conservation projects in Iowa; Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, a massive prairie restoration just 20 minutes from downtown Des Moines. I walked into this refuge as a high school student and left with my eyes opened to what wild places could look like in the Midwest, with dreams of vast grasslands once covering the entirety of the American heartland. My love of prairies and conservation began then, and never left. Though I have broad interests, ranging from art to astronomy, ultimately I decided that I wanted a chance to work on the landscape that I love, and do what I could to make sure our Midwestern ecosystems persist in the future.

My experience is rooted firmly in research, starting with my time at Central College working for my B.A. degrees in biology and anthropology. I had the opportunity to work with a professor researching the ecosystem services provided by diverse plantings of prairie species, where I learned about the potential there is in the prairie states to incorporate our native habitats into out altered landscape. After leaving Central, I worked in South Dakota and Iowa collecting data on plant and animal communities, and in January of 2015 I started attending Wichita State University in Kansas as a master’s student, studying the processes influencing the development of prairie plant communities.

Now I find myself in Nebraska, the fourth state I’ve had the opportunity to work on prairies in. I love prairies in all of their forms, and I’m excited to see what aspects of prairie ecology can be transferred from Kansas or South Dakota, and what unique challenges the prairies along the Platte River face here in Nebraska. I’ve already been inspired more than once in my short time here, from seeing the majesty of the sandhill crane migration firsthand, to enjoying the subtle beauty of the winter prairie dusted with snow.

I am excited to have the opportunity over the coming year to develop my hands-on skills in prairie stewardship and management, and I believe I’m off to a good start! I’ve already managed to put five prescribed burns under my belt, gotten a chainsaw in my hands to fight back woody encroachment, and had many insightful conversations about the use of grazing in managing diverse prairies. The year ahead looks exciting, and I’m eager to see the prairie through all its seasons, learning about management and conservation along the way. When I’m done, I’m sure I will leave a more effective advocate and lover of prairies!

Olivia (left) and Alex (right) last month at our first burn of the year.

Alex –

In February, I was ice fishing with my dad near my parents’ house in Doniphan, Nebraska. As I dropped my line into the icy waters of the freshly drilled hole, I heard the trills of Sandhill cranes from the North. My heart raced at the excitement of seeing the first cranes of the Spring migration circling above the Platte River. Soon, dozens of Sandhill cranes were circling in the skies.

Seeing them made me think about my own return to central Nebraska. I was raised in Aurora, Nebraska, just down Interstate 80 from TNC’s Platte River Prairies. I graduated from Aurora High School in 2013 and went to Nebraska Wesleyan University, where I studied Political Science, with a focus in environmental policy. While a student, I worked at the Nebraska State Unicameral for two sessions as a legislative page. I saw, firsthand, how crucial policymaking is in Nebraska. Inspired by state politics, I pursued national law by accepting an internship at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Environment and Natural Resources Division. Working alongside federal trial attorneys, I researched various environmental policies, helping me shape my professional aspirations to pursue environmental law. Although I enjoy research, I am always looking for a way to get outdoors.

I spent my collegiate summers seeking new outdoor experiences, which allowed me to travel around the United States, and even Central and South America. My love for wild, untrammeled landscapes brought me to the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota as a canoe guide for two summers. Guiding was an unforgettable experience, surrounded by dedicated staff and seemingly endless lakes. After graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan University, I went to the Siuslaw National Forest on the coast of Oregon in the temperate rainforests for a summer of interpretation as a Field Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, sponsored by The Student Conservation Association. Whether it’s canoeing, hiking, or climbing, I am always looking for new places to go and different ways to experience them.

The Hubbard Conservation Fellowship is a phenomenal opportunity for me to be able to work both as a land steward, working hands-on with chainsaws, tractors, and prescribed burns, and as a researcher. The fellowship offers a holistic conservation experience working all over: the Niobrara Valley Preserve, the Omaha field office, the Platte River, and a peek into other states. I am continually impressed with The Nature Conservancy as a worldwide organization; the largest environmental organization in the world, but also one that affects local communities.

It’s been wonderful reconnecting with central Nebraska. To see the great outdoors, I always thought I needed to go west, but it turns out I just needed to go to my backyard. I can’t wait for the brisk mornings, the blistering hot afternoons, and the crisp evenings that I grew so acquainted with growing up. The next year has so much opportunity, and I can’t wait to explore the prairies of the Heartland.

Boxelder Bugs: Accessible Ambassadors for Nature

Conservation success relies upon people feeling connected to nature.  As a result, conservation groups spend a lot of time trying to show the public how much their health and prosperity depend upon natural services and processes (clean air and water, storm surge protection, pollination, etc.).  They also try to find easy ways for people to interact with nature where they live.  The latter can be particularly difficult, especially as we become a more and more urban society.  Programs that promote and install trees, pollinator gardens, rain gardens and other tidbits of nature within our concrete jungles can all help bring nature to people.  However, I think we’re missing an easy answer that could very well be staring at you right now: the friendly neighborhood boxelder bug.

I photographed this boxelder bug on my sidewalk last week, just a few feet from where my wife first spotted it crawling on a blooming daffodil.  It was in a sheltered area on the sunny side of our house; probably warming up on a pleasant spring day.  Boxelder bugs keep their long straw-like mouth parts tucked beneath them except when they poke them into plants and seeds to feed.

Chances are, if you’re in the United States, and you look carefully through whatever building you’re in right now, you’ll find at least one boxelder bug hanging around.  If it’s a sunny day, you might be able to go outside and find some warming themselves on the south side of that same building.  Boxelder bugs make themselves easily available to us, but we have largely failed to take them up on their obvious offer of friendship.

Boxelder bugs are harmless.  They don’t bite people and they don’t cause any significant injury to plants, including the boxelder, maple, and ash trees they like to feed on.  Boxelder bugs are sometimes characterized as nuisances because they can accumulate in large numbers, especially on the sunny outside walls of buildings, or even indoors, near windows or other warm places.  And yes, large numbers of insects can create large amounts of insect poop, and that can sometimes cause some discoloration of walls or curtains.  Fair enough, but most of us put up with a lot more from kids, dogs, and/or cats without calling in exterminators.

Boxelder bugs are often seen on trees, especially maple, boxelder, and ash, where they feed on the seeds – but don’t appear to cause any problems for these trees or any other plants they feed on.  They like to overwinter in piles of plant material (landscaping mulch, compost piles, etc.) or make their ways through tiny cracks and crevices into warm buildings.

Most often, boxelder bugs get noticed during the winter when a few of them warm up enough to come wandering out of their hiding places into the living spaces of humans.  This is a perfect example of how these bugs can be ambassadors for nature.  They are quite literally little representatives of nature that present themselves to us, in a completely nonthreatening way, right in our homes.  If we can spread the word about the harmlessness of boxelder bugs, maybe we can turn these surprise appearances into positive interactions.  If we can point them toward information about the fascinating lives of boxelder bugs and other creatures, we might even start a cascade of exploration.

You’re skeptical?  Well, people are already taking an interest in boxelder bugs without our encouragement.  How do I know?  Back in February 2013, I wrote a short blog post about how glad I was to find boxelder bugs in my house because I was looking for something to photograph during the middle of the winter.  Though the post was mostly about new camera gear, I also threw in a few natural history facts about boxelder bugs, as is my wont.

The boxelder bug (Boisea trivitatta) is a true bug, and has the characteristic triangle shape on its back, straw-like mouth, and incomplete wing coverings (among other things). The “trivitatta” portion of its name refers to the three stripes behind its head.  The are categorized as “scentless plant bugs” but can release a bad tasting (and smelly) compound when attacked in order to fend off predators.  They don’t use that defense against humans, however, or at least I’ve not experienced that with the hundreds I’ve picked up to examine over the years.

Five years later, that post on boxelder bugs continues to attract a surprising number of readers.  In fact, during the last couple of years, the post has been viewed between 1000 and 5000 times every month!   It has become, by far, the most viewed post I’ve ever written, surpassing many posts I’d have predicted to have more lasting interest and value.  It has been viewed five times as frequently as “What’s the Best Time to Burn?” and almost ten times as often as “The Conservation Value of Backyard Prairies”.  I was just looking for an excuse to try out a new flash system for my camera and ended up writing the most popular thing I’ve ever written.  It’s an odd world, to be sure.

People seem to stumble onto my boxelder bug post because they are looking for information on the little insects that have shown up in their houses, and a fair number of those people appear to be looking for something beyond just how to kill them.  The comments section is full of people thanking me for providing positive information on boxelder bugs and telling me about how they are making friends with the boxelder bug(s) in their home.  This is energy that needs to be harnessed and used for good!

If people become comfortable with boxelder bugs, they might also become comfortable with other invertebrates around them, including ants, millipedes, and even (gasp) spiders.  Looking at these little creatures with interest and empathy, instead of fear or disgust, might lead them to look around for other animals to learn about.  Once they’ve gotten a pretty good inventory of what they can find in their homes and neighborhoods, they might start to wander further, and to expand upon their species of interest.  Before you know it, they’ll be amateur naturalists and conservation supporters.

Pigeons are another example of an animal living among us that is easy to observe and has plenty of fascinating stories to learn about.  Don’t believe me?  Do a Google search for “pigeon trivia”.

Boxelder bugs aren’t the only potential accessible ambassador for nature.  They happen to be handy (and cute) but there are plenty of other animals hanging around too, including both invertebrates and larger animals.  We naturalists tend to be snobbish about species like pigeons and house sparrows, but imagine what could happen if a young kid started following one of those birds around to see where it lives?  That curiosity, once satisfied, would very likely lead them to look around for other species to learn about.

If we’re going to build a constituency for nature in an urban world, it makes sense to focus more on urban and suburban nature.  Boxelder bugs, pigeons, and many other animals are right there, waiting to be noticed and learned about.  It’s important to show people what nature looks like out in the great wide open spaces, but we should probably spend more time talking about the nature living right outside, or even inside, our homes.

Who could look deeply into the four red eyes of a boxelder bug and not come away deeply moved?  (Did you notice the two smaller eyes behind the bigger ones?  I’m telling you – there’s a lot more to these little critters than you might think at first.)

Properly Portraying the Power of Prescribed Fire

At a recent Nebraska conference, Shelly Kelly of the Sandhills Task Force made a point worth some serious consideration.  She told a roomful of wildlife biologists that if they want reluctant ranchers to seriously consider using prescribed fire, using photos of big scary flames in presentations and social media posts is probably counterproductive.  Instead, Shelly suggested sharing more photos of fires that are clearly under control, with people calmly working around them.  Even better, she suggested, we should share photos of green grass beneath the skeletons of dead invasive trees, showing the positive results that follow fire.

We got our first prescribed fires of 2018 done last week.  This photo captures some of the 5 minutes or so of intense fire following about an hour of boring backing fire lines on one of those burns.

I appreciate her point.  Most of my favorite prescribed fire photos are the ones I took during the big head (wind-driven) fire at the end of a burn – when the flames are high and there’s lots of color and action.  Visually, those images are certainly more powerful than photos of a small fire backing slowly into the wind during the early stages of a burn.  However, it’s important to remember that “powerful” might not be the attribute to lead with when talking to a skeptical audience that fears the potential negative consequences of fire.

On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think we need to stop showing people powerful images of fire – we should just try to provide appropriate context for those images.  After all, the power of fire is why it’s so valuable as a management tool.  It can take some pretty tall flames and a lot of heat to kill eastern red cedar trees, for example.

Context is important.  Posting an image of huge flames and a towering smoke column on Instagram or Facebook with a short caption like, “Woo Hoo!!  We had a great burn today!!” will probably get lots of likes from experienced fire folks.  However, someone unfamiliar with prescribed fire might look at that same image and assume it was taken by a reckless pyromaniac who was endangering the public and him/herself.  As a result, that person might be much harder to turn into a prescribed fire supporter.

Expounding a little in an image caption can help quite a bit.  Something like, “Here’s an image from the finale of today’s controlled burn.  After two hours of slowly burning out a boundary around our fire unit, we were able to send this hot fire through the prairie to kill lots of invasive trees before it ran into what we’d burned earlier and put itself out.”  Or whatever – you get the idea.

We start each burn with a small test fire in the downwind corner . That gives us a chance to see how the fire and smoke are going to behave before we commit to the whole enchilada. If we don’t like what we see, we can easily shut down and wait for a better day.  Last week, we had dry conditions, but wind speeds were low enough that we could burn safely.

Even better, we should probably share broader series of images showing the entire process of the fire, including the boring backing fire that sets the stage for that big finish.  Photos of a nice straight firebreak, with black on one side and unburned grass on the other, can help drive home how careful, competent, and effective we are.  After posting a few shots of people in yellow suits laying down lines of small flame inside neat boundaries, it’s probably ok to slide in a couple photos of flaming infernos and torching cedar trees.  It might be smart to include at least one more photo after those flashy shots, though, showing that everything turned out well in the end…

In this photo, we’re laying down a band of water along the edge of a mowed strip surrounding our burn unit, and Olivia is lighting the grass just upwind of that wet and mowed line.
With both a wet line and a mowed firebreak to catch it, Alex lit a line of fire that we allowed to back into the wind. Several vehicles with water followed behind to make sure the flames stayed inside the unit.
Eventually the backing fire created a wind band of black that acted as a catcher’s mitt when the big fire ran into it later.
Once the black lines were prepared, we ignited the upwind portion of the unit and allowed fire to roar through the unit until it hit the black and was extinguished.
These lines of fire are safely inside wide bands of black that have already burned.
Olivia watches the last of the smoke dissipate as the fire burns itself out.

I’ll try to follow my own advice about fire communications in the future, and you can remind me when I forget.  It’s absolutely appropriate to celebrate the power (and let’s face it, the beauty too) of fire by taking and sharing photos.  However, we should also celebrate and share the care and strategy that go into making those powerful fires safe and effective.

Be safe out there.

Measuring Our Influence as Conservation Scientists

I am a conservation scientist.  Like any other scientist, I develop and test hypotheses, trying to figure out how the world works.  Once I learn something, I publish my results in academic journals where other scientists can evaluate and build upon what I’ve learned.  Because I’m a conservation scientist, however, I also need make sure the people who directly impact prairie conservation (ranchers, land managers, policy makers, etc.) get my information and use it to improve the way grasslands are managed and restored.  If I fail to influence the actions of others in positive ways, I fail as a conservation scientist.

It doesn’t matter how much we learn about employing prescribed fire effectively if we’re not able to help others use the lessons we learn.

In science, keen observational skills and creativity often spark innovations, but rigorous collection of data is required to see whether a great idea actually makes sense or not.  While I’ve had some good ideas, I’ve also come up with plenty of grassland management and restoration strategies that turned out to be duds.  In each case, I learned a little more about prairie ecology and our land stewardship improved as a result.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done over the years to develop new and better ways of restoring and managing prairies.  I know those strategies are effective because I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time testing them, through both observation and rigorous data collection.  My computer is full of spreadsheets and graphs showing how prairie species and communities respond to various treatments.

I’m also proud of the work I’ve done to share what we’ve learned with others, but until recently, I’ve done very little to evaluate the effectiveness of that work.  I’m not alone – most of my colleagues in the world of conservation science do a great job of measuring the natural world and its responses to human activities, but do very little to evaluate whether their work is actually influencing conservation.  It’s fairly ridiculous when you think about it.  We would never think of devoting ourselves to a new invasive species control technique without testing its effectiveness, but for some reason we’re satisfied to rely on blind optimism that our outreach strategies are changing the world.

Come on, folks!  We’re scientists!  We love data, and we’re good at developing and testing ideas.  Why do we apply that passion and aptitude to only part of our work?  Why aren’t we testing whether our ideas are reaching the intended audience and influencing on-the-ground conservation work?  How can we adjust and improve our outreach strategies if we don’t have any data to work from?

To be fair, measuring outreach impacts requires a very different kind of scientific approach than most of us are comfortable with.  Instead of counting plants or observing behavior of birds, bees or bison, we have to assess the attitudes, motivations, and actions of people. Many of us took our career paths because we prefer the company of birds, bees and bison to people, but that doesn’t give us leave to just ignore people altogether – especially when the success or failure of our work hinges upon their actions.

Fortunately, we don’t have to work alone.  There are lots of scientists who are already good at studying people, and many of them are happy to work with us.  I’ve had very enthusiastic responses from those I’ve asked advice from, and their input has been very helpful.

We should probably take some of the energy we spend studying animals and put it towards studying the way people respond to our outreach efforts.

Whether you’re a scientist who actively shares your results with your target audience, or someone who relies on others to translate and transmit that information, there are some basic questions we should all be trying to address.  This is far from a comprehensive list, but it’s a start.

Defining Audience and Message

What lessons and messages from my work are most important?

Who is the audience for those?

What messengers/media will best reach the audiences?

What are the current attitudes/actions of my audience?  What are the main drivers of those those attitudes and actions?

Who are the credible voices my audience looks to for guidance?

How can I reach those credible voices?

Evaluating Success

Are my messages reaching my target audience?

How many people in that audience am I reaching?

Are my messages changing attitudes and/or actions?

At what scale, and to what degree am I making a difference?

Which messages, messengers, and media are most effective for reaching each of my audiences?

Many of us host field days, at which we can share what we’re learning with others.  How many of us are assessing the effectiveness of those field days and other outreach strategies?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about audiences and messages, and it’s really helped me focus both my research and outreach more effectively.  Recently, I’ve also started trying to answer some of the questions in the above “Evaluating Success” category.  I’m making some progress, but I need to do much more.

I can tell you how many presentations I’ve given over the last two years (40) and how many people were in those audiences (3,447).  I’ve also been keeping track of calls and emails asking for advice on prairie restoration and management.  Unfortunately, while I have a lot of numbers, I can’t easily translate them into acres of improved management or enhanced habitat quality.

I have, however, made at least some progress toward measuring conservation impact on the ground.  Much of that success came from survey work by one of our first Hubbard Fellows, Eliza Perry.  Eliza conducted interviews with some land managers and private lands biologists who had attended field days at our Platte River Prairies.  Among her many findings were that almost all respondents said what they learned from us had influenced their work, and they conservatively estimated that over 330,000 acres of land had been restored or managed differently because of that influence.  Beyond that, Eliza was able to identify key factors that led to our success and suggest ways to improve our effectiveness.

In addition, Eliza surveyed readers of The Prairie Ecologist Blog and I conducted a follow-up survey three years later.  Those surveys helped quantify the demographics of readers (e.g., about 2/3 of respondents have direct influence on prairie management).  The surveys also measured the degree of influence the blog has on readers’ understanding of prairies and approach to managing or restoring prairies (when applicable).  We even got a rough estimate of the number of acres on which management had been influenced by the blog (over 300,000).

Being able to quantify outreach impact, even when the numbers are fuzzy and incomplete, has been really helpful.  It helps me justify my job, for one thing, and assures both me and my supervisor that the time I spend writing, giving presentations, and consulting with others has value.  Most importantly, it helps me assess what is and isn’t working and adjust accordingly.

While it’s still not fully within my comfort zone, I’m trying hard to make sure I’m measuring the effectiveness of our outreach efforts, just as I do our prairie management and restoration work.  I would love to hear from people who are trying to do the same thing, especially if you’ve found effective evaluation strategies.  As more of us focus on measuring the success of our outreach work, we’ll be able to learn from each other and establish some common metrics.  Hopefully, we’ll also become more effective at translating what we’re learning into large scale and meaningful conservation impact!

Plant Game – January 3, 2018

Happy New Year!  To celebrate, let’s play THE PLANT GAME!

You know it,  you love it.  It’s the game in which you have to figure out which plant name is not real.  More specifically, one name in each of the following lists is NOT the official common name of a plant found in Nebraska.  It’s a silly way to poke fun at the ridiculous names we’ve chosen for the plants that live around us.  I’ll post the answers in a day or two.

In the first list, there are five plant names with way more hyphens than seem necessary.  The names are almost short stories.  Good luck.

In these other two lists, all the names are crazy.  You just have to figure out which crazy names I made up.

 

Bonus question – can you name this flower?  If you’re a Nebraska botanist, there is only one known location of this plant in the state.  Good luck…

 

Plant Game – September 27, 2017

The rules are simple.  Just pick the fake plant name from each list.  Three of the names in each list are official common names (as opposed to the scientific, or Latin names) of plants found growing in Nebraska.  The other is one that I made up.  See if you can guess the fake plant name.

Good luck!  I’ll post the answers in a day or two.

Bonus question. Can you name this Nebraska plant?

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Total Eclipse on the Prairie

Well, if you’re expecting photos of the sun with the shadow of the moon in front of it, I’m sorry to disappoint you.  I figured every other photographer in the world would be taking that photo, so I zigged when they zagged.

We were really fortunate that our Platte River Prairies were right smack in the middle of the path of totality for this year’s solar eclipse, and despite some high clouds here and there, we ended up with a very nice clear view of the eclipse.  We hosted a viewing event for about 150 of our good friends, and it was a truly magical experience.  I don’t really have a lot to say about the science of the eclipse (I was mostly trying to enjoy the experience, not analyze it) but thought I’d share a few photos of what the experience was like on the ground.

Standing around watching people look at the sun through goofy glasses was an experience in itself…
My brother-in-law, Austin Bontrager is an amateur astronomer and greatly enhanced our experience by giving an introductory presentation and then setting up his telescope with a camera and live feed of the sun we could watch on a big monitor. Seeing the eclipse happen on an image of the sun the size of a basketball was extraordinary – especially the chance to see sun spots and solar flares at the same time.
This kid had the best eclipse mask of the day.
Despite quite a few people at the event, everyone was able to spread out and find their own personal piece of prairie to watch from. It really didn’t feel crowded at all.
As we neared totality, we got the 360 degrees of sunset color we’d heard about. It was truly amazing.
Once the moon had completely covered the sun, it was safe to look at it without protective glasses. We had a little more than 2 minutes before the signal sounded to put our glasses back on, and the first bright beam of sunlight came bursting out again.
The two minutes or so of totality blew by really fast. There wasn’t really much time to pay attention to whether insect sounds changed or evening flowers opened. We were all too busy just soaking in the experience.
We had visitors from around Nebraska, as well as from states like Texas, Minnesota, Colorado, and others. Based on our first experience with a total solar eclipse, Kim and I are already talking about trying to travel somewhere in the patch of totality to see the 2024 eclipse…