Hubbard Alumni Blog: Platte Meditations

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, a Hubbard fellow during 2015 and 2016.  Evan is currently working for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon.

(This is a post that I wrote in January 2016 while during my Fellowship but didn’t get around to publishing before winter passed.) On a sub-zero Saturday morning I got up early to catch some photos of the sunrise. I had planned to go to a prairie, but as I was driving I noticed a line of steam rising on the horizon like the trail of dust a pickup makes as it races down a dry gravel road. Curious, I headed towards the steam and realized that it was coming off of the Platte River. When I arrived at the bridge I was stunned; all along the river, vapor was rising from the surface and glowing in the sunrise. An endless procession of ice chunks slowly floated by, quietly scraping against the snow on the bank. I spent almost two hours photographing, filming, and recording audio, and I never even felt cold (which is saying a lot for me). There was something special about that morning, something about the stillness that made me feel content and peaceful. I wanted to share that feeling with other people, so I created a short video of how I saw the Platte that morning:

There’s really something special about the Platte and I don’t know if I can explain it. Maybe it’s my instinctive attraction to water. Maybe it’s the languid pace of the Platte that relaxes me. Maybe it’s simply the change in scenery and stark contrast between river and prairie. Or maybe I’m surprised by how beautiful it is each time I make a visit because no one ever seems to talk about it. It’s hard to take a trip in Nebraska without driving over the Platte, yet how often do we stop and explore what’s below those bridges?

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Part of the problem is that there’s so little public access to the Platte. I know of a few observation decks and one tiny trail along it, but the vast majority is private property. Even if you set foot on the middle of the riverbed you’re trespassing! This is such a shame because in my opinion the Platte is one of the greatest recreation opportunities in southern Nebraska. On a sunny weekend it is my favorite place to sit and read, and every time a friend visits I make sure to bring him or her to a sandbar for a picnic. As an employee of The Nature Conservancy, I have the luxury of being able to access a couple sections that we manage.

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Fortunately, even if you don’t have access to a section of the Platte the best option is still available to you: kayaking. I did this with a friend twice during the summer and it remains one of my favorite Nebraskan memories. When there’s enough water for a decent flow you can cover 20 miles in an afternoon while hardly paddling. And boy was I surprised how beautiful the scenery was! I expected the river to be bordered on both sides by corn fields, but the section between Minden and Wood River is actually surrounded by trees, creating the feeling that you are far, far away from it all. No place other than the Sandhills has given me that feeling of isolation in Nebraska. Kayaking the Platte requires two cars to shuttle and renting kayaks if you don’t own them, but it is well worth the trouble.

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The Platte River has a long history of abuse, and now it is often taken for granted, in my opinion. But if more people had a meaningful connection to it maybe we would treat it better. I challenge you to find your own special place or activity on the river, if you haven’t yet; get to know this wonderful feature if you haven’t yet. The Platte deserves it.

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Public Access to the Platte:

  • Platte River State Park, Louisville
  • Louisville State Recreation Area, Louisville
  • Two Rivers State Recreation Area, Waterloo
  • The Crane Trust Visitor Center, Alda
  • Alda Rd. and Shoemaker Island Rd. (observation deck), Alda
  • Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, Gibbon
  • Lowell Road and Elm Island road (observation deck), Gibbo
  • Riverside Park, Sottsbluff
  • Platte River Landing, Valley

Photo of the Week – April 22, 2016

Carolina anemone, aka windflower (Anemone caroliniana), is one of my favorite spring wildflowers.  Like many early bloomers, it’s beautiful but inconspicuous.  Despite its gorgeous flower color(s), it can be really hard to see unless you’re within a few feet of it.

The tiny, but beautiful windflower (Anemone caroliniana).
The tiny, but beautiful windflower (Anemone caroliniana).  It’s hard to enough to find it when it is blooming.  When it’s not, the leaves (foreground) are so small and inconspicuous, they are nearly impossible to spot.

Earlier this week, the Fellows, Nelson, and I spent a couple hours hiking our Platte River Prairies, practicing some plant identification and talking ecology and management.   I’d mentioned the anemone as a species we might see if we were lucky, but we didn’t find it.  After our hike but before I headed home, I decided to revisit a hill we’d hiked earlier because I wanted to photograph some groundplum (Astragalus crassicarpus) flowers there.  After I finished with the groundplum, I stood up and walked a few steps downhill, and there, not 10 feet from where the four of us had stood a few hours before, was a small patch of Carolina anemone.

There were only five plants and they were in various stages of blooming – and in various shades of blue.  I spent a few minutes photographing them and then called Evan (one of our Hubbard Fellows) in case he wanted to come see and photograph them too.  Evan said something about a friendly little contest…  After describing the location to him, I drove back to town.

Last night, Evan sent me four of the images he came away with from that little patch of windflowers.  Have I mentioned that he’s an excellent photographer?  Also, he cheated by finding and photographing a crab spider on one of the flowers WHICH IS TOTALLY UNFAIR!

Anyway, without making it an overt competition, here are four photos each from Evan and me.  It’s always fun and interesting to see how different photographers interpret the same subject matter.  In this case, notwithstanding Evan’s crab spider, WHICH HE PROBABLY PLANTED, we were working with the same five flowers.  I put my four photos first, followed by his four.

My photos…

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And now Evan’s photos…

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It sure is nice to be back in wildflower season again.  I’m glad to live at a latitude where we have a true winter dormant season, but part of the reason I like winter is that it increases my appreciation of the return of the growing season each year!

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Stewardship Positivity

The following post was written by Evan Barrientos, of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer, and while you’ll get the chance to see some of his work here during the next year, I also encourage you to check out his personal blog.

Although I’ve been participating in land management since high school, I still find myself learning so much from it, although perhaps not in the way you’d expect. Yes, I’ve learned several management techniques and strategies since starting the fellowship, but the lessons I consider most valuable are the ones that teach me how to think about land stewardship. Let me explain.

If you were a Hubbard Fellow during the second week of June, you would probably find yourself riding an ATV back and forward across one of our restored prairies, searching for the fluffy purple flowers of Musk Thistle. Upon spotting a thistle, you would pluck off all the flowers, thrust your spade through the base of the thistle with a satisfying crunch, pull out the plant, and then knock the dirt off of any uprooted roots. Over the next three weeks you would repeat this process thousands of times until you had covered every inch of all 14 of our Platte River properties and their 4,000+ acres. Then you would check them all again.

We celebrated the end of thistle season by burning the flowerheads in a bonfire.
When we finally finished musk thistles we celebrated by burning the seed heads that we had collected in a bonfire.

This may sound like exhausting and repetitive work, and it can be, but that wasn’t the hard part for me. The hard part was staying positive when it felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I felt this way when I returned to a prairie for its second thistle check and found piles of thistle seed below “zombie thistles” (thistles that flowered and produced seed after I chopped them because I left too much dirt on the roots). Or when I walked through a prairie that I had already checked twice and still found thistle stalks that had already released their seed to the prairie. Most of all, deciding to spend July 2nd chopping thistles before they released more seed instead of spending time with my family forced me to think hard about my role as a land steward.

As a land steward you develop a strong connection to the land you are working on. Seeing a healthy community of native species flourish on your property is extremely gratifying, but it also pains you to see invasive species spreading. Land stewards almost always have more tasks than they can complete and it’s very easy to let this make them feel overwhelmed and stressed, but it doesn’t have to be this way. After reflecting upon the first month of my fellowship, here are three lessons I’ve learned so far about being a happy steward:

  1. I cannot control nature. I am a steward, not a god. Expecting myself to control exactly which species grow on a property will only bring me frustration. The role of a land steward is not to dominate the forces of nature, but to regulate its extremes. Translation: my job isn’t to exterminate musk thistles, but to prevent them from outcompeting other species and lowering overall biodiversity.
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A Regal Fritilary (Speyeria idalia) on Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans). Like it or not, Musk Thistles have become part of the local ecosystem. Being a steward doesn’t mean exterminating thistles, but keeping them under control.
  1. There is no endpoint. A land steward’s work is never “done.” My job isn’t to “fix” a property; it’s to guide the property toward a range of conditions that meet our management goals. Removing thistles from the same property year after year does not mean that we are failing at our job of “restoring” the prairie. On the contrary, it means we are doing our job of actively fostering biodiversity.
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Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is non-native, but also non-invasive. We don’t remove it because it doesn’t lower plant diversity.
  1. Stewardship should be viewed as a positive action, not negative. There are two very different ways to look at land management. From one angle, a day spent chopping thistles could be considered a violent battle against an evil enemy; a task to evict an unworthy invader. From another angle, it could be considered a process of creating beautiful and biodiverse prairies. In my experience, viewing invasives as enemies just leads to exhaustion and bitterness. Only by viewing stewardship as a process of care and creation, in my opinion, can one generate the tremendous amount of energy needed to take on its many tasks.
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Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Land stewardship is an essential component of conservation and it’s imperative that we do it well. Unfortunately, it also is a very demanding job that can burn you out if you’re not careful. I’m happy to say that the first month of this fellowship taught me some very important lessons about setting realistic expectations and viewing my work as a positive contribution to prairie biodiversity. It’s important to be a happy steward!

Introducing the 2015-2016 Hubbard Fellows

On June 1, we began the third year of our Hubbard Fellowship Program, generously funded by Anne Hubbard through the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation.  We brought in two new Fellows, Evan and Kim, to follow in the footsteps of Anne, Eliza, Jasmine, and Dillon.  Between now and the end of next May, they will learn everything we can teach them about conservation and then go out into the world to become conservation leaders and professionals.

Hubbard Fellows Kim Tri and Evan Barrientos at The Nature Conservancy's Caveny Tract.
Hubbard Fellows Kim Tri and Evan Barrientos at The Nature Conservancy’s Caveny Tract.

I asked Kim and Evan to each write a short introduction describing themselves and how they got here.  In some ways, the two of them are very different from each other, but I think you’ll see a striking similarity in the paths they’ve taken to reach us.  I hope you’ll get to know them much better over the next year as they contribute their thoughts and images to this blog.

 

Evan Barrientos

Growing up in southeast Wisconsin I wanted to help protect nature, but I never could see myself working in the Midwest. To an aspiring wildlife biologist, it seemed that my home had lost all its nature a century ago to logging and farming. All that remained for me to explore were a few small nature centers and state parks surrounded by a vast expanse of corn, soybeans, lawns, pavement, and buildings. Nature worth exploring and protecting, it seemed, lay in faraway places like Alaska or the Amazon rainforest. Yes, I had heard that only about one percent of Wisconsin’s native prairies remained, but what good could I do to help those sad fragments of nature when there were pristine forests being logged just a continent away?

In college a lot of these beliefs changed, fortunately. I worked in Alaska, Mexico, and Ecuador, and I discovered that even in those amazing places I could still miss the song of an American Robin. I saw how complex conservation issues are and learned that effective solutions often require decades to develop. Furthermore, it became clear that research alone wouldn’t be enough to achieve my conservation goals. Most importantly, I realized the extreme conservation impact of another species that I had previously ignored: humans.

Nelson Winkel teaches Hubbard Fellow Evan Barrientos (in hat) how to drive a tractor.
Our land manager Nelson Winkel teaches Hubbard Fellow Evan Barrientos (in hat) how to drive a tractor.

After stepping out of childhood dreams and into real world conservation, I saw that at the root of nearly every conservation issue lies a problem with the way people view nature. As a result, I became fascinated with the numerous social aspects of conservation such as environmental education and sustainable alternative livelihoods. I remained interested in ecology, but wanted to study ways nature could benefit people and vice versa. Finally, by discovering the importance of working with people, I realized that if I wanted to achieve real and significant conservation solutions, I would have to work long-term within a community that I understood intimately rather than hop from one country to another.

By the end of college I had learned that pristine wildernesses weren’t the only places worth conserving. Upon graduating, my conservation goals were to protect natural areas from human development, restore degraded natural areas, and engage people in the process. The Nature Conservancy embodies this philosophy, and I became eager to work with them. Astoundingly, The Hubbard Fellowship provided that exact opportunity. While I once may have dismissed Nebraska’s prairies as tame, I now seem them filled with fascinating species, deserving of restoration after a history of persecution, and located in a region that I can legitimately call home. I am thrilled to be working here and learning so much about how to restore biodiversity in degraded ecosystems.

Evan is passionate about communicating conservation issues and natural history through photography, videography, and blogging. You can view his work at www.evanbarrientos.zenfolio.com

 

Kim Tri

Though I grew up in southern Minnesota and prairies are a natural part of my life, my decision to study and work to conserve them took me kind of by surprise.  Conservation has always appealed to me—I’ve always wanted to do something with my life.  I just wanted to do it somewhere else.  At 19, frustrated with the Midwest and my lack of having done anything, I left my first college for a year in a conservation corps in Arizona, followed by another year in northern Minnesota, to see mountains and deserts and forests, and do something.  I credit where I am today to that first big move.  It allowed me to really learn from the land and the people around me, to understand the value of loving your work, and to really have a focus upon returning to college.

Sterling College in Vermont appealed to me then, partly because it offered the degree I wanted, but more importantly because of its dedication to educating the next generation of environmental stewards.  It was there in the beautiful Northwoods that I realized that what I really wanted was the grass and open space I’d left behind.  Running out of time to propose a senior project, the realization came in a “thunderbolt” moment.  It had to be prairies.  Without explicitly remembering learning the concepts, I already knew about fire and grazing, deep roots, and grass tall as horses.  Presenting the prairie to my advisor so that she could appreciate it as I do was a fun challenge and valuable experience.  Studying this ecosystem has been like coming home.  It illuminates old memories of purple coneflowers at the local zoo and chasing voles across the black of a new burn near my house.

Kim Tri (bottom left) on a Missouri River boat tour in early June - part of a large conference of Nature Conservancy staff in Nebraska City.
Kim Tri (bottom left) on a Missouri River boat tour in early June – part of a large conference of Nature Conservancy staff in Nebraska City.

Having tallied up something like ten moves in the past four years, I am excited to spend the duration of the Fellowship really sinking into one place and becoming part of the natural and human community.  I’m learning to put down roots, literally—the garden’s just getting going!  The peace of the prairie, I believe, will provide a perfect space in which to become a better naturalist, ecologist, land steward, and artist, and learn how to put all of those facets of myself to work in protecting the land.  I look forward, too, to the endless opportunities for professional development amid the blood, sweat, and tears of land management that will help hone the somewhat rough-and-tumble ecological education that I’ve received so far.

Kim volunteered with us last year while working on a senior project for college.  You can read more about her previous time with us here.