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.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Jasmine and Tractors

This post is written by Jasmine Cutter, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  

I Like Big Tractors and I Cannot Lie

I think I’ve had unacknowledged tractor-envy for a while. Growing up in the suburbs, the biggest piece of “machinery” I dealt with was probably our push lawnmower. When I moved to Minnesota and the prevalence and presence of large farm machinery increased greatly, I’d often find myself feeling a little jealous of the people who got to drive combines (once I learned that’s what those giant things are called) and the other mysterious, long-limbed machines; they commanded so much power at their fingertips, and I wondered what the world looked like from so high. When I got to use a riding mower in Montana (my first time on non-automotive machinery), I thought that was fantastic. Thankfully, living in Nebraska has provided an antidote to my tractor-envy, and has given me a chance to refine my mowing abilities.

Ear protection: check! Cold protection: check! Awesome sunglasses: check! Don’t worry, I was parked.  Photo by Jasmine Cutter.
Ear protection: check! Cold protection: check! Awesome sunglasses: check! Don’t worry, I was parked. Photo by Jasmine Cutter.

Dillon and I were lucky that soon after our arrival, Platte River Prairies acquired our new, shiny green John Deere 5075E tractor. There is also a well-used, slightly less intimidating, yellow John Deere 401B tractor. I knew that we would get to learn how to operate tractors as part of the Fellowship, but I was unaware of how vital the tractors are to our management here. Most of that was due to ignorance about how many ways a tractor can be put to use (sooo many ways!), but I was also generally naive about how precious labor and time is to land stewards. My previous stewardship experience at Carleton College was in a relatively labor-rich context – working in the Arboretum was a work-study option – and many management objectives were tackled by teams of students wielding hand tools. The dynamic here is very different: there is Nelson, there are the two Fellows (we spend a lot of time on stewardship, but also have other projects diverting our attention), Sam for the last few summers, and Chris and Mardell come and help when they can. Even with the help of our wonderful volunteers who help collect seed and tackle other projects for us, we’re dealing with a lot less available labor. Needless to say, I’m learning a lot about how to prioritize management and how to efficiently tackle our management objectives.

Ownership of a reliable tractor that is the right size and has the right attachments to fit our needs is essential to efficiently completing our stewardship goals. For example, we’ve been spending the last two weeks pulling out old fence line, and while we might be strong, we’re not fence-has-been-buried-by-six inches-of-dirt-and-sod-and-is-now-one-with-the-earth strong. I have tried tugging on those fences, and while we can make some progress, it’s amazing to operate the tractor and feel how easily our hydraulics enable us to tear out these wires that would take us days to uncover and pull out by hand.

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The mighty green beast in all its glory!  Photo by Chris Helzer.

Our tractors certainly help with efficiency, but simply stated, we depend on them as our primary implement for a lot of our stewardship and maintenance. Our tractors are essential to mowing firebreaks and fence lines, and for shredding invasive vegetation to a height that delays its growth and makes it short enough for our sprayers. When we need to spray a large area (which isn’t too often), the tractor – and Nelson’s innovative spray setups – save us a lot of time, and give us a powerful tool against our more entrenched patches of invasive plants. The tractors are also used for pulling out stuck vehicles (not that we ever do that) and for navigating terrain that’s too swampy for our other vehicles.

I love our tractors because they enable us to accomplish our objectives, but I also appreciate that they give me a chance to hone a different set of skills. Tractor operation requires attention to detail, especially spatial awareness. I need to be able to judge terrain so I don’t tip over, I need to make sure I’m far enough from co-workers and vehicles that I’m not going to damage anything or anyone, and I also need to know which part of the tractor is going to move when I pull a certain lever. Because they are so powerful, it’s hard to undo something once you’ve done it with a tractor. There’s also a lot of multi-tasking. It’s surprisingly challenging to simultaneously steer, manage my speed, avoid obstacles, engage the correct lever, and ensure that I’m spraying (or mowing) what I intend to. But I’m feeling more confident in my abilities every day.

During the corn harvest, our neighbors invited us out to ride along with them in their combine and corn wagon. Years of curiosity finally fulfilled!
During the corn harvest, our neighbors invited us out to ride along with them in their combine and corn wagon. Years of curiosity finally fulfilled!  Photo by Jasmine Cutter.

Tractor time is also appreciated because mowing or spraying is relatively slow-paced compared to most of our stewardship tasks. For all their might, when you’re mowing with a tractor, the swath you’re able to cover is only as wide as the shredder attachment, which is a relatively unimpressive nine feet or so. When you’re covering several dozen acres nine feet at a time at 5mph, that is a lot of laps. But honestly, I really value this time, and the chance to examine every foot of our property (or at least every foot of the perimeter). I’ve honed my ability to identify plants while in motion, discovered gates I never knew existed, observed how voles move through the thatch, and gained a better understanding of how the plant composition of our units shifts with topography.

Our tractors are also indirectly beneficial to my life here. When the farmers are talking about their machinery, I have at least some idea of what they’re talking about, even if our tractor is maybe half the size of theirs. I now know what a PTO (Power Take-Off) is, I have stories about nearly tipping over (there was a buried beaver lodge), and I am able to get some respect when people learn that I drive the tractor, just like Nelson or Dillon.

Dillon driving the John Deere.  Self portrait by Dillon Blankenship.
Dillon driving the John Deere. Self portrait by Dillon Blankenship.

While I’ve satiated the majority of my machinery-related curiosity, my only remaining wish is that I have a chance to operate the mythical skidsteer. I saw one in action at Carleton and marveled at its ability to wrench stumps from the ground (something we desperately need help with along our old fence line). Nelson has told us tales of their dexterity and usefulness at our Rulo site. Hopefully I will get a chance to drive the beast when we rent one in the spring; just think of all the farm cred I’ll garner!