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 Applications Are Being Accepted NOW!

Applications for the next round of Hubbard Fellowships with The Nature Conservancy of Nebraska are being accepted from now until September 8, 2017.  This is a one year position aimed at recent college graduates  – with undergraduate or graduate degrees in natural resources, conservation biology, wildlife biology, or related fields.

The Fellowship is designed to give Fellows a very well-rounded set of experiences and skills that will jump start their conservation careers.  Fellows work on land management and restoration projects, develop and carry out independent projects, attend numerous conferences and other events, visit with and learn from Conservancy staff and partners, and get valuable experience in conservation planning, communications, marketing, budgeting, fundraising, and other aspects of conservation organizations.  They also play important roles in communicating conservation messages to a wide array of audiences.  Supervising the Hubbard Fellowship program has been one of the highlights of my career, and I’m excited to keep the program moving forward.

Please click here for more details about the Fellowship.

To apply, click here and then hit the green “view positions” button and search for job # 45644.

The Fellowship runs from January to December 2018 and is based at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, though considerable time will also be spent at the Niobrara Valley Preserve and the Omaha Field Office.

Please forward this to anyone you think might be interested.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – No “Earth” without “Art”

This post was written by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Katharine is multifaceted and very talented – exactly the kind of person we like having in our Fellowship program.  

I used to be a fairly prolific artist. As soon as I could hold a pencil I began drawing and copying whatever pictures of horses I could find. As a teenager, I explored multiple media and subjects, including colored pencil landscapes, watercolor and acrylic paintings, ceramic dishware, and illuminated Celtic calligraphy in inks and metallic finishes. My hands would wander over the paper, canvas, and clay for hours, creating from whatever came into my head or caught my eye. I would get frustrated, I would get inspired, and almost always something would find its way out of my head.

Around when I finished graduate school, this drive began to fade. It hasn’t disappeared – there have been occasional spurts of creation, but overall the last two and a half years have seen a huge drop in my artistic inspiration. When I did create, it was painstakingly slow and the hours no longer slipped away from me. This stressed me out. Art had been so huge in my life for so long, what was happening? Would I ever be able to access that drive again, or was it gone? Over time I became resigned, and figured all I could do was keep my mind open to any inspiration that might reemerge.

One of my few recent pieces of art, inspired by the fields of sunflowers seen along the Platte River in late summer. Photo by Katharine Hogan
One of my few recent pieces of art, inspired by the fields of sunflowers seen along the Platte River in late summer. Photo by Katharine Hogan

This past week, while I was cutting out the windows on the metal shipping containers that will eventually be The Nature Conservancy’s new sand hill crane viewing blinds, I was thinking about how even land management tasks that seem repetitive and straightforward have varying degrees of hidden skill behind their successful implementation.

The plasma cutter I was using to create the crane blind windows has a tiny spatial range where its electric arc most effectively cuts steel, and the evenness of the cut depends on holding the tip at a very consistent angle while simultaneously moving the cutter at a precise rate.

Katharine using a plasma cutter. Photo by Eric Chien.
Katharine using a plasma cutter. Photo by Eric Chien.

Safely and effectively spraying invasive plants depends on literally moment by moment interpretation of air movement, requires an understanding of how the leaves of different species shed or hold herbicide, and, of course, knowledge of sometimes subtle botanical differences between native and non-native species in various life stages.

Pausing beforehand for a sip of coffee is arguably not one of the more subtly demanding aspects of spraying weeds (in this case, reed canary grass) – but on chilly days it is one of the nicest! Photo by Katharine Hogan
Pausing beforehand for a sip of coffee is arguably not one of the more subtly demanding aspects of spraying weeds (in this case, reed canary grass) – but on chilly days it is one of the nicest! Photo by Katharine Hogan

And don’t even get me started on working with the tractor grapple. It takes less than five minutes to learn the basics of grapple operation, but it took me hours of operating those two levers until I truly began to grasp (pun intended) the subtleties of picking up and piling tree branches.

These tasks of subtle familiarity and mastery are not unlike the learning curves of artistic mediums. So, I wondered, have shop skills and land management techniques become my new artistic pursuits? Have I traded one skill for another that is often not recognized as art because it is narrowly defined with a specific, practical objective? Perhaps, but I believe it goes deeper than that.

I believe there is art hidden all around us. There is art in every efficient system of organization. An herbarium of native prairie plants is artistic in creation and appearance. Communicating with diverse audiences about the importance of prairies is an art both subtle in execution and many layered in its implications.

Our daily lives hold art as well. Aside from the more obvious sources such as cooking or interior design, there is also art in the words we give to the people in our lives, and in how we choose to spend our time so as to be more responsible with the resources in our possession. Every life can be treated like a work of art.

Art is many things. Among others, art is simultaneously the most intellectual and most visceral form of communication in its dual capacity to make us both think and feel. This communication can be purely aesthetic, or it can be pragmatic. We are all artists, whenever we take a concept to its completion in the way that best brings our talents to the rest of the world.

I still hope to rediscover my inspiration in the “traditional” studio art forms. Until then, I will simply have to do the best I can to recognize the hidden art before me every single day.

I would love to know your thoughts and responses to these ideas. Please let me know in the comments, or email me at katharine.hogan@tnc.org. Thanks! I hope you go forth and create.

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

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Eric’s Great Plains Tourism Proposal

This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  I hope you’ll read and respond to his ideas about a different kind of tourism in the Great Plains.  (Also, please don’t forget to fill out our blog reader survey HERE.)

I get the sense that most of the country mistakes the push they feel as they travel through the Midwest and Great Plains as a force pushing them through and out of the landscape, instead of what could be a push into it. Engine power has let us cross the prairies in a matter of hours. Most of us are resolved to race through the Great Plains, acknowledging it only as a void to be crossed. The wide open spaces almost seem to demand motion, demand a commitment to keep going. This character of movement the prairie inspires is in large part why I think traditional tourism has never taken a firm hold here. It is why I think a tourism economy fit for the Great Plains is one folded into the fabric of the working landscape. It is why I know that the best way to vacation on the prairie is to come out and work in it.

Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) preparing for some chainsaw work on a late summer morning.
Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) preparing for some chainsaw work on a late summer morning.  Photo by Eric Chien.

We rarely consider prairies as vacation destinations. Mountains, lakes, and beaches; these are said to be restorative natural geographies. They are, but so are prairies. I find they differ not in their effect, but only in their mode. A lake invites me to rest beside its shores or in its waters and refill my own reservoirs. A prairie drives sparks into weary legs, and reminds me that my tank is bigger than I thought. This qualitatively different rejuvenation is what sets prairie “recreation” apart, and I think suggests a shape for prairie tourism.

The heart of the Great Plains economy and the focal point of conservation efforts will always be its working lands. The nature of the prairie itself rejects idleness. The innate restlessness the landscape inspires does not mean we cannot find excitement and restoration. It just means it will not be found sitting idly. I would challenge any family to spend a late Spring weekend lopping young cedar trees out of a prairie lush with new grass and early flowers. Share an afternoon rolling old fence in a herd of cattle alive with the energy of new calves. Drift easily to sleep because of healthful work to the sound of an evening prairie brimming with life. Tell me that would not stick longer in the whole family’s mind than even the best iphone picture from some scenic mountaintop. These are real prairie experiences, playing out all over the landscape beyond I-80.

Katharine
Who wouldn’t want to learn how to drive a tractor and spend their vacation working in the prairie?  Photo by Eric Chien.

Recreation and tourism are powerful tools in connecting people and place. It can also be a powerful tool for supporting the integrity of the landscape and the lives of its permanent human inhabitants. The ecosystems that hold lakeshores, mountains slopes, and ocean fronts reap a significant portion of the conservation benefits that admiration and attraction confer. They also are teetering with the weight of recreation development incompatible with the health and character of the landscapes responsible for their very existence. This is not what we want for our Great Plains Prairies.  In the place of development for recreation alone, a working lands tourism model melts into the fabric of contemporary life on the plains. “Work vacations” on working ranches and farms offer re-engagement and appreciation of the landscape. They also offer the people of the prairie a chance to share the richness of life working close to the land. We walk into a head wind by trying to impose traditional tourism on the prairie landscape. However, there is fertile ground for attracting visitors by appealing to the culture of revitalizing work that prairies inspire. Molded thoughtfully, a growing appreciation of our landscape and the part we play in it enriches the integrity of our ecosystems, and the lives of Great Plains citizens and visitors both.

During a 48-hour late December heat wave I rumbled east towards a long day of work on the tractor, kicking up the gravel of Shoemaker Island Road. Skeins of Canada geese traced the air above the nearby Platte River, the mid-morning sun spotlighting their dusky flanks. The corn stalks and grass shined their dry gold against the uniquely blue Great Plains sky. In that moment, I counted all of the people I wished could share in that day. It was a long list. It included family and friends. It also included a nameless many who I have shared so many anonymous, hurried moments with at the Pilot Gas Station off the highway. I hoped they would end their trips here, at the Platte River Prairies. Forgo another trip to the mountains or lakes back East, and join me on a fence line. Not just because I believe their visit will create an actionable impression, or through their additional hands, a greater management capacity.  I know the exertions that prairies inspire to be energizing, self-restorative, and meaningful. What more can we ask out of time spent?

The author cuts down a tree in a prairie, simultaneously providing a treat for cattle at the same site. Photo by Katharine Hogan.
The author cuts down a tree in a prairie, simultaneously providing a treat for cattle at the same site. Photo by Katharine Hogan.

 

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Sky is My Mountain

This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Eric comes from Minnesota and brings great energy to our prairie stewardship work.  He’s also very bright, and an engaging writer, as you’ll see in this and other posts.

The sky is my mountain. I recently heard Jeff Walk from Illinois Nature Conservancy articulate this notion of prairie geography. If westerners are defined by their mountains, those of us from the Midwest and Great Plains are defined by our skies. Prairies are open horizons. Even on the most heavily plowed landscapes, the ghosts of prairies loom as long as the land stretches toward an expansive sky.

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Flat land compensates the viewer with tremendous skies.

All landscapes affect the prejudices about comfort and beauty of those born to them. I know someone who moved to Minnesota from the West for a job and was gone within the week, overcome by the flatness of the land. That might be a little dramatic, but I can understand the uneasiness. For me claustrophobia and paranoia rises in deeply wooded landscapes that lack the promise of a lake or field offering a glimpse beyond the trees. I think we all have that affinity for particular aesthetics to some degree, and because of that I think we can all empathize with the plight of prairie wildlife.

Unlike humans, most prairie wildlife lacks the flexibility to adapt to the uneasiness brought on by changes in their natal landscapes. Prairie chickens may be the most well known of the prairie wildlife terrorized when the land loses the sky, but they are almost certainly not the only ones. One needs only to watch the predatory efficacy of hawks and owls from their perches high atop the crowns of trees to understand why the development of tall vertical structure results in the extirpation of prairie species. There are more trees than ever closing off the sky, threatening to fundamentally alter the ecology, composition, and aesthetics of our prairies.

Historical records from the mid-late 1800’s in Nebraska’s Lower Platte River Valley (to the east of our Platte River Prairies) suggest trees occurred as widely scattered individuals and small clusters; a far cry from the ubiquitous shelterbelts and heavily wooded groves that cloak what almost certainly was formerly prairie. Trees and the changes they have already wrought and continue to promise are why most of our field season at the Platte River Prairies has played out to the whine of chainsaws.

The small row of trees on the horizon may seem insignificant, but the removal of those trees would visually reconnect three chunks of prairie; potentially having pronounced effects on grassland bird nesting occurrences and brood rearing success. Photo by Eric Chien.
The small row of trees on the horizon may seem insignificant, but the removal of those trees would visually reconnect three chunks of prairie; potentially having pronounced effects on grassland bird nesting occurrences and brood rearing success. Photo by Eric Chien.

 

I am haunted by trees. Back on June 8th, Katherine and I picked up chainsaws and walked into a grove of cottonwoods along a creek bottom. On September 23rd, another 10ft tall Siberian elm twirled to the ground. In between, we spent hundreds of more hours felling, bucking, and stacking trees. Always to the backdrop of more deep green tree lines on the near horizon; a reminder of how far trees have come, and how far prairie stewards have to go.

Katharine Hogan (Hubbard Fellow) wields a chainsaw
Katharine Hogan (Hubbard Fellow), technician Calla Olson, and I spent several days extracting a row of large twisting mulberry trees from between two stretches of fence. Photo by Eric Chien
Looking down the fence line of this tree removal project illustrates the process. Sawyers fell, limb, and buck trees, while a tractor follows behind and piles material into burn piles within the interior of the prairie. Photo by Eric Chien
Looking down the fence line of this tree removal project illustrates the process. Sawyers fell, limb, and buck trees, while a tractor follows behind and piles material into burn piles within the interior of the prairie. Photo by Eric Chien
The most time intensive portion of tree removal, and thus limiting factor, is the organization and removal of downed tree material. Left on the ground, mature trees rarely burn up well in prescribed fires, and the skeletons impede maneuvering within the area during future management actions. Photo by Eric Chien
The most time intensive portion of tree removal, and thus limiting factor, is the organization and removal of downed tree material. Left on the ground, mature trees rarely burn up well in prescribed fires, and the skeletons impede maneuvering within the area during future management actions. Photo by Eric Chien

Despite the specter of an advancing forest, I love tree cutting. I like to think of tree control on the prairie as the big game hunting version of plant management. Removing mature trees demands thorough planning, and constant attention to one’s surroundings.  To date, I am not aware of an incidence of death by reed canary grass. Put that focus factor together with the fact that there are few prairie management activities with as immediately noticeable impact as the removal of dramatic woody encroachment, and it is a task ready made for those of us brain dead from spraying, and still cultivating patience for observing the effects of our work. Walking through a completed tree removal, or thinning, noting the full sunlight, and the unrestrained wind, gives me the same feeling as looking at a maturing prairie restoration. I think in many ways it is an equally profound change in the land; a taking back of the sky, and a return of a prairie.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Zen of the Prairie

This post is written by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Katharine hails from Vermont, but came to us with broad experience from across much of the country and a strong interest in restoration ecology.  As you can tell from her writing, she is bright and introspective, and a keen observer of the natural world. 

During the hottest part of the summer, I found myself drawn outside late one night by an almost strobe-like flashing outside. Upon walking out onto the lawn, I saw two massive storm systems, one to the west and one in the north. Both were lit up with the almost constant flare of purplish lightning from within and around the heavy clouds. There was no thunder to be heard at that point, and the night was still; even uncannily quiet considering the diversity of life surrounding me in the prairies and river bottoms. The only readily apparent signs of animal life were fireflies dancing by the hundreds over the lawn and in the prairies across the road.

As I sat on the grass watching the lightning and the fireflies and enjoying the comparative drop in temperature, I looked up and realized I wasn’t as alone as I had assumed. On top of a nearby telephone pole sat a great horned owl, silhouetted dramatically by the lightning. We both stayed in our respective positions for some minutes, me watching the storms and the owl presumably watching the world of small rodents and prey that lay entirely beyond my perception. It sat perfectly still, until it almost lazily spread its wings and dived across the road into the vegetation. I found myself wondering if this predator had similar awareness of the storm as I did, and if it did, did it care in the least? Did the storm impact its life and hunting habits in any way, or did it take it all in stride (or wingbeat) as business as usual?

Upon reflection, I think that, in the long run, it sometimes doesn’t matter what storm is about to hit. The larger than life scheme continues on, and is affected less than we might initially think by those disturbances that throw off our normal, comfortable rhythms. Prairies embody this resilience in perhaps more ways than the ecosystems in which I’m used to spending time. In forested Vermont, land becomes more valuable as wildlife habitat as disturbances wane and the trees mature over decades. The Pacific northwest temperate rainforests progress similarly across an even longer time frame. The balance of the deserts in which I’ve spent the most time are even more fragile. Once burned or pushed out by invasive vegetation, native plant communities are hard pressed to recolonize, especially with the increasingly drier climate trends in those regions.

Prairies, however, march to an entirely different drummer (the drumming of prairie chicken wings, maybe?). They thrive on complex patterns of multiple types of disturbance. Grazed short? Not a problem, those species will redistribute their energy pathways and wait for the opportune time to regrow. Burned to the ground? Different species will return for the first time in a few growing seasons with renewed vigor. The annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) on the Platte River Prairies hasn’t gotten this far by maintaining stability; H. annuus and a myriad of other annual “weeds” come and go as the opportunities of the moment so allow them. Even the severe drought of 2012 didn’t hold the prairie community back significantly; plant populations suffered losses for a time before building up their numbers again.

Prairie plants emerging from the ground following a prescribed fire. The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.
Resilient prairie plants emerging from the ground following a prescribed fire. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

I have a tendency to overanalyze and get caught up worrying about potential outcomes at the expense of the moment’s opportunities. Like other aspects of my life, this is a work in progress. That hot summer night, from the thought processes inspired by watching the nonchalance of that great horned owl in the face of the massive power and potential destruction of the storm, I realized that the prairie has some valuable life lesson to offer in those regards. It’s okay to experience setbacks, even ones that at the time seem overwhelming. The time for recovery and much of our growth is after those stormy times that can knock down everything beneath them, and not so much in the presence of stability. It’s okay to feel like you just watched all your efforts go up in flames; those efforts have roots underground that will survive and come back when times change. It’s okay when it feels like the world is not giving you much to go on, rain will return and there will be newer, more lush growth than before.

This is what the prairies say to me when I find myself getting caught up with questions from the past and the unknown outcomes of the future. May the unhurried resilience of the prairies help us to sit back, relax a little and enjoy the present for everything that it has to offer. After all, this is the only place we can ultimately ever truly be, and the only time in which we grow.

Thanks for reading! I will leave you all with a sketch I adapted from one of the remarkable photographs of Michael Forsberg, from his book On Ancient Wings (page 104).

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Cranes over the Platte River – adapted from a photo by Michael Forsberg.  (That strange “S” in the sky is from the impression of the manufacturer’s watermark on the paper, in case anyone was wondering why I decided to invent a new type of cloud.)

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Community-Based Stewardship and Long-Term Management

This post is by Eric Chien, one of our 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows.  Eric hails from Minnesota, with an undergraduate education from Bowdoin College in Maine.  He has a strong background in prairie management, and hopefully a bright future in that field as well. 

The most compelling experience of the North American Prairie Conference was on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon on a winding path through the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands. While I was beaded with sweat from just walking in the Eastern Tallgrass humidity, I saw three people, laden down with seed bags, hand harvesting seed and ripping problem plants from the ground. Jeff Walk, Illinois TNC Science Director and our guide for the walk assured us that these volunteers were not planted. Furthermore, he noted that this was a fairly regular sight at Nachusa.

Three people. Tuesday morning. Maybe I come from a different community context, but for me, seeing three, independently working, non-professional, unpaid, human beings engaged in land management is akin to seeing a prairie chicken drum on a buffalo’s back under a wildfire sunset. Okay, maybe not quite that, but my point is that intensive, regular community engagement and participation in land management is a rare phenomenon. It was a sight that made me wonder how we plan to achieve our restoration goals for individual sites beyond the immediate future. My predecessor, Evan Barrientos, had begun the work of pulling on this loose thread, and I encourage you to read his post on volunteer stewardship if you have not, but I think it begs further unpacking.

These volunteers helped plant prairies and wetlands on our Platte River Prairies.  It can be more difficult to recruit long-term volunteers to help manage restored (and other) sites.
These volunteers helped plant prairies and wetlands on our Platte River Prairies. It can be more difficult to recruit long-term volunteers to help manage restored (and other) sites.

It is a great feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie knowing that it was once cropland. It is a crushing feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie overrun and choked by invasive plants. And it is unfortunately not an uncommon feeling to have both experiences on the same prairie, just a couple years apart. Many prairie restoration sites have found out what happens when management capacity does not match the scope of their restorations: a seemingly endless game of catch-up with invasive plants ever threatening to swallow a new prairie. Addressing the pitfalls of that disjunct approach was one of the Grassland Restoration Network’s primary prescriptions for restoration success (here is the link to that report). However, I want to think beyond even the 5-15 year timeline to the idea of management in perpetuity. In the reality of a fragmented landscape, it appears likely that even the best restorations (well planned and executed) will require regular management for those lands to continue to achieve our respective management goals for them.

It leads us to important questions: As the acreage of restored prairie grows, have we invested in the organizational groundwork to ensure the continuity of our achievements? Is there a need for innovation in stewardship structures as we seek to move to an increased scale of work? Or should we aim to increase funding for professional management staff augmented with whatever traditional volunteer programs that we have?

Invasive species control is a critically important part of land management, both on restored and remnant sites.
Invasive species control is a critically important part of land management, both on restored and remnant sites.

As someone who is seeking a professional stewardship career, more money aimed at increasing the capacity of professional resource management sounds awesome. As someone who has seen the scope of need for stewardship, I have a hard time envisioning that approach rising to the challenge on its own. So then the big question- what does effective community-based stewardship look like?

I think it sort of looks like Nachusa Grasslands. In a talk at the conference, Bill Kleiman, the Nachusa Grasslands land manager, said, “we don’t just produce grasses, flowers, and wildlife, we also produce people.” I don’t know if steward production is part of their long-term management plan, but they seem to approach it with an intentionality that suggests it is. From the little glimpse I saw of it, Nachusa Grasslands has produced a stewardship structure that draws heavily on a capacity that is less tied to The Nature Conservancy, and more attached to the place. The stewards there love the land they work on. That trait gives it a unique resiliency. Organizations come and go over the short and long-term. If we want the successes we have in places to be maintained then we need to make sure we are building stewardship structures that have some independence from the organizations that own the land on which they work. Private lands conservation has focused on empowering non-professionals by necessity. Yet, I think if we take stock of our public and NGO-owned stewardship needs, there is a similar necessity for involving community stewards in a significant way looming on the horizon. I think for many of us it is already here.

 

 

 

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Welcome to the Fourth Class of Hubbard Fellows!

Many of you have followed this blog enough to be familiar with our Hubbard Fellowship program and the experiences they’ve had with us during the last several years.  In June, our fourth pair of Fellows, Katharine and Eric, joined us here in Nebraska and have been quickly and enthusiastically learning about prairies and conservation.  Both of them have written a brief introduction of themselves, and you’ll hear much more from them over the next 11 months.

Katharine Hogan and Eric Chien are the 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.
Katharine Hogan and Eric Chien are the 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.

From Katharine:

Greetings! I’m Katharine Hogan, and I am very excited to join The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska for the 2016-2017 Claire M. Hubbard Conservation Fellowship. I’m coming to this opportunity as a northeasterner who developed her love of nature while growing up in the mountains of Vermont. My summers and free time were spent horseback riding in the woods, swimming, gardening, forming what was then an unconscious but deep attachment to the natural world, and building the foundations for my future professional passions.

I am part of the fourth generation of my family to choose conservation as a profession. Whether this is generational conditioning or some genetic preference not yet understood, I’ll probably never know. What I do know is that I’ve always gravitated towards any science that required spending long hours outdoors studying nature directly. I remember as a teen deciding in part to pursue environmental science over other science fields due to a fear that they might require spending too much time indoors! This isn’t necessarily a fair summary of those fields, but ultimately I completed a B.S. and in 2014 an M.S. in Environmental Science from Taylor University in northeastern Indiana.

As a lifelong northeasterner relocating to a strikingly different ecosystem and culture, my interest in exploring more of the country post-college was piqued, leading me after graduate school to work first performing native plant restoration at North Cascades National Park in Washington state. Here, I learned firsthand how the world of conservation and land management far eclipsed what I could have possibly grasped in school, fell completely in love with the unforgiving wilderness, and essentially felt like I’d stumbled upon an entirely different world than I expected. However, it still provided everything I had been looking for in my hopes of developing a career in which I could do work that was both needed by the world and fulfilling for me to complete.

The lessons learned in Washington and at subsequent opportunities in vegetation monitoring in Nevada, New Mexico, and Idaho created individual and collective experiences I couldn’t have dreamt of if I had chosen any other profession. I’ve been lucky enough to have learned and seen more of this beautiful country than I would have thought possible even three years ago. But here is where we come to the beauty of this Fellowship! Even having learned so much about different ecosystems and aspects of conservation, here in Nebraska there will be countless other opportunities to expand my knowledge of and appreciation for nature, all while contributing to the conservation of the beautifully intricate prairies on the Platte River and across the state. There will be new challenges around every corner, I’m sure, and I can’t wait to take them on, and see what I can contribute and accomplish by the end of the year. I have a feeling it will fly by and leave me looking for more at the end of it, so I suppose I’d better get busy! Thank you all for reading!

Among many other things, Eric and Katharine have been helping to collect data as part of a process to evaluate our land management. Here they are collecting data on vegetation structure at the Niobara Valley Preserve.
Among many other things, Eric and Katharine have been helping to collect data as part of a process to evaluate our land management. Here they are collecting data on vegetation structure at the Niobara Valley Preserve.

From Eric:

It is great to finally have arrived at the Platte River Prairies. I can still distinctly remember leaning over my chainsaw last December, the snow and cold driving though my face shield, wondering how I was going to find work that kept me on the prairie. The evening I pulled in earlier this June to begin a year as a Hubbard Fellow, a warm Great Plains wind swirled the grasses, cattle stood staring at the fence line, the bobolinks and bobwhite whistled away. With a change from the cold unknown to warm, welcoming opportunity, you can rightly imagine I am happy to be here.

I am from Minnesota; subjectively, but to my mind irrefutably, God’s country. I have basked in the state’s diverse, and rich natural heritage my entire life, living and recreating in and around our iconic waters and forests. It has only been relatively recently that I was enlightened to the wonder of the prairie. After returning home from Maine where I received my undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College, I worked for the Conservation Corps of Minnesota. Over the last couple years I have been blessed to work in some incredible restored and remnant prairies in Western parts of the state. (If you haven’t, check out Chris’s blog post from the Grassland Restoration Network last year at the Bluestem preserve in Hawlsey, MN to get a taste of the region and the work being done there.) As a result of weeks of work in the grass, long days spent cutting back woody plants and trees, wrestling with invasive grassland plants, and harvesting prairie plant seed, I am now a prairie person.  I can’t say exactly what it was or is that ties me to prairies, and the components of that interest seem to be changing day by day, but it’s there.

With my interest in prairies firing on all cylinders, I eagerly look forward to this upcoming year in Nebraska with the Nature Conservancy. I anticipate and aim to make it an opportunity that can help me translate my interests in grassland restoration and management into a portfolio of skills and knowledge that can be applied pragmatically and effectively for prairie conservation. With several weeks under my belt, I can already report that I have learned a great deal both about prairie ecology, and how we, as prairie scientists and enthusiasts, can begin to tackle the complex, and entangled issues that threaten the species, places, and livelihoods we care about.

Whether it is at volunteer events, conferences, or a chance encounter somewhere between some bluestem, I look forward to meeting many of you over the course of the next year. One of the things that has struck me most over the last couple years is the uniquely intense passion that people who work and/or have an interest in prairies possess. It has and continues to inspire me. So even if we never meet, I hope we can find ways to connect, and continue to find ways to learn about and work for prairies.

Finally, I just want everyone to know how welcoming the neighbors have been. On the first morning of being at the Platter River Prairies I opened my front door, and standing at the base of the steps was a hen turkey. That bird stared me right in the eye and clucked a couple notes before strutting off down the driveway- a great Platte River Prairie welcome.

 

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!