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.

Sky

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 – 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.