How long have you been working to protect and reconstruct natural areas?
I got some experience in college through the Wildlife Club at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln—we actually put together our own program through which we tried to help landowners write management plans and manage their sites. It was ambitious but naïve. Just what you’d expect from college students …
Professionally speaking, I’ve been managing prairies for about 13 years, but I’ve been studying and working in prairies for almost two decades. My first real job out of graduate school was a land steward position with The Nature Conservancy, and I hit the ground running.
What was the catalyst that brought you to appreciate grasslands in the first place?
My college friend Steve Winter first introduced me to the idea that grasslands were kind of an underdog ecosystem, particularly in Nebraska where people tended to equate wildlife habitat and natural areas with trees. Steve pointed out that very few people knew much about prairies and even fewer were doing anything about their conservation. That got me interested, and it didn’t take much for me to be hooked once I started learning about them. I love to stand in a grassland where I can see from horizon to horizon without seeing a tree, and where I can feel like I’m completely enveloped by prairie. At the same time, I can also get tremendous satisfaction from being on my hands and knees in a tiny little prairie and exploring the complex worlds that exist down in the vegetation.
Hoary vetchling on a ridge top at Griffith Prairie in Nebraska. This is one of my favorite photos and also one of the simplest. It’s just a straight-on photograph of a flower, but the flower is perfect, the unopened buds are perfect, and the light was divine. This species grows in big sprawling masses of plants along the steep ridge tops of Griffith and other prairies on the edge between tallgrass and mixed-grass prairie in Nebraska.
Bison at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. Bison are both really easy and really difficult to photograph. Often, you can drive right up to the herd, but it’s still frustratingly hard to find them, get near them when the light is good, and have them arrange themselves into a pleasing composition for a photograph. On the other hand, just being in the middle of sandhills prairie with a herd of bison is a pretty neat thing, so it’s hard to complain.
Chris Helzer, author, The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States