Wednesday, April 14, 2010

An Interview with Chris Helzer: Part 2

What species of plants or animals are you especially interested in?
That depends on when you ask me.  Right now I’m trying to learn all I can about spiders.  But I’ve been learning a lot about pollinators in the last couple of years, and I still feel like I have plenty of room for more information on that group of critters too.  I studied grassland birds in graduate school and still keep up with much of the research related to them, but most of my time now is spent thinking about and working with plants and insects—which makes sense since they make up the vast majority of grassland species. 

How does photography change the way you experience prairies?
Photography is my vehicle for discovery in prairies. When I’m walking around prairies at work or even on my own, I notice things and try to pay attention to what I’m seeing as best I can. But I’m evaluating—trying to figure out what’s happening as a result of the management or restoration strategies we’re employing. In contrast, being behind a camera in a prairie is what I imagine it must be like to be inside a submersible in the ocean. With a camera, I feel more like an explorer than just a passer-by or a scientist, and I look at things much differently. 

My favorite photographic subjects are small, and I choose subjects by the way they interact with light rather than walking around looking for something specific to photograph. Because of that, I come home with lots of photos of small creatures I’ve never seen before and then have to spend time figuring out what they are and what they do. When I figure them out, I write about them so I can use the photos and stories to share what I’ve learned with others.

What has changed in the outdoor world  since your first days of trying to protect it? What's better, what's worse?
I think more people are aware of prairies now than they used to be. I’m very excited about the number of prairie enthusiast groups that have popped up in the last couple of decades. Their energy has begun to help dispel the idea that prairies are just the boring flat places you have to travel through to get to forests, mountains, or lakes. 

In a somewhat related phenomenon, more people are also trying to move out into open areas to escape from town and own their own piece of wildness. Some of that is due to an increased interest in nature, but I think it’s also related to an increased number of people who can afford to buy land. I don’t think the changing landowner demography is necessarily good or bad, but it is definitely changing the way conservationists have to think. When we were dealing primarily with agricultural landowners, we were talking to people who knew about land management and trying to help them find ways to make a living while still providing habitat for wildlife and biological diversity. The new “recreational” landowners are more willing and/or able to put a little more priority on wildlife habitat, but they generally have much less experience with land management tools and techniques. And because most landscapes still have a mixture of both types of landowners, we also have to help work through the tensions as the two groups interact with each other as neighbors.

Caterpillar at Griffith Prairie. After a long day of painting my house one summer, I drove north out of town with my friend Gerry to take advantage of the evening light at Griffith Prairie. It was a beautiful night and we both wandered around happily with our cameras until the sun went down. On this particular night, the afterglow in the sky after sunset was so bright that when I found this little caterpillar the reflected light from the sunset was enough to make a great photograph. I love getting face to face with insects like this to show people a different perspective on what would otherwise be just another fuzzy caterpillar.

Cattle grazing in prairie. While it can be hard to watch if you’re not used to it, cattle grazing in prairies can be an important part of a management regime that favors wildlife habitat and overall biological diversity. Defoliating dominant grasses forces them to abandon much of their root mass, opening up space for other plants to move in on their territories, and prevents the grasses from becoming a monoculture. During the rest period after a grazing bout, the grasses recover their vigor, but not before newly established plants gain a foothold in the neighborhood too. Grazing can also provide for heterogeneous vegetation structure for wildlife that is difficult to achieve with homogeneous management treatments like fire and haying.

Chris Helzer, author, The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States

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