22 January 2012

Chris Helzer is the Pairie Ecologist

Chris is an ecologist and program director for The Nature Conservancy.  He is responsible for the management and restoration of about 5,000 acres of Conservancy-owned land in central and eastern Nebraska.  He devotes time to developing, testing, and exporting techniques for prairie management and restoration.

Prairie Works Sustainable Landscaping and Ecological Restoration
His blog, The Prairie Ecologist, has almost 500 ecology interested followers. This week he wrote an impassioned piece about his love of the prairie and its inhabitants.

Here are a few excerpts -

Lately, I’ve been trying to figure out why I think prairie conservation is so important.

I can list off all kinds of logical and aesthetic reasons that prairies are important.  Prairies build soil, capture carbon, trap sediment, grow livestock, and support pollinators. 

Those are all very practical reasons to think prairies are important, but I don’t care deeply about prairies because they make soil and grow pretty flowers.

Which brings me to Dr. Seuss.

As I was mulling over why I cared so much about prairies, the story of “Horton Hears a Who” popped into my head.


Dr. Seuss’s intended moral to the story (repeated many times) is “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

I think the biggest thing that drives me to devote my career (and a fair amount of my free time) to prairie conservation is that I have developed a personal connection to the species that live in grasslands. Not only do I know those species exist, I can also identify with them and what they’re doing to survive. By becoming familiar with them, I became fond of them.


When I was in graduate school, I studied grassland nesting birds.  I got to know those bird species well, including where they lived, how they survived there, and what motivated and threatened them.  I saw prairies through their eyes, and that made me want to help make those prairies as hospitable to birds as I could.  Eventually, I began learning about prairie plants and insects as well.  I was fascinated to find that their stories were equally or more interesting than those of birds.  Each species had their own unique set of life strategies that allowed them to survive and interact with the world around them.

As the number of species I’ve gotten to know has increased, so has my commitment to prairie conservation. Maintaining the resilience and vigor of prairie communities has grown from something that seemed like a good idea into a personal mission. Now I’m working to protect things I love, not just species I’d read about or knew about only in the abstract.


Why does all this matter? It matters because we need to recruit as many people to the cause of prairie conservation as we can. Excluding a tiny minority of prairie enthusiasts, when the general public thinks about nature and conservation they look right past prairies to the mountains, lakes, and forests beyond – even when prairies are in their own backyard. After all, what’s to care about in prairies? It’s just grass.


If we’re going to fix that, we’ll need to do more than describe how prairies can help sequester carbon, filter water run-off, or support pollinator populations. We’ll need to introduce people to the camouflaged looper inchworm that disguises itself with pieces of the flowers it eats – and to the regal fritillary caterpillar which, after hatching from its egg in the fall, sets out on a hike that will end by either finding a violet to feed on or starving to death. They’ll need to become acquainted with sensitive briar, the sprawling thorny plant with pink koosh ball flowers whose leaves fold up when you touch them. And who wouldn’t love to meet the bobolink – a little bird that looks like a blackbird after a lobotomy and flies in circles sounding like R2D2 from Star Wars?

Still reading? Click over and read the rest. It is a privilege to read writings that come from the heart.
What's your passion?

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