Prairie grasslands are considered North America’s most endangered ecosystem. Chris Helzer, The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Nebraska director of science, says they suffer from an image problem. And he’s out to fix that with, well, images.
“What most people see is just a bunch of boring grass,” Helzer says. This viewpoint breeds disinterest and hinders those who are working to preserve prairie, he says.
According to Helzer, that “boring grass” offers plenty of benefits to people, such as clean water. Prairies also provide habitat to a number of species, including many pollinators. And they can store carbon in more long-term ways than forests, thereby helping to mitigate climate change.
Helzer embarked on his year-long Square Meter Photography Project in 2018 to highlight the beauty of prairies, from the aesthetic power of a huge landscape to their small-scale complexity. The project, which aims to draw awareness and appreciation to this ecosystem, is set within a single square meter of Lincoln Creek Prairie in Aurora, Nebraska.
Over the course of a year, Helzer snapped hundreds of photos, capturing 113 species including 15 plants, 22 flies, 18 beetles, 14 bees and one vertebrate (a frog).
“It’s never the same prairie twice,” Helzer says of the project. “It’s like checking your favorite TV show.” He notes that he was surprised by the level of emotion and inspiration he felt during his endeavor. “I didn’t expect to be as blown away as I was.”
Prairie ecosystems historically covered 170 million acres (70 million hectares) of North America; today, native prairies are in danger of disappearing altogether. According to a 2018 U.S. Geological Survey report, 95% of historic acreage of tallgrass prairie has been destroyed or altered by humans, while 70% to 90% of mixed-grass prairie has vanished.
Their biggest threat? Residential, commercial and agricultural development, Helzer says. When large, expansive prairie landscapes are split into tiny parcels to accommodate development, it divides and isolates animal and plant populations, making them more susceptible to threats such as disease. According to Helzer, fragmented prairie is also more vulnerable to invasion by trees and woody landscapes.
One prairie conservation tactic used by organizations like TNC is buying existing prairie and converting it into nature preserves. Another method is funding conservation easements, which encourage landowners to manage tracts of prairie privately.
However, both approaches are expensive and limited in scope, Helzer says. Additionally, he adds, the sole existence of a conservation easement does not ensure its proper management into the future. Long-term conservation requires working with landowners to help them find ways to make money off of their prairie habitats while at the same time encouraging them to share knowledge with future generations, he says.
Although the photo project can’t do the conservation work itself, Helzer hopes his snapshots will inspire appreciation and concern for this endangered ecosystem. Even if people don’t visit, he says, “If they feel like they got to know something, they may care.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Chris Helzer is the Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and share those lessons with other land managers. He also works to raise awareness about the value of prairies and prairie conservation through my photography, writing, and presentations.
Tina Deines is an Albuquerque-based writer specializing in nature, the environment, wildlife and conservation. Her work has been featured in a variety of publications including National Geographic News, Mongabay, The Guardian, Sierra, and Backpacker.