Bison Great Plains book
A lone bison roams the prairie under a blue dome of sky in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. (Michael Forsberg) Michael Forsberg

Glancing at the images in "Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild" by Michael Forsberg produces "wow" moments.

Spend more time with the 260-page volume and it becomes clear "Great Plains" is more than just pretty pictures -- it's journalism.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you what to think," he says. "I'm going to share with you these pictures, these stories and these voices and help you make a decision."

Throughout his nearly two-decade career as a professional photographer, Forsberg has always wanted his images to do more than delight the eye and afford himself a livelihood. He has wanted them to engage, provoke and, ultimately, inspire others to learn more about the wildlife and landscapes he routinely sees in the course of his work.

In this respect, "Great Plains" represents his broadest, most ambitious and most complete achievement. And it marks the evolution of a one-time park ranger into a powerful voice for an underappreciated region.

The Lincoln photographer, well-known for his work on Sandhill cranes, spent three years gathering images and information for the book. He drove 100,000 miles up, down and across a region that covers 1 million square miles from southern Alberta to northern Mexico.

He spent nights in blinds, risked frostbite hiding along nearly frozen streams and set "camera traps" to gather the intimate and surprising photos of wildlife most will never see - including those who spend their entire lives in the heartland.

"I don't know anybody who has put that much time into a photo book on the Great Plains," says Joel Sartore, the National Geographic photographer from Lincoln who helped edit images for Forsberg's project. "I think it's kind of the gold standard of photo coverage of the Great Plains."

Forsberg has essentially documented the latest chapters in the natural history of what, for many in America, constitutes the fly-over region. His book is a status report, complete with details that can't be discerned at 30,000 feet.

"I just wanted to put a face to the wildlife and landscapes of the Great Plains," he says. "And show people what's still out there."

Just a few examples:

An almost ghost-like exposure of a grizzly bear, not in a mountain forest, but walking on a sliver of prairie and wetland habitat along Montana's Front Range. Long ago extirpated from the Great Plains, the bears have reclaimed just a little of their former grassland home.

And there are swift foxes, rarely seen by anyone but ranchers and biologists, blurring across a grassland in the Nebraska Panhandle.

In yet another image, a shoal of southern redbelly daces shimmer like a harvest sunset as they gather to feed in a shallow creek in the Kansas Flint Hills.

And for those who consider the Great Plains synonymous with "flat," he includes panoramas of Sioux County in Nebraska and Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota and the ethereal sandstone narrows in Lost Lingos Canyon, Texas.

Some of the photos represent one-of-a-kinds and the first-of-their-kinds. There's the threatened piping plover and her chick on a Platte River island, a flock of Mexican free-tailed bats in Oklahoma, a herd of migrating pronghorns in Montana and a bobcat staring at the camera as it crosses a fallen tree in a restored prairie southwest of Lincoln.

There are 180 images in all, a stunning document that demonstrates the diversity of Great Plains wilderness and wild mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and plants. Forsberg has taken masterpieces of nature and rendered them into art with his talent for composition, detail and light.

But if that had been the extent of his report, it wouldn't have been complete. The book also needed to show the post-settlement legacy on the Great Plains, marked by a manipulation of the region's vast natural resources in ways that have been unwise.

So Forsberg shows dusty corn spilling out of an elevator in Dodge County, a symbol of how the government's ethanol mandates helped drive up commodity prices, which in turn plowed under more grasslands and increased demand on water resources.

And he shows an endangered least tern chick struggling to survive after being flooded from its nest on the Missouri River, a flood engineered by humans so a single barge could deliver a load of livestock feed.

And he includes the sprawling neighborhoods of south Lincoln, turning what was once tallgrass prairie, then ag fields, into lawns and golf courses, both reliant on irrigation and chemicals to maintain their unnatural green.

Just the facts.

And the story they tell.

The Great Plains has been battered and bruised, even critically wounded over the past 160 years. Yet the land and wildlife endure, a testament to the strength and resiliency of nature.

"The system, in some places, is in great shape," he says. "In other places, it's a train wreck."

More than anything, Forsberg says, he hopes the book will make people ponder what happens next. Does the alteration and destruction of habitat continue unabated, or do more Great Plains residents embrace stewardship and seek ways to allow working lands and wildness to co-exist?

"If it opens the door to a conversation about the Great Plains, we've accomplished my goal."

* * *

Forsberg is a Lincoln native who earned a geography degree with an emphasis on environmental studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He developed an interest in photography while working for UNL's Outdoor Adventures.

After college, he worked briefly as a seasonal ranger at Yellowstone National Park.

Then in 1992 he landed a staff position with NEBRASKAland Magazine. His assignments ranged from the College World Series to pheasant hunting. But he soon distinguished himself with stories and photo essays on the state's natural history and most prominent wildlife.

He spent much of his free time freelancing for national publications such as Audubon, National Geographic and Natural History.

Then in 1998 he did something almost unheard of -- he resigned from NEBRASKAland, giving up a regular paycheck and state employee benefits. The magazine's staff turns over about as often as Halley's Comet orbits the sun, so some who knew Forsberg wondered what he was doing.

But he and his wife, Patty, knew what they were doing. For several years, they sold his prints from their home while Forsberg continued to freelance. In 2002, they opened a gallery in the Haymarket, which also does business on the Web.

Two years later, he and Patty self-published his first book. "On Ancient Wings," a 168-page coffeetable volume, features photos of all of the Sandhill crane subspecies in North America. The $45 book represented a significant financial risk that paid off - it's in its third printing.

Since then, he has released a collection of 41 images titled "The Nebraska Landscape." And he continues to freelance and contributes regularly to NEBRASKAland.

Along the way, his portfolio grew. It now encompasses more than 30,000 images, mostly of wildlife on the Great Plains.

* * *

Forsberg knew compiling photos to do justice to a million-square-mile region would take a lot of time and travel.

And a substantial budget.

So, following an approach he used on the crane book, he obtained a grant to help underwrite expenses. The Nature Conservancy provided essential funding to the project.

Forsberg wrote most of the words to his previous books, but he wanted more voices in "Great Plains."

"I don't feel I knew enough," he says.

Right away, he knew he wanted Dan O'Brien, an accomplished writer who has ranched cattle and bison in South Dakota going on four decades.

"Dan O'Brien is a guy I wouldn't have done this book without," Forsberg says. "He's loved and lost, succeeded and failed a number of times. He's a part of this land."

O'Brien wrote essays sprinkled throughout the book.

As publication approached, Forsberg felt the book needed another voice, someone to offer a geographical, cultural and historical overview of the Great Plains. He knew the perfect writer - David Wishart, professor of geography at UNL. Wishart was Forsberg's undergraduate adviser.

Wishart wrote the chapter introductions.

Forsberg sought a contribution from a final scribe, Ted Kooser of Garland, the 13th poet laureate of the United States. The two had collaborated on projects that blended the photographer's images with the poet's verse.

Kooser wrote the introduction.

Forsberg wrote the field notes.

And he convinced the University of Chicago Press to edit and publish the book.

It's a remarkable work that will endure, says Tyler Sutton, director of the Lincoln-based Grassland Foundation.

"These photographs will be studied 100 years from now," Sutton says. "Few people have had the opportunity to spend the amount of time he has to document the region so comprehensively."

Forsberg created the opportunity because he believes so fervently in the power of photos and words to inspire people to care.

He's 42 years old now, a father of two daughters. He doesn't want the wildlife and wilderness that has given his life purpose to exist only in photos when they are grown.

"What I do know is there are some really amazing landscapes that still have life in them," he says. "Are we going to get to the place where we're going to keep them going?"

Reach Joe Duggan at 473-7239 or



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