Mark Twain once said, “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.”
Michael Forsberg, a Lincoln, Nebraska native, knows the power and influence water can have on a community. He’s spent the past 13 years creating the Platte Basin Timelapse project, a massive historical record mapping the Platte River using 60 camera traps. Water is the world’s most precious resource; Forsberg’s project starts the conversation about how to make sure it’s accessible to future generations.
Since 2011, he’s been helping educate the next generation of conservation storytellers about how important it is to know where our water comes from.
“All of us that live and breathe on this planet need water. We all need the same thing. We all want the same thing. And we all have to take care of each other or make sure that we have it, and that kind of idea starts with story,” Forsberg said.
As a boy, Forsberg developed a strong connection to nature. His family took trips to the Oregon coast, Yellowstone and the Colorado mountains. But he never envisioned himself becoming a conservationist. After high school, he planned to study sports medicine or physical therapy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Then he took a geography course to fulfill a humanities requirement.
Geography Professor David Wishart taught Forsberg that geography is a perspective that connects to a myriad of social, environmental and economic issues. Forsberg changed his major to geography. Wishart was his advisor.
“He taught me that geography is not just places on a map. It’s a way that you look at things,” Forsberg said.
As a trip leader at UNL, Forsberg went on trips in Nebraska. He hiked the Sandhills and explored Indian Cave State Park and cross-country skied and visited the Platte River.
“I never really had an appreciation for where I was from in Nebraska until college,” Forsberg said.
In December 1989, Forsberg graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geography and an environmental-studies emphasis. He spent the next six months in Washington, D.C., for a geography internship with the national geographic society and then went to Minneapolis for graduate school. When he didn’t finish the program, he decided to be a ranger in the National Park Service.
Eventually, he was hired at Yellowstone as a park ranger. It was there he began to explore photography.
“I loved having a camera in my hand, and I loved being in the natural world,” he said. “And it was a way that I could really start to connect on an emotional level with places.”
Yellowstone was a seasonal job for Forsberg. Back in Nebraska and recently married, he applied for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, but they recommended him to Nebraskaland Magazine because he noted in his application how some of his Yellowstone photos had been published.
“I shouldn’t have gotten the job because I was probably the least qualified of all those that applied, but I got it, and it was a full-time job, and it was a job that would allow me to explore Nebraska with a camera in hand and a pen in my hand and so I said goodbye to the National Park Service,” Forsberg said.
Forsberg worked there for seven years until he started freelance work and eventually opened his own gallery in Lincoln’s Haymarket area, the Michael Forsberg Gallery. For 15 years, he and his wife, Patty, operated the gallery. He wrote two books, which became Nebraska Public Television documentaries.
He met his friend and co-founder of the Platte Basin Timelapse project, Michael Farrell, while working on the second documentary, “Great Plains, America’s Lingering Wild.”
The two brainstormed ways to incorporate the time-lapses they had used in the documentary to create a story that encapsulated how dynamic the Great Plains are.
The theme: water.
“Water is the thing that ties us all together. And it’s something that we all need,” Forsberg said.
Farrell and Forsberg pitched the idea of time-lapsing the Platte River to UNL, which agreed to fund the project. In exchange, the two agreed to teach and incorporate students into the project.
It’s the first project of its kind, generating a historical record, and visual data for research, in addition to teaching the next generation of conservation storytellers.
Mariah Lundgren of Omaha has worked with Forsberg at the Platte Basin Timelapse Project since graduating from UNL in 2014.
“It’s a really inspiring thing to look up to and to work with someone that cares so deeply about wildlife, wild spaces and especially the Great Plains,” Lundgren said.
Forsberg said he believes storytelling is inherently human but not easy.
“Sometimes these stories come to you, and sometimes you have to let them take you where they want you to go,” Forsberg said. “And that might be into some uncomfortable places.”
Forsberg hopes that the Platte Basin Timelapse project will continue to grow, even when he is no longer a part of it. He believes stories about relationships with the natural world are timeless and necessary.
His advice for anyone wanting to pursue a career in storytelling is to lean into what you’re passionate about and work hard.
“You have a voice, and your voice is very different than everybody else’s, and you matter, and what you have to say, what you have to offer the world is important,” he said.