Stories in Oklahoma

Meet George and John!

Fifteen years of friendship and volunteering for conservation.

By Larissa Balzer

George Pierson and John Fisher volunteering for TNC.
John Fisher (left) and George Pierson (right) volunteering at TNC butterfly surveys. © TNC

“Oh, look! Come over here!” says, John. It’s 10:30 in the evening. It’s still warm outside as it typically is in June, but a small breeze releases you from the overbearing humidity. I walk closer and look towards where John is pointing.

“What is it?” I asked.

Without missing a beat John says, “It’s an ‘itty-bitty’!”

John Fisher began volunteering with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) 21 years ago in 1997 as a Docent at the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. A few years later, he met George Pierson at the J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve during a trail guide training.

Fifteen years later, they continue to volunteer for TNC and have combined their efforts for annual moth and butterfly surveys. On this Friday evening in June, they’ve met up at Pontotoc Ridge Preserve to conduct a moth survey. To do so, they’ve hung up a blank, white sheet between two large trees. On either side of the sheet, a blacklight shines to attract moths and other ‘itty-bitty’ insects that come out at night. John is hoping to see moths not yet recorded in his collection. George is assisting by providing “moral support” and taking photographs.

George and John surveying moths
George and John surveying moths at Pontotoc Ridge Preserve. © Larissa Balzer/TNC

I’m surprised to learn there is an insect John or George can’t identify with both common and Latin names, but I come to understand over the course of the weekend that it isn’t about knowing everything, it’s about continuing to look. 

Tomorrow, they will help lead the annual North American Butterfly Association (NABA) butterfly count at Pontotoc. They will spend the day with volunteers walking through the preserve checking the blooming soapberry trees, milkweed, and coreopsis for butterflies then counting and identifying each one they see. John is familiar with the tedious process as he keeps the state and county records for all butterfly counts understanding the importance of monitoring trends overtime.


A butterfly photographed by George Pierson during a TNC butterfly survey. © George Pierson

John and George have done just about every volunteer job there is to do for TNC. From welcoming visitors and leading hikes and butterfly counts, to maintaining the program’s website and managing data records. They’ve generously given countless hours of their time.

Both John and George served as Docents at the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. John recalls meeting Bob Hamilton, Tallgrass Prairie Preserve Director, for the first time and learning about the conservation goals of the preserve. Bob had mentioned offhandedly that in 100 years the preserve would be doing well, but in 500 years it would transform into something truly special. That left an impression on John. He was struck with a sincere appreciation for setting goals that reached that scale and timeline.

“George and John’s enthusiasm for butterflies is infectious and is a tremendous asset in building support for conservation,” says Bob Hamilton. “Their enthusiasm for learning about these delicate creatures is a great example of how the more you invest yourself in learning about the prairie, the more you get out of it. They are true ambassadors of the Lepidopteran world!”

Their enthusiasm for learning about these delicate creatures is a great example of how the more you invest yourself in learning about the prairie, the more you get out of it.

Preserve Director

In case you were wondering, Lepidopteran [lep·i·dop·ter·an], is the scientific name for the order of insects inclusive of butterflies and moths. Now we can all impress our friends at dinner. Okay, back to John and George.

George has always been interested in the outdoors. As a kid he remembers poking around the woods in the Ozarks and turning over rocks to see what wiggles underneath them. George was searching for a nature-related activity and came across a listing for a trail guide at the J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve. He attended the training and started giving tours to preserve visitors.

Not only could George volunteer with his boots on the trail, but his skill set gained from his professional career in information technology helped behind the computer screens too. George updated and maintained the Oklahoma program’s website for several years and continues to maintain the Tallgrass Prairie Docent website today.

“George Pierson and John Fisher have always volunteered their time at the Nickel Preserve since its inception. Their willingness and support of our work is very much appreciated,” says Jeremy Tubbs, Preserve Director. “They volunteer their time and passion to our conservation efforts and ask for nothing in return for the selflessness. Their knowledge and expertise about butterflies and moths are very impressive and valuable to our efforts to identify new and rare species on our preserve sites.”  

When it comes to butterflies, George treasures two rare sightings: a Thicket Hairstreak at the Black Mesa Preserve and a Golden-banded Skipper at J.T. Nickel. John is still holding out to see a Harvester on a preserve – the only carnivorous butterfly in North America.

Conservation is a long-term exercise in belief and action. As staff, it’s our job at TNC to set and meet objectives. But for those objectives to last, it takes everyone, including volunteers. We are so grateful and fortunate that John and George love Oklahoma so much and believe in the conservation of these precious lands - even what they won’t see 500 years from now. John and George share a love of place. That’s what conservation is all about.

Get involved! Visit a preserve, attend a field trip or volunteer at an event. Not only will you be helping nature, but you just might meet a new lifetime friend.