Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Stewardship Positivity

The following post was written by Evan Barrientos, of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer, and while you’ll get the chance to see some of his work here during the next year, I also encourage you to check out his personal blog.

Although I’ve been participating in land management since high school, I still find myself learning so much from it, although perhaps not in the way you’d expect. Yes, I’ve learned several management techniques and strategies since starting the fellowship, but the lessons I consider most valuable are the ones that teach me how to think about land stewardship. Let me explain.

If you were a Hubbard Fellow during the second week of June, you would probably find yourself riding an ATV back and forward across one of our restored prairies, searching for the fluffy purple flowers of Musk Thistle. Upon spotting a thistle, you would pluck off all the flowers, thrust your spade through the base of the thistle with a satisfying crunch, pull out the plant, and then knock the dirt off of any uprooted roots. Over the next three weeks you would repeat this process thousands of times until you had covered every inch of all 14 of our Platte River properties and their 4,000+ acres. Then you would check them all again.

We celebrated the end of thistle season by burning the flowerheads in a bonfire.

When we finally finished musk thistles we celebrated by burning the seed heads that we had collected in a bonfire.

This may sound like exhausting and repetitive work, and it can be, but that wasn’t the hard part for me. The hard part was staying positive when it felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I felt this way when I returned to a prairie for its second thistle check and found piles of thistle seed below “zombie thistles” (thistles that flowered and produced seed after I chopped them because I left too much dirt on the roots). Or when I walked through a prairie that I had already checked twice and still found thistle stalks that had already released their seed to the prairie. Most of all, deciding to spend July 2nd chopping thistles before they released more seed instead of spending time with my family forced me to think hard about my role as a land steward.

As a land steward you develop a strong connection to the land you are working on. Seeing a healthy community of native species flourish on your property is extremely gratifying, but it also pains you to see invasive species spreading. Land stewards almost always have more tasks than they can complete and it’s very easy to let this make them feel overwhelmed and stressed, but it doesn’t have to be this way. After reflecting upon the first month of my fellowship, here are three lessons I’ve learned so far about being a happy steward:

  1. I cannot control nature. I am a steward, not a god. Expecting myself to control exactly which species grow on a property will only bring me frustration. The role of a land steward is not to dominate the forces of nature, but to regulate its extremes. Translation: my job isn’t to exterminate musk thistles, but to prevent them from outcompeting other species and lowering overall biodiversity.

A Regal Fritilary (Speyeria idalia) on Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans). Like it or not, Musk Thistles have become part of the local ecosystem. Being a steward doesn’t mean exterminating thistles, but keeping them under control.

  1. There is no endpoint. A land steward’s work is never “done.” My job isn’t to “fix” a property; it’s to guide the property toward a range of conditions that meet our management goals. Removing thistles from the same property year after year does not mean that we are failing at our job of “restoring” the prairie. On the contrary, it means we are doing our job of actively fostering biodiversity.

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is non-native, but also non-invasive. We don’t remove it because it doesn’t lower plant diversity.

  1. Stewardship should be viewed as a positive action, not negative. There are two very different ways to look at land management. From one angle, a day spent chopping thistles could be considered a violent battle against an evil enemy; a task to evict an unworthy invader. From another angle, it could be considered a process of creating beautiful and biodiverse prairies. In my experience, viewing invasives as enemies just leads to exhaustion and bitterness. Only by viewing stewardship as a process of care and creation, in my opinion, can one generate the tremendous amount of energy needed to take on its many tasks.

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Land stewardship is an essential component of conservation and it’s imperative that we do it well. Unfortunately, it also is a very demanding job that can burn you out if you’re not careful. I’m happy to say that the first month of this fellowship taught me some very important lessons about setting realistic expectations and viewing my work as a positive contribution to prairie biodiversity. It’s important to be a happy steward!

17 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Stewardship Positivity

  1. The director of the nature reserve where I work is fond of reminding our donors and institutional superiors that “Ecological restoration has a beginning, but no end!” Your essay is a much lovelier way of saying it, Evan.

  2. I think controlling invasive species is fun. I wish I had more time to dedicate to it. Controlling invasives gives me an excuse to get outside, enjoy a natural area, and improve my botany skills.

    I do think many invasive species can be locally extirpated through control. Once an area has remained cleared for a few years it is simply matter of walking the site and making sure nothing has been brought back into the area. It is more like a hike than work.

    Do not despair about locations where you find invasives that have already dropped their seed. Just mark the place so it can be targeted for control in subsequent years. It is harder to find those single individuals in 1000’s of acres than it is to pull up the small populations that are known.

  3. I like your wisdom – removing invasive plants is a process of creation not extermination. And I like your commitment to happy stewardship :-). Thanks for working to create beautiful spaces. A lot of plants and creatures (including humans) enjoy them.

    • Removing invasive plants as a process of creation can be taken a step further by saving seed and spreading it where an invasive species have been removed. In my yard and garden I have not been able to reduce the amount of field thistle through spot spraying or uprooting. However, I’ve noticed that in locations where purple coneflower has been planted the field thistle is no longer growing.

      • Now that is neat. Was it just coincidence that the cone flowers were planted where the thistle grew, or did you have a hypothesis that they would help? I wonder if the cone flowers are supplying the same nutrients that the thistles did, or whether they have some element that is allelopathic to the thistle?

        • It was just coincidence. The thistles had been a problem in a garden of Hemerocallis. I had sprayed the thistles and pulled them for years. I planted an extra division of Echinacea purpurea in the Hemerocallis patch. In the area around the Echinacea the thistles are no longer growing. This observation should not be too much of a surprise since others have seen Cirsium arvense decline over time in diverse prairie restorations. It is probably the same mechanism at work in both cases.

  4. As we have discussed in an earlier blog post, part of the value one derives from restoration work is seeing the changes over time. I hope you are able to work on areas that demand a lot of attention and have the opportunity to come back in years to come to view the sites you worked on. For me, that is when I see and feel my connectivity to the landscape most strongly.

  5. Excellent wisdom and sage advice here. Well and truly said. Thank you for this post. I’m printing it and putting it in my prairie restoration journal :o)

  6. Evan, philosophical insights like yours are always the best to me.
    I am wondering if treating with compost teas to shift to a higher fungal to bacterial ratio has any use in controlling invasives?

    As Seth Godin put it recently, don’t ask what your “calling” is in life, ask what is your “caring”!
    We need to care – have faith, hope and love.

  8. As a wildlife biologist of 40 years and now a now caretaker of a small eco center of 385 acres. I find the restoration and management to be good for my spirit. I fight the plants and as you say it gets tiring but I do see progress. I like how you say it. May the Lord bless you as you seek work over your career and my you enjoy nature along the way as you take care of our resources.

    God Speed


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