From Plant ID to Small Engine Repair – The Complex Life of a Land Steward

It’s been almost 19 years since I started my career with The Nature Conservancy as a land steward.  My job was simple: restore and manage several thousand acres of prairie, wetland, and woodland habitat.  When I started, I felt like I was the luckiest guy on earth.  I was also scared to death.  What if I messed up?  These were extraordinarily complex ecological sites and I was a 25-year old kid with only a college education and a sliver of real world experience.  I had lots of ideas but it was daunting to think about trying those ideas out without knowing they’d work.  Fortunately, Al Steuter, the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska gave me some advice that helped me tremendously.  In essence, he told me to remember that prairies were incredibly resilient, and that nothing I did in one year (aside from tillage or broadcast herbicides) could ruin them.  That advice was incredibly liberating, and allowed me to start enjoying my work.

I was a very young-looking 25-year-old when I started as a TNC land steward. They weren't sure I should have an actual ATV...

I was a very young-looking 25-year-old when I started as a TNC land steward. They weren’t sure I should have an actual ATV…

Over time, my responsibilities have changed and now, among other things, I serve as advisor to our statewide land management team.  I really like what I do, but land steward was my dream job and I can’t imagine I’ll ever find a better one.  However, as I think about the stewards I know and work with, I’m pretty sure I don’t measure up to today’s standards.

The job description for most land stewards in The Nature Conservancy – at least in the Great Plains – has expanded to the point of almost unattainable proportions.  As a result, it is no exaggeration to say that I am no longer qualified to be a land steward for this organization.  Most land stewards I know work by themselves or with a very small team – often consisting mostly of seasonal employees – and manage thousands of acres of land for biological diversity and wildlife habitat.  As a result, they have to be able to handle whatever challenge presents itself, from plant identification to small engine repair, and everything in between.  To give you an idea of the scope of that work, here is a partial list of what we expect of Nelson Winkel and Evan Suhr, land stewards who work for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.

Evan Suhr, Bison roundup at TNC Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

Evan Suhr during this fall’s bison roundup at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve. Nebraska.

Ecologist/Natural History Biologist

Evan and Nelson are expected to be able to identify most of the plant and animal species living in the prairies they manage and understand how they interact.  They also have to understand how all those species and interactions respond to various combinations of weather patterns and management treatments.  Obtaining just those skills could easily consume a career.

Research Scientist

Good land stewards always look for ways to test the effectiveness of management strategies so they can keep improving their work – and provide guidance to neighbors and partners facing the same challenges.  Sometimes, that means collaborating with academic scientists on research projects.  More often, it just means setting up an invasive species control or grazing treatment in a way that provides a fair and impartial test of two or more methods.  The results of those tests don’t usually get published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, but in order for the results to be trusted, the tests have to be set up in a scientifically-rigorous way.

Nelson Winkel works to identify a bee during a pollinator workshop with Mike Arduser at TNC's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Nelson Winkel works to identify a bee during a pollinator workshop.  It’s important to understand the biology and ecology of the natural systems you manage.

Ranch Hand

Building and fixing fences, and repairing windmills and solar-powered pumps are frequent tasks for Evan and Nelson.  Even more frequent tasks include manual labor associated with invasive plants – chopping thistles, cutting trees, etc.  Some of those tasks require mainly hard work, but others require specialized knowledge (how to take apart, clean, and reassemble a pump, for example).  In addition, stewards have to stay current on agricultural topics from grazing lease rates to animal husbandry techniques so they can work effectively with Conservancy bison herds or the cattle (and their owners) grazing Conservancy land.

Mechanic

The number of engines involved in land stewardship is astonishing, including those found in trucks, tractors, skidsteer, ATVs, chainsaws, fire equipment, and more.  Land stewards have to be able to maintain all those engines, but also perform at least basic diagnostics and repairs.  When major repairs are needed, they can haul equipment to a professional mechanic, but if they needed professional help for every little mechanical malady, stewards would spend all their time hauling equipment to and from repair shops.  As someone who has never figured out how to correctly adjust a carburetor or do whatever it is you have to do to make a chainsaw actually start correctly when just pulling the cord doesn’t work, I have great admiration for those who have the skill, knowledge base, and intuition to fix engines.

2014 Spring burn at TNC Rulo Bluffs Preserve. Nelson Winkel.

Nelson can operate, maintain, and repair chainsaws.  If a saw goes down during the mop-up operation of a woodland prescribed fire, it’s pretty important that he be able to get it running again.

Plumber/Electrician

Since most land stewardship operations include buildings with plumbing and electrical systems (not to mention electric fences and livestock watering systems), and contracting for repairs in remote areas is usually infeasible because of cost, timeliness, or both, those repairs often fall to land stewards.  Replacing a broken light fixture, finding and repairing a leaky pipe in a house crawlspace, or troubleshooting a short in an electric fence are all tasks that could fall to land steward on any given day.

Biochemist

Much invasive plant control requires the application of herbicide.  The variety of brands and formulations of herbicides can be as overwhelming as the diversity of invasive plant species they help suppress.  Just reading and understanding an herbicide label can be a daunting task, let alone trying to understand how various chemical formulations might affect plants in a way that will kill the ones you want and not the ones you don’t.  Then, once you’ve figured out – for example – whether you should use the amine or ester formulation of a particular chemical (it’s related to risks associated with volatilization on hot days), you still have to calculate the correct amount of each ingredient and calibrate your sprayer.

Nelson Winkel sprays reed canarygrass at TNC Nebraska's Platte River Prairies.

Nelson Winkel sprays reed canarygrass at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies.

Fabricator

I am in awe of Nelson’s ability to make specialized tools and equipment for land management work.  Simple welding tasks seem overwhelming to me, let alone building herbicide sprayers, slip-on fire pumper units, and hydraulically-powered augers to dig holes for large fence posts.  Sometimes he builds his own equipment because it’s cheaper than buying it, but other times he does it because it’s not possible to buy something that does what he needs it to do.

Burn Boss

Despite the fact that The Nature Conservancy is a private non-profit organization, becoming qualified to lead a prescribed fire for TNC now requires stewards to work through the NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group) system used by federal agencies that fight wildfires.  Under a best case scenario, it takes several years to take all the courses and get signed off on all the required tasks (including some that necessitate fighting wildfires) to qualify as someone who can lead prescribed fires.  Accomplishing that means spending weeks at a time away from home.  Regardless, prescribed fire is a critically-important component of The Nature Conservancy’s work, so land stewards work through those requirements as best they can.

Nelson Winkel, TNC land manager for Platte River Prairies during a prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire is a big part of prairie management, but becoming qualified as a burn boss takes years worth of training and experience.

Collaborator/Negotiator/Neighbor

Land stewardship doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  All of our properties are nested within land owned by farmers and ranchers.  To be successful, land stewards have to get along with, learn from, and share ideas with those neighbors and other partners.  Often that leads to interesting situations in which a land steward is negotiating a grazing lease with a neighbor who also happens to be on the local fire board and can influence whether or not a burn permit is issued.  Gaining the respect of neighbors and other local conservation partners means taking the time to get to know them, their families, and their personal philosophies on life, conservation, hunting, and football.  Much of that relationship building happens outside of a regular work schedule, but it’s essential – we couldn’t do our work without the support of our neighbors and local communities.  More importantly, building credibility with neighbors and partners is critical because sharing lessons learned from our land management work with others is how we influence conservation beyond the borders of our relatively small land holdings.

……

Perhaps the greatest challenge for land stewards is that despite the amount of work to be done, there are still only 24 hours in a day.  Working as a land steward for The Nature Conservancy is incredibly rewarding but also impossibly complex and difficult – as is working as a land manager for any conservation organization or farm/ranch operation.  I still can’t believe I ever got hired as a land steward, or that I managed a fair amount of success in spite of my shortcomings, especially in terms of mechanical prowess.  It is my privilege to work with stewards like Nelson, Evan, and many others, and I am in awe of the breadth of their knowledge and the extent of their energy.  Not only are they caretakers of their particular natural areas, they are developing, testing, and sharing the techniques the rest of us need in order to conserve the rest of the natural world.

 

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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17 Responses to From Plant ID to Small Engine Repair – The Complex Life of a Land Steward

  1. James McGee says:

    Yes, it is a hard job. I think the hardest part for the stewards is keeping motivated when people say less than encouraging things. It takes an admirable resolve to keep going when you know life would be easier if you quit. However, as the sun sets over the prairie a steward knows they have it better than the guys who sit at a desk all day. There is no job more satisfying than taking care of the land. Even a weekend warrior like me knows these truths.

    • James McGee says:

      Another thing I’ve found to be difficult for stewards follows. Stewards often work on hundreds if not thousands of acres of land. Natural areas in Illinois are frequently so over run with invasive species from lack of resources that groups are lucky to clear five acres in a good year. When people do some math most sites quickly realize they will never be able to clear all the invasive species. The invasive species often spread and grow faster than they can be controlled. The goal then becomes to maintain the largest island that is free of invasive species as is possible. Some years you gain ground and some years you lose ground. However, you know if you stop, or no if one follows, all your hard work will quickly be lost. I think more than anything this is what is most difficult for me to deal with when I volunteer. This and also watching people driving fancy cars and having fun while I work my butt off for no pay to maintain public land.

      • James C. Trager says:

        Well put, James McGee. This is certainly the scariest, frustratingest part of the job – Getting behinder and behinder in controlling invasives.

        • Patrick says:

          James and James. Everything you said was true. Resources and boots on the ground are limited, and we are haunted by the challenge of finding “generational continuity” in managing the places we love. To me, one of the downsides of increasing mobility is that people never stay long enough to develop a sense of place, which I think is what one needs to develop the interest and responsibility to protect and care for it. People will only protect and care for what they know. If stewards have to spend lots of time with an education mission, it takes time away from stewardship activity. How do you balance these missions and inspire people in the face of a seemingly insurmountable and never-ending battle with invasives? It seems we need to reimagine the narrative and better connect community with place if we want to achieve sustainability in our efforts. And not become curmudgeons in the process. How to do it? I don’t know. Are there workshops or meetings where people talk about these issues? Seems that the focus of many of the meetings on restoration activities focus more on the technical aspects rather than the issues you both have raised.

          • James McGee says:

            The place where these issues are discussed locally is the biennial Wild Things Conference.

            I have said the following before, but I will say it again here for all of you. The cost of controlling invasive species has surpassed the cost of purchasing land. In this world where public spending is a pawn in the game of politics, agreements need to be made to protect our investments in controlling invasive species. Land owning governments need to agree that they will continue to control invasive species on their properties or pay for all the efforts that were donated to them with their property being the collateral.

            Locally, we are still working to reverse a ten year period when prescribed burning and the control of invasive species was prohibited. My state has not had a budget in four months with the expected effects on state agencies. Yet people have SO much money. It is hard to see all the neatly trimmed weed free lawn when our public owned natural areas are choked with tangles of invasive thorn bushes. It really is all quite disgraceful. Even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men at this point we are not going to be able to completely get our natural areas whole again.

  2. Jim in IA says:

    I enjoy watching and reading about the work you and your colleagues are doing.

  3. Joanne says:

    Stewards of the land, what better job could there be? Many thanks for keeping my ‘homeland’ in good stead.

  4. Patrick says:

    I’ve sort of said this before, but I think land stewards probably get more satisfaction and joy from watching their work bear fruit over time. The little critters, the plants, the birds…just by living their lives and letting you observe them in a place that you have helped (re)create is enough “thank you”. But hearing it from people also helps. So THANK YOU!

    • Patrick says:

      And hopefully they get some time like you do Chris to wander and dream in the places they work. I make a point of not bringing any extra gas for the chain saw, so that I have enough time to clean up what I cut down, and have enough to energy and time left over to sit, ponder, wander, and photograph the prairie.

  5. Here here! Nelson and other stewards are some of the most unsung heroes of conservation.

  6. Dale Funk says:

    Do not sell yourself short. You are a talented communicator. I do not know your associates but I would wager that neither of the two can manipulate a camera or a pen with the same skill as you.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Dale. Yes, I think I’ve been lucky to find job responsibilities that match my particular skills. At the same time, I do wish I had better skill with machines. I’ve become a much better plumber and electrician over the years, but engines still befuddle me.

  7. Eric Hoff says:

    As a Land Steward for TNC, I have never been so challenged in my life! I’ve done all of the things you describe and more. Thank you for sharing a glimpse of what it is we do. And yes, I agree, there is no better job for someone who likes to work hard, be outside and find a solution to the challenges we face as land managers.

  8. Rud Wasson says:

    I’ve read many of your columns and enjoy them, plus learning some things (actually lots) I didn’t know. I would like to refer you to a book by Matt Crawford, “Shop Class as Soul Craft. Enjoy.

  9. Dale Funk says:

    Thought you might like these photos. Dale Funk

  10. This was enlightening and relieving in many ways. For 5 years my husband and I have been working on a lifestyle project involving land conservation. We’ve challenged ourselves to attempt to make a difference in any ways we can, with each lifestyle choice we face (home, job, transportation, and so on). Most days I, too, feel unqualified, as though I were an imposter living out here on a few hundred acres protecting an historic farm on a mountain in Arkansas. It’s the scariest blessing in my life! Restoring the native landscape here is a worthwhile goal but I fear we may never be good enough.

    At the end of the day I guess all that matters is that if one fails, it was not a worthless attempt, and if one succeeds, generations in the future will still feel those ripples.

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