This post is by Eric Chien, one of our 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows. Eric hails from Minnesota, with an undergraduate education from Bowdoin College in Maine. He has a strong background in prairie management, and hopefully a bright future in that field as well.
The most compelling experience of the North American Prairie Conference was on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon on a winding path through the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands. While I was beaded with sweat from just walking in the Eastern Tallgrass humidity, I saw three people, laden down with seed bags, hand harvesting seed and ripping problem plants from the ground. Jeff Walk, Illinois TNC Science Director and our guide for the walk assured us that these volunteers were not planted. Furthermore, he noted that this was a fairly regular sight at Nachusa.
Three people. Tuesday morning. Maybe I come from a different community context, but for me, seeing three, independently working, non-professional, unpaid, human beings engaged in land management is akin to seeing a prairie chicken drum on a buffalo’s back under a wildfire sunset. Okay, maybe not quite that, but my point is that intensive, regular community engagement and participation in land management is a rare phenomenon. It was a sight that made me wonder how we plan to achieve our restoration goals for individual sites beyond the immediate future. My predecessor, Evan Barrientos, had begun the work of pulling on this loose thread, and I encourage you to read his post on volunteer stewardship if you have not, but I think it begs further unpacking.
It is a great feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie knowing that it was once cropland. It is a crushing feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie overrun and choked by invasive plants. And it is unfortunately not an uncommon feeling to have both experiences on the same prairie, just a couple years apart. Many prairie restoration sites have found out what happens when management capacity does not match the scope of their restorations: a seemingly endless game of catch-up with invasive plants ever threatening to swallow a new prairie. Addressing the pitfalls of that disjunct approach was one of the Grassland Restoration Network’s primary prescriptions for restoration success (here is the link to that report). However, I want to think beyond even the 5-15 year timeline to the idea of management in perpetuity. In the reality of a fragmented landscape, it appears likely that even the best restorations (well planned and executed) will require regular management for those lands to continue to achieve our respective management goals for them.
It leads us to important questions: As the acreage of restored prairie grows, have we invested in the organizational groundwork to ensure the continuity of our achievements? Is there a need for innovation in stewardship structures as we seek to move to an increased scale of work? Or should we aim to increase funding for professional management staff augmented with whatever traditional volunteer programs that we have?
As someone who is seeking a professional stewardship career, more money aimed at increasing the capacity of professional resource management sounds awesome. As someone who has seen the scope of need for stewardship, I have a hard time envisioning that approach rising to the challenge on its own. So then the big question- what does effective community-based stewardship look like?
I think it sort of looks like Nachusa Grasslands. In a talk at the conference, Bill Kleiman, the Nachusa Grasslands land manager, said, “we don’t just produce grasses, flowers, and wildlife, we also produce people.” I don’t know if steward production is part of their long-term management plan, but they seem to approach it with an intentionality that suggests it is. From the little glimpse I saw of it, Nachusa Grasslands has produced a stewardship structure that draws heavily on a capacity that is less tied to The Nature Conservancy, and more attached to the place. The stewards there love the land they work on. That trait gives it a unique resiliency. Organizations come and go over the short and long-term. If we want the successes we have in places to be maintained then we need to make sure we are building stewardship structures that have some independence from the organizations that own the land on which they work. Private lands conservation has focused on empowering non-professionals by necessity. Yet, I think if we take stock of our public and NGO-owned stewardship needs, there is a similar necessity for involving community stewards in a significant way looming on the horizon. I think for many of us it is already here.
As some one that worked for almost 30 years in a state Wildlife Agency and the last 10 as a University Professor I couldn’t be more impressed with this interns observations!!! We professionals can’t do it alone!!!! That’s why I’ve been extremely active in Environmental Ed my whole career but I often find myself without peers. But to see a young professional get the need, and come up with the metaphor “steward production as part of the long term management plan” so easily gave me some real optimism for the future.
With your permission I fully intend to “copy” parts of this blog, with proper citation, in one or 2 of my lectures this fall.
It is likewise great to hear about professionals in land management who are empowering the public through environmental education. I am optimistic, and do see some hopeful organizational structures popping up, prescribed fire cooperatives among landowners immediately comes to mind, but certainly there is a lot of opportunity out there to engage in new and fruitful ways. You are more than welcome to use whatever you would like from the post!
I think a mix of paid help and volunteers is necessary. Often contractor help is needed to get invasive species problems under control until it is to the point that staff and volunteers can manage the situation. I also think it is important to have staff with a formal education on a subject involved to inform volunteers about the hows? and whys? regarding the work.
I can understand how you would be surprised that people would do hard manual labor without over sight and pay. With education people begin seeing firsthand what is happening. They ask, “Why can’t the people who do this job get the work done?” Invariably, the answer is there simply aren’t enough resources. The next question is, “Why doesn’t the government do something about this problem?” This question then reminds the person about what happens when the government wants to raise taxes. Finally, people realize if something is going to get done then they are going to have to work on it themselves. I think that is when things start happening.
I read through the Grassland Restoration Network’s Report. I think the use of weed fabric should be discouraged for nursery production of prairie seed. Weed fabric is expensive, it degrades quickly when exposed to light, it does not last very long when buried under mulch, and plants roots tend to grow into it making later removal of the weed fabric very difficult.
Also, gravel should be considered when mulching species from dry prairie habitats since it does not decompose and should not need to be reapplied. Gravel mulch would only need to be reapplied if it was transported down a slope in a very heavy rain storm.
I think you might consider the fact that a professional land stewardship position is often a career step toward some other position, and is hence transitional. For volunteers, it can represent a lifetime of work. The connectedness to place is felt most strongly when you intend to stay in one place. When you are a volunteer, out in the prairie treating brush, or pulling weeds, or whatever, either alone in your thoughts or chatting with likeminded people that you get to know over time, while listening to the birds sing, the insects buzz, and the wind whisper through the grass, the labor ceases being labor, and becomes something more. You become part OF the prairie and it becomes part OF you. It gives you life, and you give it love. I don’t think that feeling comes very easily if it’s a job.
That was very poetic. Unfortunately, to me the work part feels more like a job. In fact, it feels like I am doing other people’s jobs on top of my own fair share of work. Most of the work I do could have been avoided with a little preventative maintenance, but that is a long story for another time.