The Mechanics of Conservation

Years ago, we hired an older mechanic (older than me, anyway) to take care of our equipment so I and other staff could focus more on ecology and land management and less on carburetors and oil changes.  Fred (not his real name) always seemed a little grumpy.  That was completely understandable, given his responsibilities.  Not only was our equipment old and worn out, we tended to be pretty rough on it.

Trained as ecologists, not mechanics, we often used equipment for purposes it was never intended for. (“You know that old Massey combine was built for harvesting soybeans on flat fields, right?  Not for harvesting dense prairie cordgrass in wet meadows or rose hips on steep hills??”)  Even worse, we were pretty cavalier about checking oil, greasing zerks, and other basic maintenance.  When equipment inevitably broke down, Fred would come out with his tools, grumbling under his breath about carelessness and laziness, and fix the problem.  The next time we used that particular piece of equipment, we were likely to see a note scrawled on the equipment in paint marker reminding us to “CHECK OIL BEFORE DRIVING!”, “DRIVE IN LOW GEAR!”, or “BLOW OUT THE RADIATOR!”   We always knew Fred was mad when the paint markers made an appearance.

A paint marker note of "encouragement". Photo by Eric Chien

A paint marker note reminder from “Fred”. Photo by Eric Chien

I’ve often thought that land managers are much like mechanics.  Instead of maintaining machines, we are charged with keeping natural areas working properly.  Sometimes, we’re called upon to fix (restore) land that has been degraded by chronic overgrazing, broadcast herbicide use, or even tillage.  Other times, we just perform minor tune ups to keep things humming along.  There isn’t really an end point to land management, no pinnacle of success to be reached.  Instead, success is being able to hand off a piece of land to the next manager and feel good about it.  “Welp, here’s the keys…”

Because he cared about the equipment he was responsible for, Fred always got justifiably frustrated with us when we would fail to take obvious (to him) steps to help prevent a potential breakdown.  He also felt personally offended when he saw machinery – ours or otherwise – that was obviously neglected and rundown.  We land managers experience the same emotions about land.

We understand the importance of plant and animal diversity in prairies, for example, and know that good management can maintain both that diversity and the ecological function it supports.  It is immensely frustrating to see prairies neglected and over-run by trees or other invasive plants.  It can be even harder to watch a prairie get chronically overgrazed, broadcast with herbicide, or (especially) tilled for row crop production.  We have a deep understanding of what’s lost when prairie is degraded or destroyed, and we appreciate how difficult restoration can be.

Just as Fred got cranky with us because we didn’t take care of the equipment he was invested in, it’s easy for us as land managers to feel the same way about people who neglect or abuse land.  However, whenever Fred would gripe at us about what we were doing, we tended to tune him out (“Oh, that’s just Fred – he’s always cranky about something.”)  Only on the rare occasions did he calmly explain why it was important to do something and how it might affect us personally.  That’s when we actually listened.

I think there is an important lesson here for land managers and anyone involved in conservation.  Being grumpy doesn’t build credibility.  People don’t usually respond well when you lash out at them or make them feel dumb or lazy.  If we want to change the way people treat land, we need to figure out the motivation behind what they’re currently doing and start a conversation there.  Often, they have good intentions but lack the information and larger context that we have.  We can help with that.  Demonstrating what good land management looks like and showing how better habitat helps wildlife, pollinators and humans will go a long way toward improving the world around us.

Land managers

It’s vital that land managers share what we learn with other land managers, land owners, and others.  Looking at management results on site can be the most effective way to trade ideas and strategies, but there are other options as well.  Starting conversations is the first step.

A related lesson is that working in isolation doesn’t change the hearts and minds of others.  Most land managers tend to enjoy working alone, or in small groups of like-minded people.  While that may be comfortable, it doesn’t help inspire action on other lands.  Inviting people to well-managed land for field days, volunteer work days or similar events can show others what great habitat looks like and motivate them to imitate good work.  Sharing effective strategies and important lessons through presentations and publications can reach a broad audience.  All land managers are constantly learning, but unless that knowledge is shared, it isn’t advancing conservation.

There is plenty to shake our heads about these days.  The human race does a lot of silly things, and it’s tempting to just around and grumble to ourselves about it – or to snipe at anyone who offends us.  That doesn’t really get us anywhere, though, does it?  Instead of griping, let’s start conversations.  Let’s find out what others care about and explain what conservation looks like to us and why it matters.  Let’s be proactive about sharing both the lessons we learn and the wonder we gain from our lands.

After all, I think we can all agree that empathy and conversation are more effective than paint markers…

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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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16 Responses to The Mechanics of Conservation

  1. Bobbie says:

    Wow, this is so true Chris! I really needed to hear that. As an ecologist/land manager communication and outreach is something i would like to be better about. You have articulated why it is so important and inspired me. Now i need to follow up!

  2. marknupen says:

    Ah, poor Fred, no one was listening to him nor asking him???
    My lesson came when an HR employee in my large medical practice office, INFORMED US that ‘ALL MY STAFF was MY CUSTOMER’ and ‘I was their customer’! Doctors, (like me) sometimes don’t recognize that and BAMB, THE HR GAL was dead on correct! It changed me forever after that. So simple, but as you related, it is something we need to learn and then ‘teach it’ to others around us, especially the leadership!
    Good luck Fred!

  3. Paul says:

    “There must be some force behind conservation – more universal than profit, less awkward than government, less ephemeral than sport; something that reaches into all times and places, where men live on the land, something that brackets everything from rivers to raindrops, from whales to hummingbirds, from land estates to window-boxes.” — Aldo Leopold, circa 1940

  4. Daniel Thompson says:

    I love all these thoughts. I and all other little experiences managers and professional should daily practice these good habits. Maybe we should all summarize and use it for nightly prayers. (Use it as chapter in your next book.)

  5. Teresa Lombard says:

    “Instead of griping, let’s start conversations.” THANK you!

  6. Karen Hamburger says:

    I remember “Fred” and hope he is doing well.

    I’m wondering, since Nelson now maintains and operates the equipment it you are treating it any better? :)

  7. Susan Kleiman says:

    YES! Great analogy! And “the starting conversations” goes for all things–if we all did more of it with “others” then perhaps our country would work even better and we’d be happier and we all wouldn’t be in the this current situation we’re in. :)

  8. Cora L. Michael says:

    Thank you. I am slowly learning to start conversations about my own 5 acres of prairie/scrub oak here in Colorado.

  9. James McGee says:

    I do understand the mechanic story was an allegory to begin a discussion relating the old adage “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar” as it relates to conservation. Unfortunately, sometimes conversation and a promise of money do not lead to successful protection as occurred with the best remaining black soil prairie in the Chicago Region and possibly the entire state of Illinois (Buffalo Grove Prairie).

    “… but in an article published on September 3, the Nature Conservancy reported that the family was ‘in sympathy with preserving it just as we are. The thing is they have to make some money out of it.’”

    “But over the Labor Day weekend of 1976, crews from Bongi worked overtime to plow into obliteration all but one-quarter acre of the owners’ prairie holding. No one doubted that the act was deliberate. Said one district official, “I think we can only conclude that the owners felt this was the best route to avoid delay in the proposed annexation of the land to Buffalo Grove.”

    A Natural History of the Chicago Region, Joel Greenberg, pp. 52

  10. Cindy Crosby says:

    My favorite blog of yours — thanks for making this point so gently and so well.

  11. lonniej says:

    Excellent point and a good reminder. Wish there had been a woman in the photo of land managers, made it seem like a men’s club. Inclusion is an important part of the visual message.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      You’re absolutely right about inclusion. One of our Hubbard Fellows (a woman) and I were just talking about that the other day. Within The Nature Conservancy (organization-wide), our land steward cadre has a high proportion of women, but that percentage drops off in the Great Plains. There are a lot of potential reasons for that (way too many for a short comment) but I’m pleased that in our Fellowship program, at least, we’ve actually had more women than men so far.

    • James McGee says:

      Your comment made me think of the following photo. Maybe the reason there we’re no women in Chris’ photo is they were all working while the guys were standing around talking. :)

  12. George Shurr says:

    Chris~ Thanks for this post. Positive interaction id more important than negative confrontation.

  13. Pingback: Best of 2016 – Stories and Photos From This Year | The Prairie Ecologist

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