Anyone who has spent much time around me can probably sense when I’m about to ask my question. Asking the question might be the most irritating thing I do. (Ok, that’s not true – but it can be pretty irritating.) I do it anyway. Over and over and over. Someone will be talking about exciting work they’re planning or conducting and I’ll clear my throat and inquire (say it with me, friends and colleagues!):
“So, what’s your objective?”
I really don’t ask the question to be a pest, though I’m sure it sometimes comes off that way. I ask it because it’s a question we should all be able to answer with regard to any ecological stewardship project we’re working on. As land managers, we should all be able to clearly articulate what we are trying to accomplish. What are our desired outcomes? How will we know if we’re succeeding, or at least making progress?
Are you responsible for the stewardship of a site? If so, can you, in a sentence or two, describe what success looks like and how you could measure progress toward that? Saying you want to make a site to look better than it was or is doesn’t count. What do you mean by ‘better’? What species, ecological communities, people, or other variables will be positively affected and how will you know if/when that is happening?
I feel very strongly about this and I’m about to rant about it for the remainder of this (long) post. It’s not the most titillating writing I’ve done, but I tried to make it palatable. If you decide to stop reading now, I won’t blame you. I also won’t know you stopped reading, so there’s very little risk to either of us.
Still here? Ok, let’s look at a specific example to illustrate why objectives matter so much. Imagine a 50 acre prairie in a suburban context. The prairie is surrounded by houses on all sides but has maintained a decent diversity of plants, including several species that are only found in a handful of prairies across the state. The prairie even has populations of two rare insect species hanging on. Because it’s easier to refer to the prairie by a name, we’ll call it Kasen Point Prairie.
As you might expect, while it has a lot going for it, Kasen Point Prairie also faces a number of challenges. For one thing, deciduous shrubs have taken over about 17 acres of the southeastern corner and occur in scattered smaller patches throughout the rest of the site. Those shrubs have greatly expanded their footprint over the last 15 years, during which there has been little management of the site and no prescribed burning.
In addition to the shrub problem, populations of several non-native forbs have increased dramatically over the last two decades. Perhaps most importantly, Kasen Point Prairie is isolated from any other prairie habitat by at least several miles of housing developments in every direction. It’s a really neat site with lots of issues.
If you were suddenly put in charge of the stewardship of Kasen Point Prairie, you might very reasonably do the following:
- Institute annual prescribed burning of the prairie to knock back the shrubs.
- Recruit an energetic corps of volunteers to help pull, chop, and carefully apply herbicide to the non-native forbs in an effort to reverse their invasion.
Let’s say that after five years of this work, you are seeing the following:
- The height and density of the shrubs have decreased and some of the smaller patches seem to have disappeared.
- There has been a marked decrease in those non-native forb populations. One of the species seems to be completely gone and the other two are about half as abundant as they were.
- Two of the three species of rare plants have increased their population size and the other seems to be doing about the same as it was before.
- Three pairs of a grassland sparrow nested in the prairie last year – the first time that’s happened in at least 20 years.
Nice! That’s great progress, right?
Ok, but how do you know that’s progress? Progress toward what? What are you aiming for?
What if, in addition to the aforementioned changes, the following also occurred during those five years:
- One of the two rare insect species has seemingly disappeared. A local college professor who was studying the insect blames the frequent use of fire and lack of unburned refuges for eradicating the species.
- A group of neighbors living near the prairie have complained about the smoke from the annual fires and are asking the city council to ban prescribed fire from within city limits.
Well, shoot. Now it sounds like you’ve lost ground.
Have you? Based on what?
Without clear goals and objectives for Kasen Point Prairie’s stewardship, it’s really hard to know whether progress is being made. Shrub abundance has decreased, but has it decreased enough? Enough for what? What’s more important – the rare insect species or the grassland sparrow? Are gains in plant diversity or rare plant abundance more important than positive perception of the prairie by neighbors and city officials?
It would really help to have some desired outcomes or broad goals for the site. Otherwise, it’s too easy to look at individual results in isolation. (“Hurray! We have fewer shrubs. We must be doing the right thing.”) It’s human nature to look for anything that justifies the effort we’ve put into something. Unfortunately, retroactively justifying what we’ve already done is much less effective than proactively and thoughtfully prioritizing what we will do. This is where goals and objectives become helpful.
Here are some possible examples of desired outcomes or goals for Kasen Point Prairie:
- Support a robust and diverse pollinator community with a consistent and abundant supply of nectar and pollen through the growing season.
- Maintain viable populations of the three rare plant species at Kasen Point Prairie and harvest seed from them to help with reintroduction efforts elsewhere.
- Sustain populations of the two rare insect species, both of which are declining rapidly elsewhere in the region.
- Use Kasen Point Prairie as a key seed harvest site for a 1,200 acre prairie restoration effort 10 miles west of the city.
- Through public access and outreach efforts, use Kasen Point Prairie to positively influence the way people in the city view nature and conservation and increase support for regional prairie conservation efforts.
All those examples could easily be justified as important, but some may conflict with each other so prioritization is crucial. Managing for the specific needs of the rare plants or insects, for example, might not match up with the management needed to suppress shrubs, optimize pollinator resources, or foster high seed production across a broad suite of plant species. Especially in small sites, choosing goals that are viable and feasible can be really challenging. That makes choosing them even more important.
You might decide that the most foremost desired outcome at Kasen Point Prairie is to influence the hearts and minds of the surrounding community for the good of larger conservation efforts. That could include diverting some stewardship capacity into outreach work (leading tours, mowing trails, interpretative signage, etc.). To bring skeptical neighbors along, fire might have to be reintroduced to the site incrementally, with lots of interpretation and patience. Other brush control efforts might have to be carefully explained to a public who might wonder why you’re ‘killing the trees’ in a nature area.
Regardless of which outcomes or goals become the priority, once you choose priorities you can then establish specific objectives and ways of measuring success. Depending upon chosen goals, a few examples of objectives might include:
- By 2030, reduce deciduous shrub cover to 5% of the total prairie area to protect habitat for rare insects and balance resources for pollinators (including both early-season flowering shrubs and abundant wildflowers).
- By 2025, establish three management units across Kasen Point Prairie, including one that includes the vast majority of rare plant individuals at the site. Complete individual management plans for each unit.
- By 2026, complete a baseline public attitude survey of voters within the city that measures current knowledge about and attitudes toward prairies and conservation efforts. During the same period, design interpretive signage and programs to be initiated by spring of 2027.
- By 2028, complete a three year study (using volunteers) that measures the diversity and abundance of floral resources for pollinators through the growing season. Use the results to design potential restoration or management strategies to address any periods of low resource availability.
Again, there are lots of options for objectives, depending upon the established priorities. The key is to make sure you can specify what you’re trying to accomplish, how it links to your larger priorities, and how you’ll know if you’re moving in the right direction. This applies to small suburban prairies like Kasen Point Prairie, but also to private ranches, public lands, and any other managed site.
Now, having ranted for this long about objectives and why they’re important, I’m going to make an admission. The stewardship efforts I’m involved with, both at work and at my family prairie, don’t always meet the standards I’ve laid out here in terms of specific and measurable objectives. What I’ve described is aspirational and I don’t want to give you the impression that I, or the people I work with, are where we should be on this.
That said, I do think our staff can describe the kinds of outcomes we’re shooting for and the kinds of strategies we need to employ to reach those objectives. Evaluating progress sometimes consists of data collection, but is more often based on targeted observation and discussion. Strategies, objectives, and even goals are flexible and we adapt them as we learn. Most often, any disagreements about management actions stem from the lack of a shared understanding/agreement about what we’re trying to accomplish. Stepping back to talk about broad goals and specific objectives helps bring everyone back together.
If you are a land steward, I encourage you to make sure you can clearly articulate what you’re trying to accomplish. The more specific you can be the better, but at a minimum you should be able to describe 1) what you’re aiming for, 2) how each of your strategies contributes, and 3) how you’ll know whether you’re making progress. If you can do that, you’ll not only be a more effective steward, you’ll also be ready to answer that dreaded question when it comes…
“So, what’s your objective?