Land Stewardship, Objectively Speaking

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?

Seed harvesting and other restoration and management work is time intensive. How do we know that time is being well spent?

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?

Shrub encroachment is a huge issue in prairies. How much shrub cover is ok? How do you decide? (Spoiler – it helps to have defined goals and objectives)

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.

Small, isolated prairies present huge stewardship challenges. Any strategy is going to favor some species over others and there’s not much room for error, literally, as we try to prevent the loss of animal or plant populations.

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?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

18 thoughts on “Land Stewardship, Objectively Speaking

  1. Thanks, Chris, for this wonderful, clear discussion of our need for goals and measurable (!) objectives, the clear and wonderful model of them (including their inevitable internal conflicts), and your admission that the example is aspirational :) and a work in progress, as are most objectives. (Because why would we do anything over time if we weren’t going to learn new and interesting things and incorporate them along the way?)
    I don’t manage any prairies but your wonderful essay applies to almost everything else I do.

  2. Excellent! Made me think about how I would describe my stewardship of my 4 acre forest and the prairie next to us (but not owned by us.) I won’t remove the non native spruce that the previous owners planted on our land, but we are on year 4 of removing the dead undergrowth from the aspen/willow/spruce to reduce wildfire fuel. I’m also selectively spraying thistles, considered a noxious weed in our crop growing region. Much more thought needed, though…

  3. Great post!!!!
    I totally agree with being able to form meaningful objectives and developing a way to measure them. Especially in the complicated world of Land Management.
    While managing land at Longwood Gardens in PA, I was introduced to KPI’s or Key Performance Indicators.
    This process was extremely helpful with management plans and communicating with the land management team and to upper management who then communicated with the Board.
    Every year it was much easier to see what was working and what needed adjustment.
    Thanks again for such great posts!!!

  4. Thanks for this. It makes a lot of sense and your example is very helpful. I have a small 2 acrea site. I have not actually written down my objectives. It’s only in my head. And that’s not a good place to keep anything and I’m sure it’s not very clear. Its helpful to be reminded goals can be flexible. This will be saved for reference.

  5. Chris, I’ve heard it said that we who want to control Nature will succeed.
    1) controlling non-native invasives is worth the energy applied.
    Also a personal judgment on controled burns

    • Awkward typing – sorry …. ” controlling Nature will not succeed”.

      Controlled burns may overlook the destruction of insect and even small vertebrate destruction.
      Protecting the little creatures that make the world go should be highest priority.

  6. How do you think a program like CWPPRA in Louisiana does?

    1) what you’re aiming for: restore marsh habitat,
    2) how each of your strategies contributes: strategies, I guess, would be different project types (marsh creation, hydrologic restoration, shoreline protection, and
    3) how you’ll know whether you’re making progress: measure growth of marsh, plants per unit area, measure water salinity

    The answer to 1) seems straightforward and easy to understand, but almost too general. Is it a good answer? The answers to 3) seem concrete, but maybe could be fine-tuned? A lot of the projects have a goal in mind at the end of the project, but maybe it would be good to have incremental goals.

    • For #1, I think you want to have a more specific description of what restored marsh habitat looks like. What is the water salinity, habitat cover and/or structure, species composition, etc., that would equal success? Those don’t have to be static once you hit them, but I think it would be helpful to have real numbers to quantify your goals/objectives so you know when you’ve arrived, or how close you’re getting. Once you have those defined in that way, objectives can be created. Those might be incremental. For example, you might have an objective to increase water salinity to a certain point by a particular date and then a second objective to get to the final point by a later date. Same with habitat cover, etc.

      Speaking of being static, I’m wondering if you’re developing restoration goals/objectives to restore to a past condition or if you’re building for the future, which I’m guessing is one with higher sea levels and a different location for the current coastline? Or maybe you are thinking of ways to slow or guide that transition to make it less catastrophic and easier to adapt to for humans and other species? I think any of those options are reasonable as long as people are discussing them and making purposeful choices.

  7. I just wanted to say I noticed what you did with the name of the prairie you used! ;) Took me a few minutes (until I sounded it out slowly), and I appreciate that little bit of added humor!

  8. Chris, I need some help! I manage a 200 acre paddock complex in southwestern Minnesota. Since we’re non-operating landowners (NOLOs) we depend on our renters for the boots on the ground monitoring as they carry out their rotational grazing. Our OBJECTIVE is to increase diversity in the smooth brome/blue grass dominated riparian pastures, while maintaining the economic viability for the renting family.
    We’ve converted contiguous upland parcels to warm season paddocks, but would like to take on the cool season paddocks . But, we’d like to hire professional help to do a baseline study, make specific recommendations, maybe help with implementation, and provide guidance on subsequent monitoring.
    I know that there might not be anybody out there providing those kinds of services, but you asked about OBJECTIVES! Can you recommend someone who can help us?
    Thanks for any help that you can provide~
    George Shurr
    Lone Tree Heritage Farms, LLC

  9. My objective is converting my 10 acre cornfield into prairie. A virgin prairie, at least to resemble one.
    I wait until the wind will blow the smoke away from neighbors. People think fire is bad and causes pollution.
    Chris your predicament rings true. That no good deed goes unpunished.

  10. Good job! When I was teaching at a university I used that question A LOT. That was often the first time that students had heard the question. Once the students had created their objective(s) they often felt as if they were getting beaten throughout the project(s) with questions such as “Does that relate to the Objective?” or “Does that accomplish the objective?” While it was often frustrating for me some of them learned to do things with a purpose and not confuse activity with productivity.

  11. Fantastic post. I’ll add that objectives should consider the level of current & future resources that will be available. For invasives, this requires a good understanding of seed longevity, length of bloom period (which determines if more than one pass is needed for mechanical control), if management activities like fire or brush control can cause future explosions in invasive populations, etc. With that knowledge you can estimate if you will have the funds & personnel to meet your goals for the required length of time. That also defines the amount of land you can manage, forcing you to prioritize management units. As the managed units improve, enough resources may become available to expand them or create new ones.

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