A Pep Talk for Land Stewards

A couple weeks ago, I gave a presentation at the beginning of The Natural Areas Conference in Duluth, Minnesota.  I was told to give a kind of pep talk to land stewards and help set the tone for the remainder of the conference.  It was a fun presentation to put together and subject matter I think a lot about.  This post summarizes some of what I discussed in that presentation.

Land stewardship is hard.  We face what seems like a continually increasing number of challenges to our attempts to facilitate biological diversity.  Encroachment by invasive species is a constant threat – except that it isn’t constant because we get new ones thrown at us all the time.  Habitat fragmentation, climate change, eutrophication, and other broad changes to the world we work within all make our work harder.  Maybe worst of all, our friends, family, and sometimes even supervisors, don’t really understand what we do or why we do it.  After all, shouldn’t we be leaving nature alone to ‘take its course’

Feeling better yet?  Maybe a little context will help. 

What most of our friends don’t realize, and what we sometimes forget, is that we are just one link in a long chain of land stewards.  For at least 12,000 years, and probably longer, humans have been actively and thoughtfully managing land all around the globe.  Thousands of years ago, people were burning grasslands and woodlands, hunting and otherwise influencing animal populations and behavior, and altering and mixing the composition of plant communities.  With any luck, people will still be managing land thousands of years from now. 

This current generation of prairie stewards are just the latest in a long series stretching back at least 10-12,000 years.

I’m going to come back to that important context in a minute, but first I want to revisit something I wrote about ten years ago regarding the way we approach ecological restoration.  Our restoration work is very different then the restoration of an historic building like Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.  When restoring that building, the goal was to rebuild it to the exact state it was in on the night Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth. In other words, there was a very well-defined and static end point.

When we’re trying to restore a prairie, wetland, or woodland, we’re taking a different approach.  A more apt analogy would be the restoration of a city after a major disaster.  In the aftermath of a hurricane, earthquake or other massive catastrophe, the goal isn’t to rebuild a city so that it looks exactly as it did before.

When we’re re-building prairies, we shouldn’t be aiming to recreate exactly what was there or mimic a nearby site. In many cases, we’re trying to enlarge and reconnect existing prairies to enhance the viability of the species and communities that rely upon them.

Instead, when restoring both prairies and cities, the primary need is to reestablish functions and processes – transportation, communication, housing, etc.  We’re trying to ensure that all members of the community can survive and thrive.  The work starts by identifying what’s still functional and building from there; patching new networks together and making sure all crucial community roles are filled.

Beyond the more drastic efforts involved in restoration, there’s also a lot of similarity between the sustained management of a city and the stewardship of a natural area.  In both cases, ensuring the continuation of services and functions is the key objective.  Even more importantly, good city managers are constantly trying to adapt to changing conditions.  They’re finding ways to upgrade infrastructure and manage the evolution and changing composition of the communities they work with.  That sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

As stewards, we’re trying to figure out how to help prairie communities adapt to changing conditions, including more frequent extreme weather events.

Here’s the most important thing.  In both city management and natural area management, there is no defined end point at which we can claim success.  Our job as land stewards is not to fix the sites and ecosystems we work with.  We just have to keep them operational.

Why?  Because we’ll be handing those sites and ecosystems off to the next generation of stewards when we’re done.  Remember that long chain of stewardship I mentioned earlier? The generation that follows us will have to deal with the same problems we did, plus a bunch of new ones.  However, they’ll also have new ideas, different technology, and more time to figure out how to deal with some of the challenges that currently seem insurmountable.  It’s ok for us to give them the keys and walk away.  In fact, they’ll insist upon it.

This is a perspective that’s really helpful to me when I lie awake at night worrying about the limited time and capacity we have to devote to land stewardship.  “Just keep it operational”, I think to myself.  Then I roll over and start worrying about college expenses and house repairs instead.    

The last piece of my presentation at the Natural Areas Conference addressed the public apathy and ignorance about nature and conservation.  I encouraged everyone in the audience to take their roles as ambassadors and storytellers seriously.  If we’re going to change the minds of the people around us, we’re going to have to share our passion with them.  I’ve written about this before, so I won’t harp on it here, but it really does make a difference.  Plus, who’s going to do it if we don’t? 

I watched this dung beetle bury this dung ball in a Sandhills blowout. It pushed the ball around for a long time before finding the right spot in what looked to me like a homogenous expanse of sand. I don’t have to understand why it did that to be fascinated and gratified for the opportunity to observe it.

So, there you go.  Our work is crucial, but we don’t have to fix nature.  Just as countless generations before us have, we’ll hand the world over to the next set of stewards.  They’ll surely cringe at some of the decisions we made, but they’ll be excited and energized to face the challenges in front of them.  

In the meantime, there’s still plenty for us to be excited about too.  We get a front row seat to some pretty spectacular events, for one thing.  We also get the gratification of knowing that our work helps keep those events going. That’s pretty great, right?

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.

6 thoughts on “A Pep Talk for Land Stewards

  1. Important message and well-stated, Chris. At this stage of life (just turned 70 y.o.), I could really relate to turning over the keys, but would note I haven’t walked away completely, since I still volunteer weekly where they used to pay me to do restoration and interpretation full time. And, my younger successors still discuss with me and ask questions about my work and even sometimes their work. It’s great to stay involved, and to watch them apply new energy, approaches and technology, just as you describe. Sometimes we even cringe together at stuff I did 30 years ago, which I wouldn’t have approached the same way later in my career.

  2. Your pep talk was probably my favorite part of the NAA conference! I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear it. Thank you for putting it on your blog so we can share it with others! We all can’t quit, and we need to reach to find others who will continue to care for our lands!

  3. Well done . . . And how many people asked if you could give (or they could share) the presentation with their Board, State Director, or others?

  4. When I retired and sold the restoration business it was very hard to forget about the hundreds of acres of prairies and savannahs I had worked on for many years. To me they were like family, growing and maturing and developing their own character. Your pep talk gave me a better perspective. Thank you.


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