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?

Photos of the Week – September 16, 2022

If you’ve been reading my recent posts, you know that our Platte River Prairies, along with most of Nebraska and the larger region, is in the middle of a drought. The Platte River is mostly dry, groundwater levels and soil moisture are low, and a lot of prairie vegetation is dry and brown. But not everywhere is showing evidence of the drought.

One of our restored wetlands, which we call the Sandpit Restoration, always seems to resist drought impacts. It is located along a creek that goes dry upstream of the wetland, but water starts flowing again right before it hits the wetland restoration site. Regardless of regional rainfall or groundwater levels, I’ve never seen the wetland itself without standing water. It’s almost as if it draws from its own independent (and apparently rich) water supply. As a result, it’s a nice place to hang out when everything else is dry. Nice for me, but even nicer for animals and plants that require wetland habitat!

Sunrise over the Derr Sandpit Wetland Restoration earlier this week. Tokina 11-20mm lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/100 sec.

The 25 acre Sandpit Wetland is the result of about 10 years of staged restoration work that restored an old sand and gravel mining site to a meandering stream channel and adjacent wetlands. Most of the work was pretty simple – just taking out trees and pushing piles of spoil sand into the lake to reshape the habitat. The results have been really great in some ways. We’ve taken advantage of the constant ‘wetness’ of the place and birds, turtles, amphibians, freshwater mussels and wetland plants really thrive in the new shallow water and moist soil habitats.

Nut sedges (Cyperus sp.) and nodding beggarticks (Bidens cernua). Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/125 sec.

On the other hand, the connection to the upstream creek and the downstream Platte River has some negative implications. Invasive plants are constantly moving downstream into the restored site, making it nearly impossible to keep up with them. Invasive fish, including mosquito fish and common carp dominate the aquatic community, along with largemouth bass, green sunfish, and a few channel catfish. None of the really neat minnows and other small native fish you’d expect to see are present, despite that habitat conditions looking ideal for them.

Despite those challenges, it’s a special place and there’s more than enough good to outweigh the bad. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that since I’m no longer the one who has day-to-day responsibility for trying to manage the invasive species issues! I just get to wander down to the water and enjoy the cardinal flower, dragonflies, and shorebirds (while conveniently avoiding eye contact with purple loosestrife, Phragmites, cattails, reed canarygrass, carp, mosquitofish, etc. I did just that earlier this week before starting some nearby fieldwork.

A spider hangs out next to its web (and two captured mosquitos) along the edge of the water. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/9, 1/100 sec.
Hover fly on nodding beggarticks. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/80 sec.
More nodding beggarticks. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/200 sec.

Cody and his stewardship crew (our Hubbard Fellows and a seasonal technician) spend a lot of time knocking out the big patches of invasive plants without eradicating the nice areas of diverse native vegetation. Since the invasives are constantly being wiped out and recolonizing, much of the area is dominated by short-lived opportunists like beggarticks, annual sedges, and other rushes and water plants that are good at popping up quickly. Other places seem to resist invasion and have more developed plant communities with lots of perennial wildflowers, as well as prairie cordgrass and large populations of rhizomatous sedges and rushes.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and sunrise. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/500 sec.
Cardinal flower. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/60 sec.
Cardinal flower. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/60 sec.

This week, the lobelias and nodding beggarticks were hogging the spotlight. A frustratingly stiff morning breeze made photography challenging, but I still managed to capture some of the gorgeous floral color. There wasn’t any dew to hold insects in place for me, so between that and the breeze, the number of insect photos was lower than what I’d hoped but I tried my best with them.

Narrowleaf cattails (Typha angustifolia) invading the wetland and preparing to spread hordes of seed to further that invasion. Nikon 10.5mm fish eye lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/200 sec.
Blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/9, 1/200 sec.
Grasshopper nymph on blue lobelia. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/8, 1/250 sec.

After spending a lot of time in brownish prairies, it was really nice to be in a place where I had to wear waterproof boots and got my knees and elbows wet when I got down close to the ground for macro photos. Lush green vegetation was all around me, and despite the inclusion of some plants I’d rather not acknowledge, it still felt good. After a while, I finished my wetland photography and climbed just a few feet up in elevation into the adjacent prairies, where I was quickly returned to drought conditions again. There was beauty there too (as seen in my last post) but it was very different than the opulent moisture of the restored wetland. I may never understand why that site stays so wet but I sure am glad it does.

Bumble bee roosting overnight on blue lobelia. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/14, 1/80 sec.
More blue lobelia. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/100 sec.