Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Stewardship Positivity

The following post was written by Evan Barrientos, of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer, and while you’ll get the chance to see some of his work here during the next year, I also encourage you to check out his personal blog.

Although I’ve been participating in land management since high school, I still find myself learning so much from it, although perhaps not in the way you’d expect. Yes, I’ve learned several management techniques and strategies since starting the fellowship, but the lessons I consider most valuable are the ones that teach me how to think about land stewardship. Let me explain.

If you were a Hubbard Fellow during the second week of June, you would probably find yourself riding an ATV back and forward across one of our restored prairies, searching for the fluffy purple flowers of Musk Thistle. Upon spotting a thistle, you would pluck off all the flowers, thrust your spade through the base of the thistle with a satisfying crunch, pull out the plant, and then knock the dirt off of any uprooted roots. Over the next three weeks you would repeat this process thousands of times until you had covered every inch of all 14 of our Platte River properties and their 4,000+ acres. Then you would check them all again.

We celebrated the end of thistle season by burning the flowerheads in a bonfire.

When we finally finished musk thistles we celebrated by burning the seed heads that we had collected in a bonfire.

This may sound like exhausting and repetitive work, and it can be, but that wasn’t the hard part for me. The hard part was staying positive when it felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I felt this way when I returned to a prairie for its second thistle check and found piles of thistle seed below “zombie thistles” (thistles that flowered and produced seed after I chopped them because I left too much dirt on the roots). Or when I walked through a prairie that I had already checked twice and still found thistle stalks that had already released their seed to the prairie. Most of all, deciding to spend July 2nd chopping thistles before they released more seed instead of spending time with my family forced me to think hard about my role as a land steward.

As a land steward you develop a strong connection to the land you are working on. Seeing a healthy community of native species flourish on your property is extremely gratifying, but it also pains you to see invasive species spreading. Land stewards almost always have more tasks than they can complete and it’s very easy to let this make them feel overwhelmed and stressed, but it doesn’t have to be this way. After reflecting upon the first month of my fellowship, here are three lessons I’ve learned so far about being a happy steward:

  1. I cannot control nature. I am a steward, not a god. Expecting myself to control exactly which species grow on a property will only bring me frustration. The role of a land steward is not to dominate the forces of nature, but to regulate its extremes. Translation: my job isn’t to exterminate musk thistles, but to prevent them from outcompeting other species and lowering overall biodiversity.

A Regal Fritilary (Speyeria idalia) on Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans). Like it or not, Musk Thistles have become part of the local ecosystem. Being a steward doesn’t mean exterminating thistles, but keeping them under control.

  1. There is no endpoint. A land steward’s work is never “done.” My job isn’t to “fix” a property; it’s to guide the property toward a range of conditions that meet our management goals. Removing thistles from the same property year after year does not mean that we are failing at our job of “restoring” the prairie. On the contrary, it means we are doing our job of actively fostering biodiversity.

Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is non-native, but also non-invasive. We don’t remove it because it doesn’t lower plant diversity.

  1. Stewardship should be viewed as a positive action, not negative. There are two very different ways to look at land management. From one angle, a day spent chopping thistles could be considered a violent battle against an evil enemy; a task to evict an unworthy invader. From another angle, it could be considered a process of creating beautiful and biodiverse prairies. In my experience, viewing invasives as enemies just leads to exhaustion and bitterness. Only by viewing stewardship as a process of care and creation, in my opinion, can one generate the tremendous amount of energy needed to take on its many tasks.

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Land stewardship is an essential component of conservation and it’s imperative that we do it well. Unfortunately, it also is a very demanding job that can burn you out if you’re not careful. I’m happy to say that the first month of this fellowship taught me some very important lessons about setting realistic expectations and viewing my work as a positive contribution to prairie biodiversity. It’s important to be a happy steward!

Introducing the 2015-2016 Hubbard Fellows

On June 1, we began the third year of our Hubbard Fellowship Program, generously funded by Anne Hubbard through the Claire M. Hubbard Foundation.  We brought in two new Fellows, Evan and Kim, to follow in the footsteps of Anne, Eliza, Jasmine, and Dillon.  Between now and the end of next May, they will learn everything we can teach them about conservation and then go out into the world to become conservation leaders and professionals.

Hubbard Fellows Kim Tri and Evan Barrientos at The Nature Conservancy's Caveny Tract.

Hubbard Fellows Kim Tri and Evan Barrientos at The Nature Conservancy’s Caveny Tract.

I asked Kim and Evan to each write a short introduction describing themselves and how they got here.  In some ways, the two of them are very different from each other, but I think you’ll see a striking similarity in the paths they’ve taken to reach us.  I hope you’ll get to know them much better over the next year as they contribute their thoughts and images to this blog.


Evan Barrientos

Growing up in southeast Wisconsin I wanted to help protect nature, but I never could see myself working in the Midwest. To an aspiring wildlife biologist, it seemed that my home had lost all its nature a century ago to logging and farming. All that remained for me to explore were a few small nature centers and state parks surrounded by a vast expanse of corn, soybeans, lawns, pavement, and buildings. Nature worth exploring and protecting, it seemed, lay in faraway places like Alaska or the Amazon rainforest. Yes, I had heard that only about one percent of Wisconsin’s native prairies remained, but what good could I do to help those sad fragments of nature when there were pristine forests being logged just a continent away?

In college a lot of these beliefs changed, fortunately. I worked in Alaska, Mexico, and Ecuador, and I discovered that even in those amazing places I could still miss the song of an American Robin. I saw how complex conservation issues are and learned that effective solutions often require decades to develop. Furthermore, it became clear that research alone wouldn’t be enough to achieve my conservation goals. Most importantly, I realized the extreme conservation impact of another species that I had previously ignored: humans.

Nelson Winkel teaches Hubbard Fellow Evan Barrientos (in hat) how to drive a tractor.

Our land manager Nelson Winkel teaches Hubbard Fellow Evan Barrientos (in hat) how to drive a tractor.

After stepping out of childhood dreams and into real world conservation, I saw that at the root of nearly every conservation issue lies a problem with the way people view nature. As a result, I became fascinated with the numerous social aspects of conservation such as environmental education and sustainable alternative livelihoods. I remained interested in ecology, but wanted to study ways nature could benefit people and vice versa. Finally, by discovering the importance of working with people, I realized that if I wanted to achieve real and significant conservation solutions, I would have to work long-term within a community that I understood intimately rather than hop from one country to another.

By the end of college I had learned that pristine wildernesses weren’t the only places worth conserving. Upon graduating, my conservation goals were to protect natural areas from human development, restore degraded natural areas, and engage people in the process. The Nature Conservancy embodies this philosophy, and I became eager to work with them. Astoundingly, The Hubbard Fellowship provided that exact opportunity. While I once may have dismissed Nebraska’s prairies as tame, I now seem them filled with fascinating species, deserving of restoration after a history of persecution, and located in a region that I can legitimately call home. I am thrilled to be working here and learning so much about how to restore biodiversity in degraded ecosystems.

Evan is passionate about communicating conservation issues and natural history through photography, videography, and blogging. You can view his work at


Kim Tri

Though I grew up in southern Minnesota and prairies are a natural part of my life, my decision to study and work to conserve them took me kind of by surprise.  Conservation has always appealed to me—I’ve always wanted to do something with my life.  I just wanted to do it somewhere else.  At 19, frustrated with the Midwest and my lack of having done anything, I left my first college for a year in a conservation corps in Arizona, followed by another year in northern Minnesota, to see mountains and deserts and forests, and do something.  I credit where I am today to that first big move.  It allowed me to really learn from the land and the people around me, to understand the value of loving your work, and to really have a focus upon returning to college.

Sterling College in Vermont appealed to me then, partly because it offered the degree I wanted, but more importantly because of its dedication to educating the next generation of environmental stewards.  It was there in the beautiful Northwoods that I realized that what I really wanted was the grass and open space I’d left behind.  Running out of time to propose a senior project, the realization came in a “thunderbolt” moment.  It had to be prairies.  Without explicitly remembering learning the concepts, I already knew about fire and grazing, deep roots, and grass tall as horses.  Presenting the prairie to my advisor so that she could appreciate it as I do was a fun challenge and valuable experience.  Studying this ecosystem has been like coming home.  It illuminates old memories of purple coneflowers at the local zoo and chasing voles across the black of a new burn near my house.

Kim Tri (bottom left) on a Missouri River boat tour in early June - part of a large conference of Nature Conservancy staff in Nebraska City.

Kim Tri (bottom left) on a Missouri River boat tour in early June – part of a large conference of Nature Conservancy staff in Nebraska City.

Having tallied up something like ten moves in the past four years, I am excited to spend the duration of the Fellowship really sinking into one place and becoming part of the natural and human community.  I’m learning to put down roots, literally—the garden’s just getting going!  The peace of the prairie, I believe, will provide a perfect space in which to become a better naturalist, ecologist, land steward, and artist, and learn how to put all of those facets of myself to work in protecting the land.  I look forward, too, to the endless opportunities for professional development amid the blood, sweat, and tears of land management that will help hone the somewhat rough-and-tumble ecological education that I’ve received so far.

Kim volunteered with us last year while working on a senior project for college.  You can read more about her previous time with us here.