This post was written by Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year. Alex has a great aptitude and personality for environmental law and policy work, but not to the detriment of his outdoor work ethic – as you’ll see here. Also – Stay tuned for an announcement very soon about the application period for the next round of our Fellowship.
After graduating college with a degree in political science, I was convinced I was going to dive headfirst into a cubicle. There was something very exciting about it. I would have my own desk, the ability to throw on a sweater because the A/C is just a bit too chilly, and maybe, if I’m lucky, two monitors on my computer. This image was so idyllic because most of my work experience includes me being knee-high in mud (and probably not mud, if we are being honest), saturated in sweat, and consistently covered in perma-dirt, no matter how fancy I get with my laundry.
I was convinced I would have that dream cubicle. I wanted to, and still want to, pursue environmental law in some capacity: paralegal, administrative assistant, research, etc. Despite having plenty of outdoors jobs, I’ve had my fair share of indoor positions, slowly building a collection of slacks, khakis, corduroys, and dress pants for the day that I finally get my name on a desk. However, that collection will have to keep gathering dust, because my favorite pants are my workpants.
They are khaki canvas Dickies, with the classic red patch on the right butt cheek. They are size 32×32, but depending on the day, they would ideally be about two inches snugger and two inches longer. I’ve had them for four years. They were originally intended for my dad, but I intercepted them as they were my size.
Workpants are the physical manifestation of how much it takes to keep ecosystems in their desired condition. Without a little elbow grease, most of our prairies would be thickets of Siberian elm, a sea of musk thistles, or thatch dense enough you’d have to Bear Grylls your way out. Growing up, I marveled at how beautiful landscapes could regulate themselves without any intervention. However, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It takes folks out in the field every day of the week, not just when it is convenient, but when it’s raining, windy, hot, cold, summer, or winter. It is by no means glamorous work, but it’s rewarding, beautifully messy work. My pants have borne the brunt of that labor, from mud to paint. Every spot, snag, hole, wrinkle, or stain has a story.
In the last seven months, I have conducted a very scientific study regarding the reasons I have washed my workpants. Although the research is ongoing, I have some results that I think are notable for this audience. One might ask, “are most scientific studies done in colored pencil and marker?” The answer is that although it may seem archaic, I assure you it is still very scientific.
Some of the preliminary findings are that there has been a lot of poison ivy this year and that I’ve done a lot of chainsaw work, as shown by the lingering smell of two-stroke exhaust. After looking at the raw data and punching some numbers, I found that there is a clear correlation between my pants not fitting and how long I have been chainsawing. On occasion, after I take off my chaps, one may think that I’m wearing a second pair of chaps underneath my chaps, however, that is merely the outline of my sweat from where the chaps were once occupying.
Although it made a small appearance in the above data, breaking through the ice was one of my favorite experiences. In February, I and the other field staff were preparing for crane season, and one of the objectives was to remove cattails to make a clear view of the roosting cranes on the river. The river was still frozen at this time, but I was still wary of the thickness of ice. From the bank of the river, I removed all the cattails that I could reach. However, there were still cattails out further that were blocking the view of the river from the blind. Thinking of the cranes, I braved the ice. As I reached the outer edge of the cattails, I knew my goose was cooked. I plunged two feet down into the brisk water and got stuck in the muck, the murky water flowing into my boots. Within an instant, the stale winter air became rank with pungent, marinating muck that had not been disturbed for months. The damage was done, my Muck Boots were filled with literal muck, and I wasn’t going anywhere. To my demise, I finished the job, removing the cattails. To exit the icy water, I laid the weedwhacker on ice near the bank and beached-whaled myself out of the mucky water. Like I said, it’s not glamorous work, but it’s rewarding. The science is still ongoing, but if you’d like to contribute to my (very scientific) research, I’d be curious if you have any good stories about your trusty workpants!
Recently, I listened to a conference presentation by Doug Ladd, the Director of Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Missouri, and one of the smartest people I know. Doug talked about the importance of conserving biodiversity, habitat diversity, essential ecological processes, and irreplaceable habitats and species, and stressed the need to better connect people with nature. It was an excellent talk, and I could spin many of his points into entire blog posts. For now, however, I want to focus on one short phrase he uttered, which relates to something I often think about. The phrase was “There is no endgame in conservation.”
The importance of that phrase might not strike you immediately, but for those of us who dedicate much of our lives to prairie conservation, it’s an idea we need desperately to come to terms with. No matter how much time and effort we put into restoring or managing prairies, we won’t ever reach a place where we can stop and just let nature handle the rest. Many people harbor the romantic notion that if we could make prairies big enough and provide them with their full complement of species – including everything from soil microbes to bison, we could step away and the system would run itself without human intervention. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way it works. Nature relies on people just as much as we rely on nature, and it’s really not even fair to mention nature and people as if they are two distinct entities.
Because there is no endgame in prairie conservation, we need to develop an appropriate mindset. Most importantly, we have to be able to look at the future without despair. As an example, it’s easy to look at many grasslands and wonder how we can possibly deal with all the invasive species threatening the site today, let alone all the new ones that will inevitably join them. It can feel like trying to hold back a river with a garden hoe. Issues like habitat loss and fragmentation, nitrogen deposition, and climate change just make the picture even more bleak. Knowing that our prairies won’t ever be able to stand on their own might seem the same as knowing that we can never win. All we can do is stave off loss for as long as possible. That’s seriously depressing.
Since this is the life I’ve chosen for myself, I’ve thought a lot about the idea that there is no endgame in conservation, and I’ve come up with a metaphor that makes me feel a lot better about it. I don’t see myself as a hopeless defender of prairies, trying to stave off inevitable destruction. Instead, I see myself as part of a long series of mechanics. I inherited the prairies I work with from prior mechanics, and someday I’ll hand those prairies off to future mechanics. As such, my job isn’t to save the prairie, it’s to keep it running until the next mechanic takes over. The metaphor applies to an individual manager and a single prairie, but it also applies to each generation of conservationists and the earth we’re all working to maintain. Success is being able to hand off a functioning prairie, biome, or earth to the next generation of mechanics.
To understand my metaphor, you have to move away from the idea that most mechanics are only able to keep a particular car, for example, running for a certain period of time before it inevitably dies and goes to the scrap heap. While that is the way it usually works, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Imagine starting out in 1908 with a brand new Ford Model T automobile and giving a series of mechanics the charge to keep the vehicle functional forever. For a while, keeping the car running just means replacing fluids and parts that break or wear out. Eventually, however, there will be needed updates to parts, and even changes to the overall design of the car, so it can be adapted to keep up with a changing world. Over time, because of changes in road design, safety and fuel efficiency rules, and needs of drivers, the car will have to be made to drive faster, brake more efficiently, use different fuel, and evolve in numerous other ways. As each generation of mechanic finds innovative ways to keep the vehicle on the road and running well, the vehicle will be continually and repeatedly transformed. Today’s version of the vehicle would be nearly unrecognizable to the mechanic who first worked on the Model T. Very few original parts would remain, but today’s version of the vehicle would still perform the same essential function of transporting people and/or goods from place to place.
Prairies and other ecosystems are both easier and harder than cars to maintain over time. On the one hand, prairies are infinitely more complex than cars, and come with many more challenges (though auto mechanics might argue that last point). On the other hand, prairies consist of networks of living organisms, which can adapt as individuals and as communities to evolving challenges. That inherent adaptability means that the prairie manager’s job is really to help the prairie maintain its resilience – its ability to retain its essential functions – as the world changes around it.
Just as the vehicle in my mechanic metaphor is constantly transforming, prairies and other ecosystems have to do the same, and land stewards have difficult choices to make as those changes occur. As an example, many of today’s prairies have numerous and abundant species that weren’t even on the continent a few hundred years ago. A profusion of introduced plants have entered the scene, some of which are apparently innocuous, and others that have dramatically changed the balance of power within plant communities. In addition, white-tailed deer have become superabundant across most prairie regions, pollinator populations are crashing, and many other changes to animal communities have severe impacts on ecological processes. Belowground, non-native earthworms and pill bugs are just two examples of species that have fundamentally altered the soil fauna in ways we don’t really understand. Habitat fragmentation, high levels of nitrogen deposition, and a rapidly changing climate all combine to further drive important transformations in prairie species composition.
Fortunately, our job as land stewards is not to prevent our prairies from changing; our job is to help prairies preserve their character and function as they change, and then hand those prairies off to the next generation of stewards. How do we do that? We can manage for plant diversity and habitat heterogeneity to maintain ecological resilience. We can prevent or suppress invasive species that have serious negative impacts on that resilience and diversity. We can enhance the viability of small isolated prairies by restoring adjacent habitats and making those prairies larger and more connected. As time goes by and conditions change, prairies will transform in ways that might make them nearly unrecognizable to land stewards of previous generations. Rather than a sign of failure, those transformations are a sign of success, as long as they preserve the components and processes that are characteristic* of prairies. After all, a 2017 Tesla Model 3 is a far cry from the 1908 Ford Model T, but which would you rather drive through today’s world?
*Defining the essential characteristics of prairies is something we don’t discuss nearly enough. It seems like a simple enough exercise to outline what makes a prairie a prairie, but if you believe that, give it a shot…
Years ago, we hired an older mechanic (older than me, anyway) to take care of our equipment so I and other staff could focus more on ecology and land management and less on carburetors and oil changes. Fred (not his real name) always seemed a little grumpy. That was completely understandable, given his responsibilities. Not only was our equipment old and worn out, we tended to be pretty rough on it.
Trained as ecologists, not mechanics, we often used equipment for purposes it was never intended for. (“You know that old Massey combine was built for harvesting soybeans on flat fields, right? Not for harvesting dense prairie cordgrass in wet meadows or rose hips on steep hills??”) Even worse, we were pretty cavalier about checking oil, greasing zerks, and other basic maintenance. When equipment inevitably broke down, Fred would come out with his tools, grumbling under his breath about carelessness and laziness, and fix the problem. The next time we used that particular piece of equipment, we were likely to see a note scrawled on the equipment in paint marker reminding us to “CHECK OIL BEFORE DRIVING!”, “DRIVE IN LOW GEAR!”, or “BLOW OUT THE RADIATOR!” We always knew Fred was mad when the paint markers made an appearance.
I’ve often thought that land managers are much like mechanics. Instead of maintaining machines, we are charged with keeping natural areas working properly. Sometimes, we’re called upon to fix (restore) land that has been degraded by chronic overgrazing, broadcast herbicide use, or even tillage. Other times, we just perform minor tune ups to keep things humming along. There isn’t really an end point to land management, no pinnacle of success to be reached. Instead, success is being able to hand off a piece of land to the next manager and feel good about it. “Welp, here’s the keys…”
Because he cared about the equipment he was responsible for, Fred always got justifiably frustrated with us when we would fail to take obvious (to him) steps to help prevent a potential breakdown. He also felt personally offended when he saw machinery – ours or otherwise – that was obviously neglected and rundown. We land managers experience the same emotions about land.
We understand the importance of plant and animal diversity in prairies, for example, and know that good management can maintain both that diversity and the ecological function it supports. It is immensely frustrating to see prairies neglected and over-run by trees or other invasive plants. It can be even harder to watch a prairie get chronically overgrazed, broadcast with herbicide, or (especially) tilled for row crop production. We have a deep understanding of what’s lost when prairie is degraded or destroyed, and we appreciate how difficult restoration can be.
Just as Fred got cranky with us because we didn’t take care of the equipment he was invested in, it’s easy for us as land managers to feel the same way about people who neglect or abuse land. However, whenever Fred would gripe at us about what we were doing, we tended to tune him out (“Oh, that’s just Fred – he’s always cranky about something.”) Only on the rare occasions did he calmly explain why it was important to do something and how it might affect us personally. That’s when we actually listened.
I think there is an important lesson here for land managers and anyone involved in conservation. Being grumpy doesn’t build credibility. People don’t usually respond well when you lash out at them or make them feel dumb or lazy. If we want to change the way people treat land, we need to figure out the motivation behind what they’re currently doing and start a conversation there. Often, they have good intentions but lack the information and larger context that we have. We can help with that. Demonstrating what good land management looks like and showing how better habitat helps wildlife, pollinators and humans will go a long way toward improving the world around us.
A related lesson is that working in isolation doesn’t change the hearts and minds of others. Most land managers tend to enjoy working alone, or in small groups of like-minded people. While that may be comfortable, it doesn’t help inspire action on other lands. Inviting people to well-managed land for field days, volunteer work days or similar events can show others what great habitat looks like and motivate them to imitate good work. Sharing effective strategies and important lessons through presentations and publications can reach a broad audience. All land managers are constantly learning, but unless that knowledge is shared, it isn’t advancing conservation.
There is plenty to shake our heads about these days. The human race does a lot of silly things, and it’s tempting to just around and grumble to ourselves about it – or to snipe at anyone who offends us. That doesn’t really get us anywhere, though, does it? Instead of griping, let’s start conversations. Let’s find out what others care about and explain what conservation looks like to us and why it matters. Let’s be proactive about sharing both the lessons we learn and the wonder we gain from our lands.
After all, I think we can all agree that empathy and conversation are more effective than paint markers…
This post is by Eric Chien, one of our 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows. Eric hails from Minnesota, with an undergraduate education from Bowdoin College in Maine. He has a strong background in prairie management, and hopefully a bright future in that field as well.
The most compelling experience of the North American Prairie Conference was on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon on a winding path through the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands. While I was beaded with sweat from just walking in the Eastern Tallgrass humidity, I saw three people, laden down with seed bags, hand harvesting seed and ripping problem plants from the ground. Jeff Walk, Illinois TNC Science Director and our guide for the walk assured us that these volunteers were not planted. Furthermore, he noted that this was a fairly regular sight at Nachusa.
Three people. Tuesday morning. Maybe I come from a different community context, but for me, seeing three, independently working, non-professional, unpaid, human beings engaged in land management is akin to seeing a prairie chicken drum on a buffalo’s back under a wildfire sunset. Okay, maybe not quite that, but my point is that intensive, regular community engagement and participation in land management is a rare phenomenon. It was a sight that made me wonder how we plan to achieve our restoration goals for individual sites beyond the immediate future. My predecessor, Evan Barrientos, had begun the work of pulling on this loose thread, and I encourage you to read his post on volunteer stewardship if you have not, but I think it begs further unpacking.
It is a great feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie knowing that it was once cropland. It is a crushing feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie overrun and choked by invasive plants. And it is unfortunately not an uncommon feeling to have both experiences on the same prairie, just a couple years apart. Many prairie restoration sites have found out what happens when management capacity does not match the scope of their restorations: a seemingly endless game of catch-up with invasive plants ever threatening to swallow a new prairie. Addressing the pitfalls of that disjunct approach was one of the Grassland Restoration Network’s primary prescriptions for restoration success (here is the link to that report). However, I want to think beyond even the 5-15 year timeline to the idea of management in perpetuity. In the reality of a fragmented landscape, it appears likely that even the best restorations (well planned and executed) will require regular management for those lands to continue to achieve our respective management goals for them.
It leads us to important questions: As the acreage of restored prairie grows, have we invested in the organizational groundwork to ensure the continuity of our achievements? Is there a need for innovation in stewardship structures as we seek to move to an increased scale of work? Or should we aim to increase funding for professional management staff augmented with whatever traditional volunteer programs that we have?
As someone who is seeking a professional stewardship career, more money aimed at increasing the capacity of professional resource management sounds awesome. As someone who has seen the scope of need for stewardship, I have a hard time envisioning that approach rising to the challenge on its own. So then the big question- what does effective community-based stewardship look like?
I think it sort of looks like Nachusa Grasslands. In a talk at the conference, Bill Kleiman, the Nachusa Grasslands land manager, said, “we don’t just produce grasses, flowers, and wildlife, we also produce people.” I don’t know if steward production is part of their long-term management plan, but they seem to approach it with an intentionality that suggests it is. From the little glimpse I saw of it, Nachusa Grasslands has produced a stewardship structure that draws heavily on a capacity that is less tied to The Nature Conservancy, and more attached to the place. The stewards there love the land they work on. That trait gives it a unique resiliency. Organizations come and go over the short and long-term. If we want the successes we have in places to be maintained then we need to make sure we are building stewardship structures that have some independence from the organizations that own the land on which they work. Private lands conservation has focused on empowering non-professionals by necessity. Yet, I think if we take stock of our public and NGO-owned stewardship needs, there is a similar necessity for involving community stewards in a significant way looming on the horizon. I think for many of us it is already here.
This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog.
A small brown bird that sounds like it doesn’t even want to be singing; what could possibly be interesting enough about this to justify a blog post? As is often the case in nature, there’s a lot more than meets the eye (and ear). In my ten years of birdwatching I had only seen this species once before, six years ago. Central Nebraska is on the far western edge of its range, so I was thrilled to document it attempting to breed in one of our prairies. It turns out, this brown speck is an elusive and declining species that epitomizes why we need to manage our prairie so that the full range of habitat structure is present.
Often described as “mouselike,” Henslow’s Sparrows spend most of their time on the ground and prefer to run rather than fly when threatened. The only time they emerge from the grass is to whisper their two-note song, described by Roger Tory Peterson as “one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird.” While this makes them an exciting challenge to find, it has also made them a difficult species to conserve. Due to their secretive lifestyle, scientists have had a very hard time studying basic facts about their lives, including how many of them there are and what habitat they actually prefer. While most sources say that Henslow’s require large grasslands free of trees and shrubs, there are some shrubby prairies that actually have high Henslow’s populations, such as in Missouri. What is certain is that many of the pastures and hayfields that Henslow’s once nested in have been converted to row crops over the last forty years. Lack of fire and grazing in the remaining grasslands have let trees and shrubs establish, which seem to deter nesting in most cases. As a result, Henslow’s are thought to have declined even more than other grassland birds, although it’s difficult to tell for sure.
Fortunately, land managers and owners can provide suitable habitat for this species by conducting prescribed burns; removing fencelines, hedgerows, and trees; and allowing the grass in some areas to grow tall and rank. The management strategy that The Nature Conservancy practices here on the Platte River Prairies, called patch burn grazing, helps create this habitat. Additionally, Henslow’s have shown signs of adapting to grasslands created by the Conservation Reserve Program. But convincing people to care about species like Henslow’s might be more difficult. How do we raise appreciation for tiny species that require binoculars, excellent hearing, and lots of patience to see well? It’s tough, but I think an important part of enjoying a Henslow’s is understanding how lucky you are to find one. If you do, it probably means that you’re in a scarce type of grassland, a great observer, and a bit lucky. Drab as they may be, Henslow’s are a special species to find. In many ways, Henslow’s Sparrows epitomize the challenges facing all grassland species. For them to survive, we must preserve large tracts of grassland, manage them for specific conditions, and learn to appreciate prairies slowly and thoughtfully.
Sadly, after two weeks of singing, our Henslow’s Sparrow vanished for the rest of the year. Perhaps the prairie wasn’t big enough, or the grass thick enough, but I wish him luck, and I hope it’s not six more years until I find another.
It’s been almost 19 years since I started my career with The Nature Conservancy as a land steward. My job was simple: restore and manage several thousand acres of prairie, wetland, and woodland habitat. When I started, I felt like I was the luckiest guy on earth. I was also scared to death. What if I messed up? These were extraordinarily complex ecological sites and I was a 25-year old kid with only a college education and a sliver of real world experience. I had lots of ideas but it was daunting to think about trying those ideas out without knowing they’d work. Fortunately, Al Steuter, the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska gave me some advice that helped me tremendously. In essence, he told me to remember that prairies were incredibly resilient, and that nothing I did in one year (aside from tillage or broadcast herbicides) could ruin them. That advice was incredibly liberating, and allowed me to start enjoying my work.
Over time, my responsibilities have changed and now, among other things, I serve as advisor to our statewide land management team. I really like what I do, but land steward was my dream job and I can’t imagine I’ll ever find a better one. However, as I think about the stewards I know and work with, I’m pretty sure I don’t measure up to today’s standards.
The job description for most land stewards in The Nature Conservancy – at least in the Great Plains – has expanded to the point of almost unattainable proportions. As a result, it is no exaggeration to say that I am no longer qualified to be a land steward for this organization. Most land stewards I know work by themselves or with a very small team – often consisting mostly of seasonal employees – and manage thousands of acres of land for biological diversity and wildlife habitat. As a result, they have to be able to handle whatever challenge presents itself, from plant identification to small engine repair, and everything in between. To give you an idea of the scope of that work, here is a partial list of what we expect of Nelson Winkel and Evan Suhr, land stewards who work for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska.
Ecologist/Natural History Biologist
Evan and Nelson are expected to be able to identify most of the plant and animal species living in the prairies they manage and understand how they interact. They also have to understand how all those species and interactions respond to various combinations of weather patterns and management treatments. Obtaining just those skills could easily consume a career.
Good land stewards always look for ways to test the effectiveness of management strategies so they can keep improving their work – and provide guidance to neighbors and partners facing the same challenges. Sometimes, that means collaborating with academic scientists on research projects. More often, it just means setting up an invasive species control or grazing treatment in a way that provides a fair and impartial test of two or more methods. The results of those tests don’t usually get published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, but in order for the results to be trusted, the tests have to be set up in a scientifically-rigorous way.
Building and fixing fences, and repairing windmills and solar-powered pumps are frequent tasks for Evan and Nelson. Even more frequent tasks include manual labor associated with invasive plants – chopping thistles, cutting trees, etc. Some of those tasks require mainly hard work, but others require specialized knowledge (how to take apart, clean, and reassemble a pump, for example). In addition, stewards have to stay current on agricultural topics from grazing lease rates to animal husbandry techniques so they can work effectively with Conservancy bison herds or the cattle (and their owners) grazing Conservancy land.
The number of engines involved in land stewardship is astonishing, including those found in trucks, tractors, skidsteer, ATVs, chainsaws, fire equipment, and more. Land stewards have to be able to maintain all those engines, but also perform at least basic diagnostics and repairs. When major repairs are needed, they can haul equipment to a professional mechanic, but if they needed professional help for every little mechanical malady, stewards would spend all their time hauling equipment to and from repair shops. As someone who has never figured out how to correctly adjust a carburetor or do whatever it is you have to do to make a chainsaw actually start correctly when just pulling the cord doesn’t work, I have great admiration for those who have the skill, knowledge base, and intuition to fix engines.
Since most land stewardship operations include buildings with plumbing and electrical systems (not to mention electric fences and livestock watering systems), and contracting for repairs in remote areas is usually infeasible because of cost, timeliness, or both, those repairs often fall to land stewards. Replacing a broken light fixture, finding and repairing a leaky pipe in a house crawlspace, or troubleshooting a short in an electric fence are all tasks that could fall to land steward on any given day.
Much invasive plant control requires the application of herbicide. The variety of brands and formulations of herbicides can be as overwhelming as the diversity of invasive plant species they help suppress. Just reading and understanding an herbicide label can be a daunting task, let alone trying to understand how various chemical formulations might affect plants in a way that will kill the ones you want and not the ones you don’t. Then, once you’ve figured out – for example – whether you should use the amine or ester formulation of a particular chemical (it’s related to risks associated with volatilization on hot days), you still have to calculate the correct amount of each ingredient and calibrate your sprayer.
I am in awe of Nelson’s ability to make specialized tools and equipment for land management work. Simple welding tasks seem overwhelming to me, let alone building herbicide sprayers, slip-on fire pumper units, and hydraulically-powered augers to dig holes for large fence posts. Sometimes he builds his own equipment because it’s cheaper than buying it, but other times he does it because it’s not possible to buy something that does what he needs it to do.
Despite the fact that The Nature Conservancy is a private non-profit organization, becoming qualified to lead a prescribed fire for TNC now requires stewards to work through the NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group) system used by federal agencies that fight wildfires. Under a best case scenario, it takes several years to take all the courses and get signed off on all the required tasks (including some that necessitate fighting wildfires) to qualify as someone who can lead prescribed fires. Accomplishing that means spending weeks at a time away from home. Regardless, prescribed fire is a critically-important component of The Nature Conservancy’s work, so land stewards work through those requirements as best they can.
Land stewardship doesn’t happen in a vacuum. All of our properties are nested within land owned by farmers and ranchers. To be successful, land stewards have to get along with, learn from, and share ideas with those neighbors and other partners. Often that leads to interesting situations in which a land steward is negotiating a grazing lease with a neighbor who also happens to be on the local fire board and can influence whether or not a burn permit is issued. Gaining the respect of neighbors and other local conservation partners means taking the time to get to know them, their families, and their personal philosophies on life, conservation, hunting, and football. Much of that relationship building happens outside of a regular work schedule, but it’s essential – we couldn’t do our work without the support of our neighbors and local communities. More importantly, building credibility with neighbors and partners is critical because sharing lessons learned from our land management work with others is how we influence conservation beyond the borders of our relatively small land holdings.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for land stewards is that despite the amount of work to be done, there are still only 24 hours in a day. Working as a land steward for The Nature Conservancy is incredibly rewarding but also impossibly complex and difficult – as is working as a land manager for any conservation organization or farm/ranch operation. I still can’t believe I ever got hired as a land steward, or that I managed a fair amount of success in spite of my shortcomings, especially in terms of mechanical prowess. It is my privilege to work with stewards like Nelson, Evan, and many others, and I am in awe of the breadth of their knowledge and the extent of their energy. Not only are they caretakers of their particular natural areas, they are developing, testing, and sharing the techniques the rest of us need in order to conserve the rest of the natural world.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
I think I’ve had unacknowledged tractor-envy for a while. Growing up in the suburbs, the biggest piece of “machinery” I dealt with was probably our push lawnmower. When I moved to Minnesota and the prevalence and presence of large farm machinery increased greatly, I’d often find myself feeling a little jealous of the people who got to drive combines (once I learned that’s what those giant things are called) and the other mysterious, long-limbed machines; they commanded so much power at their fingertips, and I wondered what the world looked like from so high. When I got to use a riding mower in Montana (my first time on non-automotive machinery), I thought that was fantastic. Thankfully, living in Nebraska has provided an antidote to my tractor-envy, and has given me a chance to refine my mowing abilities.
Dillon and I were lucky that soon after our arrival, Platte River Prairies acquired our new, shiny green John Deere 5075E tractor. There is also a well-used, slightly less intimidating, yellow John Deere 401B tractor. I knew that we would get to learn how to operate tractors as part of the Fellowship, but I was unaware of how vital the tractors are to our management here. Most of that was due to ignorance about how many ways a tractor can be put to use (sooo many ways!), but I was also generally naive about how precious labor and time is to land stewards. My previous stewardship experience at Carleton College was in a relatively labor-rich context – working in the Arboretum was a work-study option – and many management objectives were tackled by teams of students wielding hand tools. The dynamic here is very different: there is Nelson, there are the two Fellows (we spend a lot of time on stewardship, but also have other projects diverting our attention), Sam for the last few summers, and Chris and Mardell come and help when they can. Even with the help of our wonderful volunteers who help collect seed and tackle other projects for us, we’re dealing with a lot less available labor. Needless to say, I’m learning a lot about how to prioritize management and how to efficiently tackle our management objectives.
Ownership of a reliable tractor that is the right size and has the right attachments to fit our needs is essential to efficiently completing our stewardship goals. For example, we’ve been spending the last two weeks pulling out old fence line, and while we might be strong, we’re not fence-has-been-buried-by-six inches-of-dirt-and-sod-and-is-now-one-with-the-earth strong. I have tried tugging on those fences, and while we can make some progress, it’s amazing to operate the tractor and feel how easily our hydraulics enable us to tear out these wires that would take us days to uncover and pull out by hand.
Our tractors certainly help with efficiency, but simply stated, we depend on them as our primary implement for a lot of our stewardship and maintenance. Our tractors are essential to mowing firebreaks and fence lines, and for shredding invasive vegetation to a height that delays its growth and makes it short enough for our sprayers. When we need to spray a large area (which isn’t too often), the tractor – and Nelson’s innovative spray setups – save us a lot of time, and give us a powerful tool against our more entrenched patches of invasive plants. The tractors are also used for pulling out stuck vehicles (not that we ever do that) and for navigating terrain that’s too swampy for our other vehicles.
I love our tractors because they enable us to accomplish our objectives, but I also appreciate that they give me a chance to hone a different set of skills. Tractor operation requires attention to detail, especially spatial awareness. I need to be able to judge terrain so I don’t tip over, I need to make sure I’m far enough from co-workers and vehicles that I’m not going to damage anything or anyone, and I also need to know which part of the tractor is going to move when I pull a certain lever. Because they are so powerful, it’s hard to undo something once you’ve done it with a tractor. There’s also a lot of multi-tasking. It’s surprisingly challenging to simultaneously steer, manage my speed, avoid obstacles, engage the correct lever, and ensure that I’m spraying (or mowing) what I intend to. But I’m feeling more confident in my abilities every day.
Tractor time is also appreciated because mowing or spraying is relatively slow-paced compared to most of our stewardship tasks. For all their might, when you’re mowing with a tractor, the swath you’re able to cover is only as wide as the shredder attachment, which is a relatively unimpressive nine feet or so. When you’re covering several dozen acres nine feet at a time at 5mph, that is a lot of laps. But honestly, I really value this time, and the chance to examine every foot of our property (or at least every foot of the perimeter). I’ve honed my ability to identify plants while in motion, discovered gates I never knew existed, observed how voles move through the thatch, and gained a better understanding of how the plant composition of our units shifts with topography.
Our tractors are also indirectly beneficial to my life here. When the farmers are talking about their machinery, I have at least some idea of what they’re talking about, even if our tractor is maybe half the size of theirs. I now know what a PTO (Power Take-Off) is, I have stories about nearly tipping over (there was a buried beaver lodge), and I am able to get some respect when people learn that I drive the tractor, just like Nelson or Dillon.
While I’ve satiated the majority of my machinery-related curiosity, my only remaining wish is that I have a chance to operate the mythical skidsteer. I saw one in action at Carleton and marveled at its ability to wrench stumps from the ground (something we desperately need help with along our old fence line). Nelson has told us tales of their dexterity and usefulness at our Rulo site. Hopefully I will get a chance to drive the beast when we rent one in the spring; just think of all the farm cred I’ll garner!
Some people say it’s dangerous to make assumptions. I disagree. In fact, assumptions are both necessary and empowering. Land managers make assumptions all the time. If we didn’t, we’d never get anything done.
Assumptions are only dangerous when they are either unrecognized or untested. For example, it’s reasonable for me to assume that my car’s engine has an adequate amount of oil in it, but it would be irresponsible not to check the level now and then to be sure. Without the assumption that I still had oil, I’d probably stop to check my oil every mile or so and I’d never get anywhere. In order to move forward, I have to make reasonable assumptions, including that my engine hasn’t lost all of its oil since the last time I checked it.
As land managers, we have to take a similar approach. Much of the time, we assume that species and ecological systems are reacting predictably and positively to our management, but we also do spot checks to reassure ourselves. Often those evaluations involve nothing more than a walk through a prairie to see how things are looking, but in some cases might conduct more intensive data collection.
Land managers also make broader assumptions about how restoration or management projects will contribute to conservation objectives. As we plan projects, we make educated guesses that help us design our work effectively. Then we implement the project and see what happens. If we didn’t make assumptions, we’d be paralyzed by indecision and never get anything done.
It is critically important, however to recognize what assumptions we’re making, and to test them when we have the chance. Here are several examples of assumptions we make in our Platte River Prairies management, and some of the ways we’re testing them.
Assumption #1. Prairie plants can survive periodic intensive grazing.
Grazing is an important part of our management. Most commonly, we employ variations of patch-burn grazing, in which a portion of a prairie is grazed pretty intensively for most of one growing season and then allowed to recover for a couple years before it’s intensively grazed again. We use grazing to manipulate plant competition, especially by suppressing the vigor of dominant grasses to produce more plant diversity. It also is our primary tool for creating heterogeneous habitat structure, including important habitat conditions (such as short grass/tall forbs) that are difficult or impossible to create without grazing.
Our data show that overall plant diversity is thriving under our management, and it’s easy to see the variety of habitat conditions we create each year. However, we’re making the assumption that we’re not losing any plant species due to periodic intensive grazing. It’s an informed assumption, based on experience and our understanding of history, including the kind of fire/grazing interactions that happened in these prairies over the last several thousand years. Regardless, it’s an assumption, and one we need to test.
We collect annual data from some prairies and less frequent data from others that allow us to track individual plant species over time. So far, we’ve not seen any indication of plant species that are disappearing under our management. Even if we weren’t rigorously collecting data, we could still test our assumption by simply tracking the population size of species most likely to be impacted by grazing. We could use techniques such as photopoints or walking transects, or we could just mark and watch individuals or patches of plants over time.
Assumption #2. Some exotic/invasive species are not harmful enough to warrant eradication efforts.
We have more than enough invasive species to deal with on our sites, so we have to be selective about which to spend most of our time on. We set priorities based on experience, and focus most on those species we think have the greatest potential to harm plant diversity or habitat quality. However, we recognize that our assumptions about impacts could be wrong, so we test them – both through general observation and data collection. I’ve written before about data we’ve collected on both Kentucky bluegrass and sweetclover impacts, for example.
Assumption #3. Restoring cropland adjacent to a small prairie will increase its conservation value.
The prairie restoration work we do is not focused on re-creating historic landscapes, but on trying to decrease the impacts of habitat fragmentation. We assume that adding diverse prairie plantings around and between isolated prairie fragments will increase population size and connectivity for plants, insects, mammals, birds, reptiles, and more. Bigger and more interconnected populations should be more viable than smaller and isolated populations.
Our assumption seems reasonable, but it’s expensive to harvest and plant more than 200 plant species in a crop field, so we need to see if we’re actually achieving our objective. More importantly, we need to be able to show policy makers that this kind of strategy produces substantial ecological impacts. Unfortunately, this kind of assumption is logistically difficult to test.
We have a long way to go, but we’re starting to look at whether various species living in our unplowed prairies are also found in adjacent restored prairies. If those species aren’t using the new habitat, our strategy isn’t helping them. If they are, that’s good to know – though there are still more assumptions to test (e.g., do those new habitats facilitate successful breeding and/or migration and colonization?). So far, some preliminary investigations indicate that most ant and bee species appear to use restored habitats, and we’re now looking at small mammals and grasshoppers as well.
Assumption #4. We can maintain healthy populations of all prairie species through our “shifting mosaic” approach to wildlife habitat management.
This is a big one, and is very difficult to test. We assume that by creating a variety of habitat conditions each year – including tall/dense, short/sparse, and mixed-height vegetation – all of the species in our prairies (insects, mammals, birds, plants, etc.) can find what they need each year. On top of that, we’re assuming that as we shift the location of habitat conditions between years, species can either move to appropriate habitat or hunker down until better conditions cycle back through.
As with our assumption about plants and grazing, historical context applies. Prairie species evolved in grasslands that were subjected to fire, grazing, and drought, and preferred habitat conditions for any particular species would have shifted around the landscape from year to year. However, much is different today, including the size and fragmentation of grasslands, the presence of invasive species, and much more. Are today’s species able to survive significant variations in habitat conditions from year to year? Can a species that needs thatchy cover successfully find more of that habitat after a fire burns through its current location? If so, how far can it travel, and through what kinds of habitats?
We haven’t gotten as far in testing this assumption as we have with some others, but we think a lot about it. We’ve been gleaning information on animal movement from the scientific literature, and will meet with university scientists next month to discuss potential collaborative research on this topic. Most importantly, we recognize that we are making some big assumptions about our management strategies, and we keep those assumptions in mind as we make our annual plans. For example, we try to think about factors such as travel distance between similar habitat types (tall/dense or short/sparse habitats, for example) and we try to leave unburned refuges within large burn units. Hopefully, we’ll get more guidance soon, but in the meantime, we’re moving forward the best we can.
Just as I watch for signs that my car’s engine might be getting low on oil as I drive, I also watch for signs that our land management strategies are working as we want them to. (More on that in an upcoming post.) Recognizing the assumptions we’re making is a critical piece of successful management, but testing those assumptions is just as important. Assumption testing doesn’t have to involve intensive data collection; it can be as simple as making some annual notes about whether or not a particular patch of wildflowers is still there, or keeping track of how invasive species respond to various management treatments. If we know what we’re uncertain of, we’ll be more thoughtful about management decisions and more observant of their impacts.
What assumptions are you making? Are you working to test them?
…oh, and don’t forget to check your oil now and then.
Volunteers are a critical part of our stewardship work at the Platte River Prairies. We don’t have a lot of them, but we’ve been lucky to have some great ones. All of our volunteers are appreciated, but we have special gratitude for those who commit so much time they are essentially staff – except we don’t have to pay them! One of those terrific volunteers over the last three seasons has been Sam Sommers, a high school student from Kearney, Nebraska. When his dad first approached us about Sam doing some volunteer work as a young high schooler, we wondered whether it would be worth our time, but figured that anyone with that much interest deserved our attention. And man did we get our money’s worth (so to speak)! He spent the vast majority of three summers working – very hard – alongside our stewardship staff.
Sam is going off to study wildlife biology at the University of Wyoming this fall. They are lucky to have him. I could say a lot about how much we appreciate everything Sam has done for us – and we really do – but one of our Hubbard Fellows, Jasmine Cutter, stepped up to do it for me.
By Jasmine Cutter:
When I first got to the Platte River Prairies, I wasn’t sure who I was going to meet when I heard “Sam” mentioned. Based on Eliza’s (former Hubbard Fellow) enthusiasm – “Sam’s the best!!” – and Nelson’s nodded affirmation, I assumed that I was about to meet a celebrity. I have to say, Sam has lived up to the hype. He is tireless, curious, knowledgeable, and a real trouper! Sam is a master of the killstick, a seed-collector speedy enough to rival Chris (editor’s note: ok, he’s really good, but not THAT good), and a tireless thistle destroyer.
Coming into our Hubbard Fellowship just as the growing season was starting to take off was pretty overwhelming – long days, many different invasive species to learn, new tools to master, not to mention trying to figure out where all the sites are. Dillon and I often relied on Sam’s seasons of experience working here. His advice and assistance allowed us to operate fairly independently from Nelson, freeing up Nelson to work on other projects. Our introduction to stewardship wouldn’t have been nearly as smooth without Sam’s help.
Really, the thing that impresses me the most about Sam – besides his competency – is his work ethic. He is out here every day dealing with exactly what we’re dealing with: battling the mosquitoes/ticks/chiggers, the sometimes dispiritingly large patches of thistles, the sweaty herbiciding goggles, the heat, the long days… It’s hard to fathom how much more Chris and Nelson have been able to accomplish with Sam here. He has removed hundreds of trees, killed thousands of thistles and other invasive plants, collected dozens of gallons of seeds, and completed myriad other tasks that never would have happened without Sam. With a work ethic like his, I have no doubt that Sam will do great in college – it might even be a restful experience after his stint here. We will greatly miss Sam, and I can’t wait to hear about what he gets up to in the future!
Sam, THANK YOU very much for everything, and have a great time at college! – Chris H