The Mechanics of Conservation

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.

A paint marker note of "encouragement". Photo by Eric Chien

A paint marker note reminder from “Fred”. Photo by Eric Chien

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.

Land managers

It’s vital that land managers share what we learn with other land managers, land owners, and others.  Looking at management results on site can be the most effective way to trade ideas and strategies, but there are other options as well.  Starting conversations is the first step.

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…

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Community-Based Stewardship and Long-Term Management

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.

These volunteers helped plant prairies and wetlands on our Platte River Prairies.  It can be more difficult to recruit long-term volunteers to help manage restored (and other) sites.

These volunteers helped plant prairies and wetlands on our Platte River Prairies. It can be more difficult to recruit long-term volunteers to help manage restored (and other) sites.

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?

Invasive species control is a critically important part of land management, both on restored and remnant sites.

Invasive species control is a critically important part of land management, both on restored and remnant sites.

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.