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!
This post was written by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows. Katharine is multifaceted and very talented – exactly the kind of person we like having in our Fellowship program.
I used to be a fairly prolific artist. As soon as I could hold a pencil I began drawing and copying whatever pictures of horses I could find. As a teenager, I explored multiple media and subjects, including colored pencil landscapes, watercolor and acrylic paintings, ceramic dishware, and illuminated Celtic calligraphy in inks and metallic finishes. My hands would wander over the paper, canvas, and clay for hours, creating from whatever came into my head or caught my eye. I would get frustrated, I would get inspired, and almost always something would find its way out of my head.
Around when I finished graduate school, this drive began to fade. It hasn’t disappeared – there have been occasional spurts of creation, but overall the last two and a half years have seen a huge drop in my artistic inspiration. When I did create, it was painstakingly slow and the hours no longer slipped away from me. This stressed me out. Art had been so huge in my life for so long, what was happening? Would I ever be able to access that drive again, or was it gone? Over time I became resigned, and figured all I could do was keep my mind open to any inspiration that might reemerge.
This past week, while I was cutting out the windows on the metal shipping containers that will eventually be The Nature Conservancy’s new sand hill crane viewing blinds, I was thinking about how even land management tasks that seem repetitive and straightforward have varying degrees of hidden skill behind their successful implementation.
The plasma cutter I was using to create the crane blind windows has a tiny spatial range where its electric arc most effectively cuts steel, and the evenness of the cut depends on holding the tip at a very consistent angle while simultaneously moving the cutter at a precise rate.
Safely and effectively spraying invasive plants depends on literally moment by moment interpretation of air movement, requires an understanding of how the leaves of different species shed or hold herbicide, and, of course, knowledge of sometimes subtle botanical differences between native and non-native species in various life stages.
And don’t even get me started on working with the tractor grapple. It takes less than five minutes to learn the basics of grapple operation, but it took me hours of operating those two levers until I truly began to grasp (pun intended) the subtleties of picking up and piling tree branches.
These tasks of subtle familiarity and mastery are not unlike the learning curves of artistic mediums. So, I wondered, have shop skills and land management techniques become my new artistic pursuits? Have I traded one skill for another that is often not recognized as art because it is narrowly defined with a specific, practical objective? Perhaps, but I believe it goes deeper than that.
I believe there is art hidden all around us. There is art in every efficient system of organization. An herbarium of native prairie plants is artistic in creation and appearance. Communicating with diverse audiences about the importance of prairies is an art both subtle in execution and many layered in its implications.
Our daily lives hold art as well. Aside from the more obvious sources such as cooking or interior design, there is also art in the words we give to the people in our lives, and in how we choose to spend our time so as to be more responsible with the resources in our possession. Every life can be treated like a work of art.
Art is many things. Among others, art is simultaneously the most intellectual and most visceral form of communication in its dual capacity to make us both think and feel. This communication can be purely aesthetic, or it can be pragmatic. We are all artists, whenever we take a concept to its completion in the way that best brings our talents to the rest of the world.
I still hope to rediscover my inspiration in the “traditional” studio art forms. Until then, I will simply have to do the best I can to recognize the hidden art before me every single day.
I would love to know your thoughts and responses to these ideas. Please let me know in the comments, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks! I hope you go forth and create.
This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows. Eric comes from Minnesota and brings great energy to our prairie stewardship work. He’s also very bright, and an engaging writer, as you’ll see in this and other posts.
The sky is my mountain. I recently heard Jeff Walk from Illinois Nature Conservancy articulate this notion of prairie geography. If westerners are defined by their mountains, those of us from the Midwest and Great Plains are defined by our skies. Prairies are open horizons. Even on the most heavily plowed landscapes, the ghosts of prairies loom as long as the land stretches toward an expansive sky.
All landscapes affect the prejudices about comfort and beauty of those born to them. I know someone who moved to Minnesota from the West for a job and was gone within the week, overcome by the flatness of the land. That might be a little dramatic, but I can understand the uneasiness. For me claustrophobia and paranoia rises in deeply wooded landscapes that lack the promise of a lake or field offering a glimpse beyond the trees. I think we all have that affinity for particular aesthetics to some degree, and because of that I think we can all empathize with the plight of prairie wildlife.
Unlike humans, most prairie wildlife lacks the flexibility to adapt to the uneasiness brought on by changes in their natal landscapes. Prairie chickens may be the most well known of the prairie wildlife terrorized when the land loses the sky, but they are almost certainly not the only ones. One needs only to watch the predatory efficacy of hawks and owls from their perches high atop the crowns of trees to understand why the development of tall vertical structure results in the extirpation of prairie species. There are more trees than ever closing off the sky, threatening to fundamentally alter the ecology, composition, and aesthetics of our prairies.
Historical records from the mid-late 1800’s in Nebraska’s Lower Platte River Valley (to the east of our Platte River Prairies) suggest trees occurred as widely scattered individuals and small clusters; a far cry from the ubiquitous shelterbelts and heavily wooded groves that cloak what almost certainly was formerly prairie. Trees and the changes they have already wrought and continue to promise are why most of our field season at the Platte River Prairies has played out to the whine of chainsaws.
I am haunted by trees. Back on June 8th, Katherine and I picked up chainsaws and walked into a grove of cottonwoods along a creek bottom. On September 23rd, another 10ft tall Siberian elm twirled to the ground. In between, we spent hundreds of more hours felling, bucking, and stacking trees. Always to the backdrop of more deep green tree lines on the near horizon; a reminder of how far trees have come, and how far prairie stewards have to go.
Despite the specter of an advancing forest, I love tree cutting. I like to think of tree control on the prairie as the big game hunting version of plant management. Removing mature trees demands thorough planning, and constant attention to one’s surroundings. To date, I am not aware of an incidence of death by reed canary grass. Put that focus factor together with the fact that there are few prairie management activities with as immediately noticeable impact as the removal of dramatic woody encroachment, and it is a task ready made for those of us brain dead from spraying, and still cultivating patience for observing the effects of our work. Walking through a completed tree removal, or thinning, noting the full sunlight, and the unrestrained wind, gives me the same feeling as looking at a maturing prairie restoration. I think in many ways it is an equally profound change in the land; a taking back of the sky, and a return of a prairie.
This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows from June 2015 through May 2016. He’s working for Montana State University Extension now, but has returned to write a follow up post on the topic of his Hubbard Fellowship independent project. You can see what he’s up to in Montana by following his personal blog.
Hello again! I’m writing from beyond the Fellowship because my final month as a Hubbard Fellow was a whirlwind and I didn’t find time to write a blog post that did the experience justice. First, I want to say that it was the best career-building experience that I could have possibly had. The Fellowship taught me diverse and useful job skills, taught me how to network within a wide conservation community, and transitioned me from a recent graduate to a young professional. Second, I want to summarize what I learned from my fantastic experience working on the Platte River Prairies’ volunteer program.
Phone Interviews: During my fellowship I conducted 11 phone interviews with other land stewardship volunteer coordinators, mostly in prairie ecosystems. Overall, these coordinators were impressively competent and offered lots of wise advice and great ideas. Here is a very summarized list of what I found.
Word-of-mouth is the best form of recruitment, which means volunteer events really need to be enjoyable and meaningful if you want volunteers to bring their friends.
Trainings allow volunteers to take on more advanced tasks such as herbicide application and chainsaw use, thereby accomplishing much more work. Several programs also train their volunteers to lead workdays and offer the opportunity to volunteer independently outside of formal workdays. Trainings also promote retention by providing learning opportunities and showing volunteers that they’re valued. Pairing new volunteers with experienced ones is also an efficient way to train.
Communication between staff and volunteers is essential. The volunteer coordinator must provide clear and specific instructions and locations and always be reachable by phone to answer questions.
Retention is crucial for building efficient volunteers and a productive volunteer program. The longer a volunteer has been volunteering, the better he/she knows the site and tasks. This takes time, but regularly offering quality workdays is the first step towards identifying and developing dedicated volunteers.
Ways to promote retention:
Treat committed volunteers with the same levels of respect and expectations as paid staff.
Integrate staff and volunteers as much as possible.
Build a sense of community through formal and informal social opportunities.
Provide opportunities to gain skills and knowledge.
Express gratitude regularly and at formal events.
Volunteer Survey: I also sent out a survey to collect feedback on our volunteer program. Here are a few things I learned:
Helping prairies was the strongest motivation for volunteering, followed by learning and getting outside.
More satisfied volunteers were more likely to volunteer in the future and had higher past attendance.
There was significant interest in volunteering independently on their own schedule (78%).
Distance was the factor discouraging attendance most frequently mentioned (37%).
My own conclusions:
Working with volunteers was the most rewarding work I’ve done in a long time. There are many excellent conservation organizations that significantly expand their stewardship capacity by effectively engaging volunteers, but it takes time, dedication, and the right personality to do so. Regularly holding enjoyable and meaningful workdays is the first step; creating opportunities to grow into new responsibilities is often the second. Last, it is almost always necessary for there to be at least one staff person dedicated to managing the volunteer program in order for it to flourish. With time, it’s possible to create programs that accomplish a lot of work while inspiring a passion for conservation in many people.
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. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.
When I started my Fellowship I had strong interests in outreach and stewardship. I was hoping the Fellowship would help me choose which to focus on, but instead it’s shown me a way to combine the two: volunteer stewardship programs.
Although I greatly enjoy the physical work of stewardship and recognize that conservation can’t happen without it, I sometimes feel that it’s a losing battle. The fact is, the conservation movement just doesn’t have the resources to rigorously manage entire landscapes. Here on the Platte River Prairies, there are always more invasives than we can spray, more seeds than we can collect, more equipment repairs than we can fix, etc. This is why outreach matters to me. I think that in order for conservation to be successful we need to inspire more people to support it. Over the course of my Fellowship, I’ve come to believe that volunteer stewardship programs can make significant gains on both of these fronts.
Last June at the start of my Fellowship, I heard that there was a volunteer workday coming up. During high school I enjoyed volunteering at my local nature center, so I thought I would check it out. Although only three volunteers attended, at the end of the morning I sensed a hint of accomplishment and camaraderie. I decided I would stay involved with the workdays.
Only three more workdays had been scheduled for the year. Through a mix of chance and initiative, I wound up leading them. This was new territory for me and I would become very nervous for the entire week before each one, but the feeling of accomplishment afterwards was incredible. Not only did we accomplish large tasks in short amounts of time, but I sensed that people were learning a lot and building meaningful connections to our prairies. Little by little, new volunteers started showing up, people consistently drove from 1.5, 2.5, and 3 hours away, and my pre-workday nerves started to lessen.
I decided to extend the workdays into the winter. Although this meant figuring out a new volunteer activity (invasive tree removal), I felt that there was too much good momentum to quit. At this point I had started interviewing other volunteer coordinators for advice, and a repeated recommendation was to build a sense of community through social events. Copying a great tradition from my high school nature center, I started hosting lunches after the workdays. People really seemed to enjoy these and the tree removal, and our average attendance grew to about nine. (In a later post I’ll summarize my findings from nine interviews and 160 responses to a survey I conducted).
With momentum still rising, in February I decided to attempt a larger event. Our ongoing prairie restoration was due to be seeded and I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity for volunteers to create something beautiful, important, and permanent. Some volunteers could even have the gratification of knowing that they had picked the seeds during the previous summer. I sent press releases to four newspapers, announced the event to the Nebraska Master Naturalist program, invited members of a local church, recruited TNC staff to attend, and advertised a large potluck. Despite freezing temperature and 25mph winds, 30 volunteers (probably the largest volunteer event we’ve ever had) came to help! We made tremendous progress very quickly, and then enjoyed a delicious potluck and Q&A with our staff. The event was covered by a local newspaper, picked up by the Omaha World Herald, and even mentioned in USA Today!
New people of all ages continue to attend the workdays, as well as several who have been coming regularly since the summer. Among our most dedicated volunteers are a college student, a father/son team, and a grandfather. Since June, 48 volunteers have contributed 270 hours of stewardship. This time is so valuable because it is spent on essential tasks that wouldn’t receive any attention otherwise. Tree removal is a great example. If we let trees go wild on our prairies, very soon we won’t be able to hay, graze, or burn the prairies the way we need to to meet our management objectives. Yet in my 11 months here I’d estimate that staff have spent less than ten hours treating young trees, simply because we’re busy with more specialized tasks like prescribed fire. Fortunately, volunteers have contributed 105 collective hours to remove trees from 70 acres of heavily-infested prairie since November.
But workdays are even more valuable, in my opinion, because they provide a way for people to make personal connections to our organization, Nebraska’s prairies, and global conservation issues. By attending workdays, volunteers learn about prairie ecology, management, threats, and more. By spending time in our prairies and working towards a goal, they develop a personal attachment to our properties and to prairies in general. And who knows, maybe the workdays will even inspire some to dedicate their careers or savings to conservation. That’s what I love most about leading workdays: you never know when you’ll change someone’s life forever. Sound far-fetched? Well, that’s how I got here.
The last aspect of building a volunteer program is sustaining it. The volunteers have asked me many times, “What will happen to the workdays after you leave?” I think about that a lot. My goal from the start was to foster a group of volunteers with enough dedication and experience to be fairly self-sufficient after my Fellowship ends. So far, I’ve trained two dedicated volunteers to lead workdays. I’m hopeful they’ll continue to engage Nebraskans in the meaningful work going on here after I’m gone. Based on the enthusiasm I’ve seen so far, I’m optimistic that they will.
If you’d like to get involved, our next workday is this Saturday, April 23, at 9:00am at the Platte River Prairies. Email email@example.com to sign up!
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!
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