"Management" is the new "Conservation"
Most significant conservation has happened slowly, imperceptibly, like water running down a hill….joining with other droplets until it forms a stream….and then a raging river. Individual champions have fallen in love with pieces of vegetation rooted in soil and rock, and have stood beside them, shepherding them toward conservation. The land set aside from development, the only land that will be left for my children to stand on and hear silence and birds, has been set aside with hard work and passion. Nothing has come easily.
Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) has played a lead role in the conservation story in San Diego County. Since the beginning of the paradigm shift from facility-based planning to resource-based planning that began in Southern California in the early 1990s with the Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), Jerre Ann Stallcup has been immersed in the headwaters of this landuse story as it has grown over time. (See her previous blog that tells this story, “The Roar of the Gnatcatcher”).
Now, though, a corner is being turned. Much of the land that could be conserved in San Diego County has been protected. Lines have been drawn. That which has not been conserved has been developed, or will be soon. The major battles and stories of conservation were played out in the 1990s and early 2000s. So now what? What is the story now?
The story is about adaptive management; stewardship of land and water. What happens now with this land? If this is all that is left….how do we properly take care of it? How do we measure if the management actions we take are having the intended outcome?….whether or not the species and habitats that were protected by conserving that land are going to persist?
This bend in the river, flowing beyond a story of land acquisition toward a story of management, is not unique to San Diego County. At CBI, we are hearing this from federal agencies to local governments to non-profits. There are some battles yet to be won in conservation, to be sure. But a rising narrative across the landscape now seems to be: Now that we have this land, how do we best care for it? And how do we know we are being successful? And how can we most effectively communicate that to other people? How do we engage stakeholders? How do we empower land managers? How do we inform the public who will benefit from this conservation and management?
CBI is making strides to support this space. In recent years, our software engineering team has taken real steps in helping land managers better visualize large and/or complex datasets. Examples include the Watershed Climate Data Explorer, The South Atlantic Conservation Blueprint 2.0, and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) Site Survey Analyst. In February of 2016, CBI sent two software developers, one conservation scientist, and me to visit the experimental field sites of our team in San Diego County. We went to get a real world understanding of the management and monitoring challenges they face, and to collaboratively generate solutions to advance management and monitoring in general.
The plants we saw were not charismatic megaflora. Some were tiny, and others easily overlooked. But our field scientists so reverently held the space around them with their stories of these plants being chosen, researched and managed that the air itself felt sacred at the sites. We learned of invasive grasses smothering these important native species, of successful treatments that restored thousands of rare plants to places where they were thought lost, of research objectives thwarted from gaps in funding, as well as the difficulty of getting everyone to share their data. They shared the challenge of trying to find monitoring methods that yield sufficient data to use for decision-making, but don’t draw too many time or funding resources.
Emerging from this trip are themes such as: preserving institutional knowledge of past management and monitoring, streamlining and simplifying workflows to save time, simplifying visualization for complex data, supporting knowledge transfer between all land managers in a region, and facilitating accessible field data collection options. Now that we have returned, CBI staff are actively engaged in developing workflows and software prototypes to address these critical gaps.
Twenty years ago, the main question was: “Which land do we conserve?” Today, one of the main questions is, “How do we adaptively manage this land we conserved?” The rattlesnakes, horned lizards, tadpoles, butterflies, and gnatcatchers we saw on these sites during our visit were a testament to the success of those who have rolled up their sleeves 20 years ago and continue to do the hard work of conserving these places. Whether or not these landscapes are still thriving 20 years from now will depend on how well those of us who follow do our job of management.