Stewardship of natural spaces is no easy task: trails don't maintain themselves, wildfire mitigation has never been more critical, visitation is at an all-time high, etc. The conservation of natural lands takes a village, to put it lightly, so we went out to research the system of stewardship across the US to understand how we can better protect the outdoors for everyone forever.
Over the four years and counting, we've led a research endeavor into the systems of stewardship in the US with the National Science Foundation's Innovation Corps (NSF I-Corps), over 500 interviews of stewardship agencies, surveys of 10,000+ individuals, and hordes of white paper research. It encompassed our patchwork of natural areas across federal agencies, states, municipalities, indigenous tribes, NGOs, private land owners, and more, revealing the overwhelming presence of local stewards carrying their communities with the increasing importance of "Collaborative Stewardship"
Collaborative Stewardship *noun
Definition: Working together to manage and care for a shared ecosystem.
Collaborative stewardship, once seen as an idealistic vision, is quickly becoming a necessary instrument in land conservation. The crux lies in decentralizing the effort, breaking it into actionable, achievable steps, and lowering the barriers between stewards to support seamless land management. The ambition is clear: preserve landscapes that are rich, accessible, and remain a testament to cooperative care.
This concept is a native practice for many cultures around the world and is now needed in a modern setting for a county supporting hundreds of millions of people, so we went to explore the many different challenges and structures faced by stewards today.
Ecosystems don't stop at property lines; neither should stewardship.
Unraveling the Complex Tapestry of Natural Spaces
A common notion is that our natural expanses are a binary of public and private lands. However, the picture is far more intricate. Our research in NFS I-Corps embarked to understand this. The revelations were insightful:
- The demographic of natural lands changes drastically across the country, for example:
- The Western 15 states have over 90% of the federal land in the US.
- The North East has an incredible presence of land trusts and nonprofits driving conservation.
- Texas is predominantly private, with 95% of its expanse being privately held.
- Each locality has a unique blend of natural areas stewarded by a spectrum of entities, from public offices and indigenous communities to nonprofits and private custodians.
Gaining insights into this multifaceted dynamic is pivotal. By understanding the roles and interdependencies, we can usher in a more holistic and cooperative stewardship.
The Unsung Heroes: Local Stewards
Contrary to popular belief, the heavy lifting in stewardship doesn't always rest on the shoulders of high-profile, three-letter government agencies. Our research divulged a compelling truth: the backbone of stewardship is overwhelmingly local.
The majority of stewards stem from:
- Municipalities: Local government bodies who are keen on conserving their immediate surroundings.
- Volunteers: Passionate individuals committed to making a tangible difference.
- Nonprofits: Organizations driven by a mission rather than profit.
- NGOs: Entities operating on a larger scale but with localized efforts.
Such local bodies and individuals are the unsung heroes, the quiet workers who weave the fabric of sustainable land management and conservation.
The Ripple Effect of Simple Collaborative Measures
Collaboration doesn't always necessitate monumental steps. At its essence, collaborative stewardship can be as basic yet powerful as:
- Sharing Information: Pooling insights to bolster combined efforts.
- Disseminating Maps: A shared roadmap ensures coordinated care.
- Pooling Data: Making data-driven decisions that align with communal goals.
When empowered with shared resources, local bodies, no matter how small, can create ripples of change, ensuring land conservation that resonates far and wide.
The Call for Cooperative Conservation
The blueprint for safeguarding our natural treasures is etched in collaboration. By acknowledging our roles, pooling our resources, and harmonizing our actions, we can craft landscapes that echo with collective care and shared responsibility.
It's imperative to remember every local effort counts, every shared resource amplifies the cause, and every hand that joins makes the dream of collaborative stewardship more tangible. Let's champion the cause, one local step at a time, and transform the utopian vision into our living legacy.
To watch our presentation at the Colorado Open Space Alliance conference 2023, and download our collaborative stewardship resources, click here.