It’s the management, stupid
Submitted by joel brown on Mon, 05/11/2015 - 17:11
In the 1992 U.S. Presidential campaign, Bill Clinton’s staff (specifically James Carville) kept the candidate and the campaign organization focused with “it’s the economy, stupid” printed on Post-it notes (another 90s innovation) stuck to every flat surface. Who knows how popular this particular snowclone (a popular cliché that can be adapted to many different uses) would have remained had the election outcome been different, but it has stuck around and been adapted to many situations as a reminder about the need to stay focused on what is really important.
So what do we in land ecology, particularly rangeland ecology, focus on? In the 60s, it was brush control; in the 70s we shifted to grazing management; in the 80s, water quality; and in the 90s, biodiversity. Forest ecology, wildlife ecology and all the other fields of land ecology have been through similar shifts in emphasis, driven to some degree by public pressure. While all of these efforts provide a platform for communicating with a wide variety of users, they have also tended to distract us from communicating the basic principles of land management.
A recent paper by Dr. Nathan Sayre, UC Berkeley, goes back to the very inception of rangeland management to examine the foundations of a management philosophy that has permeated land management on grazed rangelands for more than a century (Sayre 2015). The first large scale experiment in rangeland management used commercial scale management units to ‘demonstrate’ the effectiveness of fences and predator control. Dr. Sayre applied the concepts of ‘critical physical geography’ to reexamine the context, application and legacy of early rangeland management experimentation. Dr. Sayre’s reinterpretation of the late 19th and early 20th century foundations of land management is both complex and detailed. But one particular idea should give us pause- that capital-intensive investments in predator control and fencing could replace labor-intensive herders.
Although many of the details of land management may have changed in the last 120+ years, the idea that capital investments, frequently supplemented by conservation program funds, can replace labor-intensive management is still appealing. We spend a lot of money building fences, drilling wells and laying pipeline as a basis for improving grazing land management. These ‘facilitating’ practices are intended to provide the infrastructure that allows managers to manage. In their review of the effects of rotational grazing, Briske et al (2008) arrived at the conclusion that, when the basic principles of grazing management (stocking rate, distribution, season, kind of animal) were followed, there was little advantage in a particular infrastructure setup, rotational pattern or philosophy. Unfortunately, the emphasis on accountability in government programs has shifted the allocation of scarce expertise and creativity toward making sure that construction practices meet specifications and away from following up to insure that management objectives are met. In an institutional sense, engineering projects, while expensive, are administratively tidy and accounting is straightforward. Management, on the other hand, is hard to quantify and, more importantly, you have to do it EVERY year. This recurring commitment is exceptionally difficult to account for in an unstable funding environment.
If only we could be sure that management success followed logically from the implementation of infrastructure practices. But, the interpretation by Dr. Sayre of an early 20th Century experiment and the synthesis of Briske and colleagues of research from the late 20th Century shows that our institutions learned little in that century about the importance of paying attention to management—every day. Maybe we need some Post-it notes.
Briske, D.D. et al 2008. Rotational grazing on rangelands. Reconciliation of perception and experimental evidence. Rangeland Ecology and Management DOI: 10.2111/06-159R.1
Sayre, N.F. 2015. The Coyote-proof pasture experiment: how fences replaced predators and labor on U.S. rangelands. Progress in Physical Geography DOI: 10.1177/0309133314567582