It’s the management, stupid

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


DeanS's picture

I couldn't agree with you more, Joel!  I have seen it fo rthe 12 years I have been with the agency, and percisely as you have stated, there is much emphasis on the 'facilitative' structural practics and much less emphaiss on the 'essential' management practices.  Not only have I seen inin regards to reangeland, but also the lack of management  on our irrigated pastures and hay.  We have given incentives to program participants by paying for a couple of years of 'management' after the structural practices are installed.  They generally do pretty well those years as they are bound in a contract to do so, but slowly slip away after that.
I have helped give the FSA NAP losses for about the past eight years now.  EVERY year I have the same group of producers coming to me telling me how bad their rangeland looks and how there is at least a 75-80% loss from the drought, or what have you.  One of the first things I ask them is "well, did you cut your numbers or your grazing time by 75-80%?"  Virtaully every time the answer is "no".  I then try and discuss with the tthat they can't keep the numbers up like they have for so many years before.  If they see losses like this, they need to learn to better adapt and manage for existing conditions.
Many of the areas here in teh Utha deserts are neither resistant nor resilient enough against teh kind of grazing often seen here.  I had a conversation with a local rancher this year regarding the NAP losses.  He took me out to his State land allotments and proceeded to show me how bad things were.  Keep in mind, this is in an 8-9" precipitation zone that is highly influenced by the surrounding geology composed of Mancos shale.  The dominant vegetation is comprised of species like; mat saltbrush, shadscale, winter fat, greasewood, and assorted perennial cool and warm season grasses.  i tried to emphasize to him how delicate an area like this can be, and that the area has been grazed at teh same time of year for (guessing now) 30+ years by both cattle and sheep.  Not only is the vegetation vulnerable because of the low annual precipitation, but also by teh particular characteristics exhhibited by the soil.  These types of soils, when repeatedly disturbed by hoof action, virtually lose all soils structure in the top inch or so.  Micro and macro pores are obliterated, so when it does rain, virtually all of the water runs off.
Anyway, just my two cents worth.