Land stewardship on the Great Plains

Maia Welbel

How is Land Stewardship Different from Land Conservation?

The term ‘land stewardship’ comes from Indigenous ways of knowing. Native American communities on the Great Plains have managed land sustainably for thousands of years by passing ecological knowledge from generation to generation.

There is a subtle but meaningful difference between the concepts of stewardship and conservation in the context of land management. 'Natural resources conservation' is a western management framing that stems from an understanding of natural resources as something humans have command or jurisdiction of. It implies that people have total power over how things like soil, water, and living ecosystems are used and conserved. That interpretation is appropriate in some respects — as a species we have geologically significant impacts on the planet, and our choices will continue to determine how effectively it can continue to sustain us. But thinking of our environment as something separate from us — a collection of inanimate resources rather than something with which we have a relationship — is incongruous with Indigenous ways of knowing. Further, the misconception that humans have the ability to manipulate nature at will is not only false, but actively detrimental to our chances of mitigating the harm we’ve caused for the sake of future generations.

The word stewardship is defined as ‘The careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care,' and is a more accurate representation of the form of land management practiced by Indigenous peoples on the Great Plains for time immemorial. Land stewardship de-centers human needs and desires in favor of a full picture, integrated system.

Stewardship and conservation are not mutually exclusive modes of land management, but nuanced ways of conceptualizing sustainability when it comes to land use. Exploring these nuances is what will point us toward management solutions that can sustain us for generations to come.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) compiled a guidebook on Indigenous stewardship methods and NRCS conservation practices. It posits, 'Culturally diverse world views and ways of knowing are as important as genetic and biologic diversity in providing solutions to the ever growing daunting environmental issues we are facing.'

The NRCS describes Indigenous Knowledge as focuses on the following principals:

Connectivity between living and non-living things, humans and our environment, past, present, and future, is central to understanding land stewardship as a practice. If the agreement reached in Glasgow at COP26 tells us anything, it’s that all nations (especially the U.S.) need to be doing much more to prevent climate disaster. It’s imperative that we incorporate the interdependent, reciprocal approach to environmentalism exemplified by the land stewardship model if we are to meet global sustainable development goals.

How is Land Stewardship Practiced on the Great Plains?

The vast grasslands of the Great Plains are home to an incredibly diverse range of plant and wildlife species uniquely adapted to wide-open landscapes. It is thanks to generations of land stewardship by Native Tribes, ranchers, and public agencies that as much of the Great Plains remains native grassland as it does, but industrialized agriculture, fossil fuel extraction, groundwater pumping, and other sources of land and resource destruction are encroaching on these precious and productive ecosystems. There are a variety of ways land stewardship is currently being implemented across the Great Plains — investing in and expanding these efforts will be necessary to meaningfully sustain this region.

The NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) helps farmers and ranchers improve the sustainability of their land management practices by providing technical and financial assistance to reduce water waste, mitigate soil erosion, minimize air and water pollution, and curb greenhouse gas emissions, while strengthening the effectiveness of the business operation as well. CSP is the largest conservation program in the U.S. and benefits to its participants include enhanced resiliency to weather and market volatility, decreased need for agricultural inputs, and improved wildlife habitat conditions.

Cover cropping and no-till farming are cornerstone practices of agricultural land stewardship. Kansas farmer Gene Albers enrolled in CSP in the 1990s to allow him to plant cover crops like radishes, turnips, barley, and oats, and cultivate his soybeans and other cash crops using no-till methods. Decades later he maintains that financially and environmentally, his commitment to responsible land stewardship 'transformed his operation for the better.'

Rotational grazing is another important grassland conservation strategy. Nebraska rancher Max Wilson began rotating his livestock around six paddocks according to a carefully managed grazing plan with the assistance of CSP. 'Resting' different pasture areas year to year improves wildlife and grassland health by allowing the ecosystem to naturally replenish itself.

Connie and Mark Tjelmeland take a multipronged approach to land stewardship on their Iowa farm. They grow corn, soybeans, oats, and hay with an extended rotation system, and they’ve  established five acres of pollinator habitat to boost not only the vitality of their crops but also that of the local bees, birds, butterflies, and other pollinating creatures. The farm also boasts seeded grassed waterways — a drainage method that reduces erosion and water pollution — and solar panels power their electricity.

Organizations to Follow

The First Nations Development Institute provides financial and technical assistance to support Native ecological stewardship and improve Native control of and access to ancestral lands and resources to ensure the sustainable, economic, spiritual and cultural well-being of Native communities.

The Indian Land Tenure Foundation is a national, community-based organization focused on American Indian land recovery and management.

The Nature Conservancy works in partnership with Indigenous Peoples and local communities to support their visions, learn from their stewardship experiences, and amplify their leadership in conserving lands, waters and ways of life.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is dedicated to sustaining, restoring and enhancing the nation’s fish, wildlife, plants and habitats for current and future generations.

How does Farm Promote Sustainable Land Stewardship?

Farm facilitates and supports organizations and individuals who seek to manage Great Plains lands with a stewardship mindset. Whether that land is conserved as a native habitat, cultivated for crops, or generating renewable energy, we center and prioritize reciprocity between humans and the land they occupy.