Bay Nature magazineWinter 2020


Caring for the Places We Love

Stewardship in the 21st century and beyond

annie burke and sharon farrell
Annie Burke, executive director of a new regional coalition (formerly the Bay Area Open Space Council), and Sharon Farrell, executive vice president of projects, stewardship, and science for Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. (Photo by Robert Houser)

All of the stories told here describe human connections with the natural world and with each other. Some of these connections have existed across generations, while others are born from recent experiences. All are shaped by an inherent desire and need to connect with and care for the natural world. And for many people, these links are sustained by forging new relationships, building community, and discovering a sense of place.  

21st Century Stewardship

This series of stories sponsored by the California Landscape Stewardship Network explores the ways modern conservationists seek to define a new relationship with the natural world. Read more:

»What’s Old Becomes New Again

»What Stewardship Looks Like in the Santa Cruz Mountains

»One Tam’s Meteoric Rise in Marin

»One Tam: Bees Bring a Mountain Together

»One Tam: Teams Using Tech

»One Tam: Where the Wildlife Are

»The (Other) Uber Network in California

»Caring for the Places We Love

Do you remember the first time you felt a deep connection with the natural world? Where were you? Who were you with? 

Perhaps it was carefully tending a fruit-laden strawberry plant with your parents or watching a baby bird emerge daily from a hedge grove. Or maybe it was the images of wildlife you saw on television. Or newts crawling across a moss-covered log that captivated you during your fifth-grade field trip. 

We both remember when we first felt a sense of awe and love for a place. Sharon was exploring chalk-faced cliffs in southern England with her grandparents; Annie was in fields of California poppies on the slopes of Mount Diablo in the spring with her mother. Today, many years later, we’re fortunate to be working in land conservation and stewardship. Sharon serves as an executive for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and Annie leads a coalition of nonprofits, public agencies, and indigenous tribes in the Bay Area. We both know the science of climate change. We have seen the predictions of ecological upheaval. We understand how hard it is to adapt to and mitigate climate change.    

Knowing what we know, we could easily stick our heads in the sand. But we don’t, because of our early experiences with the natural world and our belief in the power of community. We can’t give up because of the legacy we want to leave for future generations. We can’t stand back and watch and do nothing for our planet, for our kids, for your kids, and for our kids’ kids. Instead, we choose to take action for future generations of people, animals, and plants. We have hope, and we seek to inspire hope. In our daily work, we strive to be part of the solution for our unhealthy planet. We both believe in stewardship as a healing practice, not only for our environment, but for our souls.

Stewardship can inspire a strong sense of place and build and enrich deep connections. This is true whether you’re improving habitats for endangered butterflies, restoring the natural complexity found in once old-growth forests, cultivating healthy farmland soils, or tending a school garden. By embodying a culture of stewardship, we affirm that we are all responsible for caring for the places we live in and the land, water, air, plants, animals, and human communities that depend upon them. It is also strongly rooted in the recognition and appreciation of the efforts of those who came before us, our shared histories and current connections to each other, and our responsibility to those who will follow in our footsteps. Stewardship is the legacy we can leave behind.

Remember, they are an exotic species in the Western United States, and are rapidly increasing their geographic range and range of habitats. Are they outcompeting or excluding native species in the process? How would we know? We have done almost nothing to monitor changes in the assemblage of mushroom species in areas before and and after the incursion of death caps.

A Call to Action

You can get involved in the many ways of taking care of the natural places we love. Together we need to take care of all lands, and everyone, yes, even you, can be a land steward. Here are three ways to get started.

»»Roll up your sleeves. Get outside! Volunteer at your local park, pick up trash at the beach, plant trees, or join the crew at a community garden. Learn about the local indigenous tribe and people and find ways to support their connection to their ancestral lands.

»»Donate. Get to know your local land trust, resource conservation district, and stewardship organization. Find the nonprofits that support your favorite natural places. Donate to their stewardship efforts.

»»Support policy and policymakers who support landscape stewardship. Advocate for collaboration and stewardship to be valued and prioritized in natural resource, park, and working lands policies and funding. Learn about the policies that influence how landscape stewardship gets done. Support the policymakers who lead on this issue.

There are many ways we can define stewardship. The term is used in business, the environmental field, organized religions, and other realms, often with somewhat differing meanings. A growing movement of landowners, organizations, practitioners, volunteers, and individuals believe that environmental stewardship is about caring for the places we love. Stewardship is how we enjoy, depend upon, and continue to sustain these natural places for current and future generations. Perhaps more important than a definition, though, are the many ways we can integrate and express environmental stewardship through our work, our values, our play, and our daily living.

Most important is that we all take responsibility for caring for the land in the 21st century. This means: 

»All lands need to be cared for – Natural and working lands of all sizes and kinds need to be taken care of. Stewardship happens on public and private lands, in urban pocket parks and sprawling rangelands, with street trees and community gardens. It needs to happen everywhere.

»All people can take care of the land – When we think expansively about what stewardship includes, it is much more inclusive than exclusive. Everyone can participate. Stewardship can be picking up trash, pulling weeds, monitoring a creek for bats, planting trees, carbon ranching, and much more. Its definition and language may be expressed differently in different cultures, but the act of caring for something we love, no matter at what scale, transcends our differences.  

»Look to science and indigenous peoples’ knowledge for solutions –Knowledge derived from academic and community scientists, tribal elders, family ranchers, and others drives essential stewardship actions from which we learn, adapt, and forge solutions to meet the pace and scale of environmental and societal challenges. Both science and indigenous peoples’ knowledge are essential to informing how we steward our diverse landscapes. 

»Collaboration is essential –Property and organizational boundaries often define how we care for our land, air, and water in California. There are national, state, regional, and local parks, land trusts, farmlands, private lands, and more. However, the needs of the people, animals, and plants relying on those resources often do not fall within those property lines and may instead extend over many lands. 

Similarly, the very act of land stewardship offers opportunities for elementary school students, veterans, retired scientists, and people of all backgrounds and disciplines to work together, shoulder to shoulder, each engaging in actions that express their care for the places they love. Working together, we are weaving the essential community-based fabric, culture, and approach for stewarding California’s lands.

Taking care of land is often undervalued and perceived as someone else’s charge, and we are working to change that. We believe that we all have a role in stewarding the lands that surround us, the lands that produce our food, the lands we find awe in, and the lands that support the wonderfully complex and biologically rich world of the plants, animals, and water we depend upon. We know that our community’s health depends on our environment’s health.

We invite you to join the movement of people, organizations, agencies, and indigenous tribes who are working collaboratively and innovatively to steward California’s beloved landscapes. Together, one step at a time, we can meet the challenges, large and small, posed by our changing environment. Join us in caring for the places you love, and in return we are confident that you’ll feel more connected to those places and more hopeful for future generations.

About the Authors

Annie Burke is the executive director of TOGETHER Bay Area.

Sharon Farrell is the executive vice president of projects, stewardship, and science for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.