precautionary principle

Earth Management Without Data

“I don’t need to know anything more. I know all I need to know.” This is how most of the key people around us approach Earth Management. Is that frightening?

Santa Cruz County has a lot of conservation lands, and those lands are critical for our prosperity. 20% of Santa Cruz County is conservation land. We rely on those lands to provide us water, clean air, and geologically stable slopes. Conservation lands also support recreation, giving County residents reprieve and healing. Open space supports life that is intrinsically valuable and will sustain an elevated quality of life for people on this planet for generations to come. Natural area parks attract tourists, fueling an annual $1 billion income for businesses and supporting 14% of local jobs.

Does Park Management Matter?

It matters how conservation lands are managed. If natural areas recreation is mismanaged, studies have shown that wildlife will disappear, degrading parks visitor experience and the quality of life for county residents. In the long term, collectively these declines endanger the future of humans. Poorly managed recreation also makes for less safe and less pleasant parks user experiences. Mismanaged conservation lands result in eroding trails, increasing safety risk for visitors, reducing the water holding capacity of the land, and degrading habitats including filling wetlands and waterways with sediment. When conservation lands managers mismanage fuels, many are endangered by increased fire risk. If they don’t correctly manage timber operations, livestock, or farming on conservation lands, there could be increased fire risk, more spread of pathogens and weeds, erosion, and degradation of plant and animal life. Problems originating on conservation lands are a burden to surrounding landowners who are threatened by fire, weeds, reduced water quality, trespass, and poorly managed wildlife. Conservation lands were often targeted for acquisition to conserve rare species, but if those species aren’t well managed, they will increasingly deserve State or Federal endangered species status; this increases the regulatory burden of private property owners whose land has habitat for those species.

So Little Data…

Very few people make the decisions about how to manage the County’s conservation lands…these folks don’t have the necessary data to inform their decisions…and one wonders whether they want more data. There are fewer than 30 people in decision making roles for all of Santa Cruz County’s conservation lands. None to very few of those people have formal training in conservation lands management. When the folks planning the North Coast section of the Rail Trail were gathering data for recreational use of North Coast parks, they discovered that there were no reliable data for the adjoining 45,000 acres of conservation lands. They couldn’t find data about how many people were using parks where or when. They found no data on the repair status of the infrastructure (parking lots, trails, restrooms, etc) supporting those parks. Of the dozens of rare and endangered species on that landscape, only a handful have been regularly surveyed so we have no idea of the health of most species’ populations. There are no data on what visitors hope to experience versus what they actually encounter. This leads me to ask…do conservation lands managers want more data…how would we know?

The Elusive Need for Data

The first place one would expect to find conservation lands managers’ expressed data needs is on the web pages of their agencies. For example, California State Parks maintains a statewide ‘natural resource management’ webpage. On that page, the agency curiously notes: “California State Parks…supports scientific studies by universities and other researchers who use state parklands as sites for conducting studies designed to help us understand the ecological health of a park.” Note that this verbiage avoids stating that such research could help inform management. Nowhere on the webpage can you find out how Parks supports science. I have not been able to find a publicly available list of prioritized data needs nor science plans that would help to guide data collection prioritization for any conservation lands managers in the County. The Bureau of Land Management, managers of a sizeable conservation property, Cotoni Coast Dairies, apparently does not intend to complete a science plan, which is mandated for all such National Monument designated lands. With a region rife with research institutions, why would conservation lands managers not outwardly seek assistance with data collection and analysis?

The Few, The Proud

I am reflecting on the many conversations I’ve had with conservation lands managers about their priorities, or lack thereof, for data and analysis to inform their management. Many lament the need for more financial resources to support research within their agency; many have also shown suspicion about research that they do not tightly control. In the most recent conversations, two conservation lands managers told me that they had all the information they needed to manage thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County land. Their swagger suggested that they were experts and that they would notice if there was something awry with their management; if they needed to make any changes, they would know what to do. A few years ago, when another manager claimed something similar in a group with which I was a part, a wise colleague responded that humans have thought they knew the right thing to do for thousands of years only to be eventually proven wrong as science progressed. This know-it-all attitude is reflected in reports and programs such as this publication and another one from a central support organization for State Parks, where it is supposed that it is merely necessary to disseminate ‘best practices’ or to train parks employees to implement ‘tested approaches for management.’

Twisted Logic

Try to make sense of the following logical framework, which local Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conservation lands management leaders have publicly stated. Although BLM has sufficient information to inform their management…the questions they might have for researchers…whatever they might be (not stated/published)…are not expected to overlap with the interests of researchers. But, even if they could find some overlapping interest, researchers would likely not produce information that would be salient for BLM’s management.

A Beacon of Hope

As a stand-out exception to these trends, the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network, a consortium of lands managers working throughout the region, recently completed a data-driven climate adaptation project. But it is not clear if any particular land management agency has officially adopted the project’s findings, which largely either contradict current management or suggest the need for much more study/work before alternate management actions might be considered. So, perhaps there is some hope…

Support What’s Right

Meanwhile, how can we help advocate for better progress with scientific approaches to stewarding the precious conservation lands of Santa Cruz County? Your most likely leverage point is through advocacy organizations. Don’t support an organization that doesn’t align with your values. For instance, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks has a mission that purportedly supports ‘thriving’ parks and ‘conservation’ – support them only if you find that science-based land conservation is a priority. It would be great if other groups were able to help State Parks with their stewardship issues. The California Native Plant Society has a great reputation as having a science-based approach to assisting with conservation lands management through advocacy and partnership. Occasionally, Audubon California will help with such issues. The Nature Conservancy has long been a leader helping other conservation lands managers to be more science-based and data driven with their stewardship work.

As always, please vote for the environment. Ask candidates about how they will help conservation lands managers be more scientific with their approaches to stewardship. These issues touch on elections at every level: city, county, state and federal candidates should all have clear environmental platforms for conservation lands assistance. Hundreds of thousands of acres of Santa Cruz County depend on smart practitioners of Earth Management! Let’s help move that forward.