Conserving Plant Species on Private Lands

Increasingly, habitat restoration is taking place on private lands, as more landowners become interested in the loss of species diversity in their regions. Some landowners are aware that their land supports endemic plant species, and species that may be decreasing, and choose to manage their property to support these species in particular.

Private lands conservation of plants shares some goals with conservation on public lands, but has unique challenges and opportunities.

The private landowner does not have to get approval from a committee, a funding source, or anyone else to choose to conserve a plant species on her property. The landowner is free to consult any source of information about plants on the property, including the managers of public lands, academic experts, and state conservation agencies. The landowner is free to choose almost any method of management and conservation, to set up her own experiments and evaluate them. The landowner can exclude visitors that might take plant materials or damage them and need not justify this decision to a state agency, as public lands managers must often do. The landowner can propagate plants in an intensive way that is beyond the resources of any agency.

Where the landowner is knowledgeable about the plant community in question, and has considerable experience with it, this freedom to act autonomously and quickly can save otherwise disappearing species if the population on that land is large enough. Landowner experimentation has led to changes in management on public lands, when the landowner’s results were superior, and has also spurred interest from other landowners. “Selah”, a large ranch in central Texas, has become a byword for range management and restoration efforts on the Edwards Plateau. Other landowners, large and small, have experimented with methods of propagating plant species considered rare or difficult. The savvy landowner does not have to have a doctorate in restoration ecology to understand the principles and apply them.

But there are limitations which must be mentioned. A landowner may have an enthusiasm for a particular plant without understanding its ecological niche-what its needs are, what the community is in which that plant grows. Without a strong background-whether formally or informally obtained-a landowner may blithely destroy “competing” plants which the desired plant needs to have nearby, or treat it like a flower-garden plant and overload it with fertilizer and water. The landowner may privilege one species over the community, and end by losing both. The landowner may try to introduce a plant native to a different region, or one of the right species but the wrong strain-from too far away and thus not adapted to local conditions. Even locally collected seedstock may prove infertile, especially for isolated stands of a plant which needs fresh genetic material to remain fertile…something common in farmland more than rangeland, where plowing to the fence and herbicide have destroyed most of the initial population.

Perhaps the most troubling limitation to the preservation of native plant species on private lands is inheritance. When the landowner dies, that land becomes part of an estate, which may well be sold to developers. Someone who has put thirty, forty, fifty years into a prairie restoration project may have it all come to naught because his or her heirs need the money for estate taxes or simply want cash instead of acreage covered with grass and “weeds.” Sometimes a landowner must sell before death-there may be a medical crisis in the family-but the most common loss of carefully managed conservation/preservation private lands comes at the landowner’s death. Conservation-minded organizations, whether government or private, cannot afford to take and manage all the lands they’re offered, and few landowners busy with preservation/restoration efforts have the financial resources to set up foundations to run their land in perpetuity. Taxing entities see open land as a source of revenue, worthless when it’s “nothing but a bunch of weeds”…they want it sold and developed to provide tax revenue. Yet even the smallest such parcel may have species-or specific genetic subgroups-that are valuable just as biodiversity.

What, then, can private landowners do to ensure-or at least make more likely-the survival of their years of work in protecting and propagating these species?

First, private landowners who are pursuing such an action should educate themselves as fully as possible, from as many sources as possible. Government, universities, online articles, books…the more they know the fewer mistakes they will make. At a minimum, they should study the ecology of the region in which their land is located; they should make themselves familiar with native plants past and present, with the plant communities, with the supporting wildlife (from soil microbiota to top-level carnivores) that exist in the region. They should have a solid knowledge of basic principles of land and water resource management as they apply in that location, including the practical stuff: how and where to build checkdams and other erosion-control structures, how and why to build rainwater harvesting structures, wildlife guzzlers, etc. When and how to plant, within what range to seek seedstock, what alien invasives are there and what to do about them, what a balanced, healthy plant community is, for their area.

Then, from the first, they need to consider how to record what they learn so it can be passed on to others. Write it down, take pictures, and if possible use actual numbers and descriptions similar to those used by professional ecologists. Talk to university professors where something falls within their expertise. Talk to county agents, state conservation employees, and other experts. Landowners can interest outsiders in their project even if they choose not to follow every piece of advice. Invite groups to visit; share pictures; share stories; talk with other landowners; talk with groups interested in biodiversity, restoration, etc. It may not be possible to get a conservation organization committed to preserving that particular piece of land….but it may be possible to interest enough people that some of the plant community could be rescued before its destruction after a sale. Where a large enough population exists, plant materials could be shared with a native plant group, for instance, with more plants propagated off-site.

If it is impossible to finance the land’s continuance as a conservation/restoration/preservation project, try to have in place a plan whereby native plant experts can harvest unique species before the land is dispersed in settling the estate. This has been done in a few cases; it could be done in more.

Private landowners have much to offer in the struggle to save plant biodiversity.