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Conservation on Working Landscapes

Thinking Like a Mountain

Tom Gardali

Rice grows in the Sacramento Valley beneath one of the Sutter Buttes. Photo by Khara Strum / PRBO.
Aldo Leopold recognized long ago that humans are not separate from nature—that everything we do influences and is influenced by the relationships between soil, water, plants, and animals. According to Leopold, to “think like a mountain” is to understand the links among nature’s components and recognize human activity as part of those ecological dynamics.

And nowhere is our relationship with nature more clear and important than in agriculture, on the “working lands” that feed, clothe, and shelter us while at the same time providing habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Working lands, held in both public and private ownership, make up the majority of the land area in California, in the United States, and worldwide. Because working lands face daunting threats, such as urbanization and climate change, it is essential that they be managed in ways that optimize benefits both for people and for wildlife.

California is one of the most important agricultural regions in the world and is also a global hotspot for biodiversity. PRBO’s working lands initiatives in California recognize agriculture’s significance for long-term environmental stewardship. Our efforts have the common goal of increasing the effectiveness of crop production and cattle ranching to support wildlife populations and improve soil and water resources—while remaining economically viable.

We have already developed new ways to successfully manage rice fields for waterbirds. We are expanding restoration efforts for privately owned streams, to reduce erosion, improve water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat. We are helping to develop a model for cost-effective ranching joined with nature conservation. Most importantly, we are ramping up direct engagement with farmers and ranchers, to understand their needs and challenges and to help them shape “win-win” solutions, both economic and ecological!

The articles in this Observer highlight our work and vision for stewardship of vital working lands. The accelerating rate of environmental change we face today requires that we not only “think like a mountain” but that we “think like a landscape”—to encompass large-scale, dynamic ecological, economic, social, and political systems.