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Our World

What is stewardship
in this context?

For TSN and our Member Communities, “stewardship” has a specific meaning that sets our activities and our overall role apart from some of the other environmental organizations you know and love. To steward anything is to take care of it and watch over it, accepting and embracing responsibility for its wellbeing and balancing direct intervention with wise, patient guidance. Our collaborative stewardship includes all of the above, in dedicated service of nature. TSN’s place-based collectives tend lovingly with wisdom and perseverance to the ecosystems they call home, doing whatever their local lands and waters need from them to thrive.

Another way to think about it: stewardship is the opposite of neglect. Consider pollution, exploitation, and all the other human actions and choices (be they willfully destructive or tragically ignorant) that corrupt and degrade our planet’s vital systems. Stewardship is diametrically opposed to all of these, consisting of direct, benevolent human actions and choices that heal. We are The Stewardship Network and this is what we’re here to do.

An aerial view of farmland and rolling green hills

But isn't that
conservation?

Sort of! The meanings and connotations of terms have definitely evolved over the century or so since the conservation movement began, but here’s how we think about things today:

Conservation

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Preservation

Protecting natural areas or species from harmful human actions

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Stewardship

Assisting natural areas or species with helpful human actions

Motivations have differed historically, but the unifying goals of conservation are healthy nature for nature’s sake and a sustainable habitat for humans to thrive within it. As noted above, achieving these goals requires two equally vital elements.

Preservation holds aside land where a useful structure could have been built, stewardship plants trees and makes sure they reach maturity so the sacrifice was not in vain. Preservation declares the monarch butterfly endangered, stewardship plants milkweed so their populations can rebound. They are forever intertwined and we absolutely need both.

A droplet of water beads off of a pine tree leaf
“Mirrorball” by Colleen Freshour (TSN Nature Photography Competition)
Scenic forest view of a meadow with fall foliage and mountains
“Teklanika Valley” by Chuck Lund (TSN Nature Photography Competition)

So why focus on stewardship?

The people who founded The Stewardship Network had plenty of experience in this space even before the TSN idea came to fruition over twenty years ago. One self-defeating pattern they witnessed over and over was that the stewardship half of conservation was consistently under-celebrated and thus under-funded and under-resourced. Politicians, foundations, agencies, and advocates tended to gravitate towards big moments, funding land purchases or rallying for landmark legislation, but then moving on and hoping it all works out.

Parents will recognize a similar dynamic. It’s relatively easy to get people out to celebrate when your child is born or when they graduate high school. There aren’t nearly enough celebrations in honor of healing a broken bone or learning how to read.

And that’s why we’re here – because conservation without stewardship is an incomplete investment. Our Member Communities monitor the river and clear invasive plant species long after ribbons are cut and press releases are made. Our collaborative stewardship efforts bring balance and better outcomes to the conservation movement at a critical point in the fight for our shared future.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is ten minutes of exercise better for you than zero even if twenty minutes was the goal? Heck yes! So tend that private land, tidy that urban square, plant those local wildflowers in your garden, and let’s make the best of every scenario we find out here.

When working in such an important, vast, and interconnected space, it can be hard sometimes to maintain strategic focus. The alternative is bleak, though, and many in the nonprofit realm have witnessed firsthand that those who try to do everything often end up doing nothing. Over time, The Stewardship Network has become better at articulating our role as champions of collaborative stewardship. It was through this articulation that we learned to evaluate any projects and/or groups we might take on against two core criteria:

COLLABORATIVE | Our dedication to the strength of collective action requires that all TSN Member Communities be collectives representing multiple organizations, agencies, and individuals.

STEWARDSHIP | Any group or project we bring into the fold must either conduct direct stewardship of natural ecosystems (this is by far the majority) or support the stewardship of natural ecosystems through education, empowerment, or advocacy.

There are, of course, many other ways to care for nature that fall outside these TSN focus areas. Issues like environmental policy and law, renewable energy production, and the identification or repair of failing human systems matter greatly to us as people and impact our hands-on stewardship work profoundly. That is why The Stewardship Network proudly supports and is an official member of various specialized alliances with expertise in these areas, including Michigan Environmental CouncilMichigan Climate Action NetworkHealing Our WatersSoutheast Michigan Stewardship CoalitionGreat Lakes Stewardship InitiativeFreshwater Futureand more.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one. Human societies and the byproducts of our ingenuity have always left their marks on the natural world, but over the past couple of centuries our methodologies for food, energy, transportation, commerce, housing and more have become the planet’s biggest problem. Harm was never intended, but tremendous harm was and is being done. The ramifications of a warming climate are radically destabilizing natural ecosystems, triggering a mass extinction of flora and fauna. Millions of humans are already suffering severe consequences of these actions, disproportionately in regions least responsible for and least benefitting from industrial innovations. This is not the way anyone hoped humanity would be reminded of its intertwined fate with nature, but here we are.

It’s a lot to process, which is why people tend to sit as long as possible in a state of denial about all of the above before eventually skipping the productive “do something” phase and jumping straight to despair. That’s not how we go about things, though, and if you’re here, it’s probably not your style either. We’re not content to accept the grim projections of unmitigated climate change as an inevitability. There’s a lot of work to be done, so let’s do it together. Our Events page is a great place to start.

Reharmonizing humanity with the rest of nature while dealing with the fallout of past missteps is no small task and we all have parts to play. Some are leading a massive transformation in our approach to energy or awakening the power of public awareness and the will of the masses. Others are primarily concerned with addressing social inequities the climate crisis lays bare or adapting human systems to survive what cannot be reversed. The Stewardship Network is focused on directly intervening in natural ecosystems for more positive outcomes, assisting natural areas or species with helpful human actions.

In the face of such high stakes and dramatic needs, we understand if removing an invasive plant species, monitoring wildlife, installing urban green spaces, or cleaning up a river sometimes sounds too small to matter, but this is climate action and it’s absolutely vital. With help and rejuvenation, our ecosystems can sequester carbon, cool sweltering cities, protect life-giving resources, and reduce the impacts of drought, wildfires, and floods. The lands and waters we rely on have developed over a time scale humankind cannot fathom and undoing our negative influence upon them restores their strength. With strength, they endure. With endurance, we’ve bought ourselves time to get it right. It won’t be enough without revolutionary changes and bold choices, but our collaborative stewardship undoes harm, fortifies nature against the coming challenges, and gives our sisters and brothers a fighting chance.