Planning to Plan

Author: Emily Courtney

As wildlife biologists and consultants, writing management plans is our bread and butter. It’s what we do. Much more goes into constructing a management plan than actually sitting down and writing it, however. It’s a process that begins with defining a vision for your property, with the next step being a site assessment. These steps in the process are detailed in our two previous posts, “Defining Your Vision” and “Knowing What’s Out There.” So for this post, the natural progression brings us to (you guessed it) actually writing the plan. As I said, this is what we do.  And we love what we do. However, that wasn’t always the case. My first experience with management plans was not pleasant at all, and it has taken a lot of time and experience to understand and appreciate what an irreplaceable tool they are.

During my forestry schooling at Mississippi State, my classmates and I were subjected to a ritual known as “summer camp”. For most people, summer camp carries a positive connotation. Images of bunkhouses by a serene lake, hikers on mountain trails, and kids huddled around campfires typically come to mind. For students enrolled in the Forestry major at MSU’s College of Forest Resources, however, no other phrase in the English language can strike as much fear or cause as much anxiety as those two words.   As a freshman and sophomore, you hear horror stories about it, but you think to yourself, “oh they’re full of it, surely nothing called summer camp can really be that bad.” That’s how they get you. You’re lulled into a false sense of security by the benign name, and before you know it, you’re in the middle of a blackberry thicket, trying to wrap a D-tape around the four millionth loblolly pine you’ve touched that week, with poison ivy welts burning on both hands and sweat pouring into your eyes. Then, once you finally finish taking all your plots and reach the relief of Thompson Hall, you realize that relief was only an illusion. After a solid eight hours of tromping around some of the gnarliest woods in North Mississippi, with that deep south humidity sucking the life right out of you, you are then expected to sit in a computer lab into the wee hours of the morning to enter your data and complete a management plan. At the time, this seemed completely absurd and unreasonable, if not downright barbaric and torturous. So, with very little effort whatsoever, I grew to loathe writing management plans. They were the bane of my existence for those several weeks of the summer of ’07, and I made no attempt to hide that fact when writing them. I shudder to think of some of the plans I turned in that summer. Of course looking back on the experience now, I can recognize the effectiveness of the teaching methods used and appreciate the miraculous way I actually happened to learn something through such agonizing conditions. Our beloved professor, the late Dr. Robert Parker, dedicated so much of his career to creating the experience known as summer camp, and thus molded generations of forestry students into competent professionals. He no doubt knew how much we all hated it while we were enduring it, and he loved that we hated it. But he knew we would learn what he wanted to get through to us. And so we did, we learned how to write a management plan.

Seven years down the road and a fair bit of experience later, the hate has worn off considerably. It turns out that writing plans isn’t so bad when you’re not doing it at 1am after cruising timber all day. Nowadays, our plans resemble nothing of the hurried, cut-and-dried reports of our summer camp days. We get to take our time with it, really explore a property, and figure out ways to tap into it’s hidden potential. Dare I say it? It’s even fun. The process of exploring what’s out there, finding clues the critters leave behind, and envisioning how to make life a little easier on them is an incredibly satisfying experience.   As humans, we were entrusted with the task of stewardship over the earth and every living thing that inhabits it. That’s a pretty heavy responsibility, and I don’t believe it was meant to be taken as a passive request. We were instructed to “have dominion over” (which in my mind is loosely translated to “actively manage”) creation. If you’re a landowner or manager, this really hits home. The best way to actively manage is to be organized and intentional. To me, this means having a written management plan. A plan can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be, and can take a wide variety of forms. It should be tailored specifically to your property based on your goals. It may be a habitat restoration plan, a timber harvesting schedule, or a landscaping design. It could even be a business plan for a cattle ranching operation. Whatever your main focus is, we can take those goals and incorporate them into a comprehensive management strategy that encompasses the entire ecosystem of your property. Management plans typically include sections that describe property history, detail the site assessment, discuss improvements that can be made, and outline a monitoring and maintenance schedule for some period of time into the future.

A written plan will serve as a guide and provide a handle for all of those ideas and visions floating around in your head. Regardless of which type of plan it is or what it looks like, it is a vitally important step in the management process, and every property should have one. Just think about it this way, you wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, or take a road trip without consulting a map or GPS. We feel that a written plan for managing property is just as important.

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