Establishing Goals & Writing your Management Plan

Restoring healthy ecosystems is a leap of faith. It’s part science and part art. One must understand the science, especially the biological science, when devising creative solutions that fit your goals and your resources.  Each project is unique. Each parcel of land is unique. To this end, your goals will be as well. 

Why do we need restoration goals?

Becausse restoration work is a journey (and not a “one and done,” goals keep us focused.   It’s nature we’re working with; don’t expect it to conform. Instead, we must adapt our management to its vagaries while keeping your goals in sight and your resources in check.

  1. Goals are not a one size fits all; they need to fit the project.
  2. Goals reflect the limitations of the restoration.
  3. Goals determine the combination of management techniques you’ll need.
  4. Goals minimizes unintended negative consequences. This article is one example of negative consequences. I’m sorry to say this happened to more than just these folks. 
Big Journeys Begin With Small Steps sign on road

Patience and persistence is required. It degraded over time; reversing this process will also take time.

 What is your vision?

The best way to set a realistic overall restoration goal is to make it broad. It then becomes your vision statement.

Example: My goal is to create a functional native ecosystem from this previously cropped field

Using presettlement conditions as your goal reference may not be appropriate for your land or future stability. You can read more about that and decide for youself. Here’s another essay to read on this topic.

As you can see from the following three options for overarching goals, the one that is most commonly used isn’t the most comprehensive and its limitations make for poor management decisions. Establishing ecosystem functions as your goal is more compelling for sustainability and long-term resilience.

While these goal names aren’t widely used in conversation, knowing there are 3 overarching restoration goals helps you to focus on your desire (Ehrenfeld 2000).

1. A species-centered goal is the one most commonly employed because it’s easy to measure and easy to manage because it has only one focus: native plants and the native plants only. This is dangerous because it disregards all other biota. It ignores the ecosystem’s proper function; and management techniques are implemented with high collateral damage to other biota.

2. An ecosystem functions goal is broad and takes all the biota into account; it encourages biodiversity. This goal encompasses all species that reside in the habitat and how they are affected by management decisions. While ecosystem functions are not quickly and easily measureable, we know the soil processes, the insects, and other wildlife, are imperative to mediating restoration.

3. An ecosystem services goal focuses singularly on restoration work that is based on societal values rather than on the organisms needing the restored ecosystem to survive. The primary purpose is to benefit humans and is generally carried out by government agencies or non-profit organizations. Human-created lakes are one example of this. Of course, this goal can be coupled with an ecosystem functions goal for landowner purposes. One example of this may be a farmer (or other landowner) who wants erosion control along a stream so a wide native buffer is installed.

3 Steps to Creating Your Management Plan

Once you have your broad goal (vision) then you’ll define the steps toward attaining this. These steps must fit your project and fit the resources you have. If you have various ecosystems on your property, separate your land into management units. See the photo below for an example of how we did this. Each unit may need a different management strategy.

We create annual plans from our basic management plan. Here’s an example of the Driftless Prairie Management Plan without those annual “to do” listed.

Keep is simple. Management plans do not need to be elaborate.

Driftless Prairies land management map

We named each of our management units.  Naming them makes communicating about them much easier! This map was made in Word; Jim had gotten very proficient at using Word to create various maps, including our burn maps.

Step 1: What’s the landscape now?

The first step is a 3-part knowledge gathering step. You must know the current condition of the target ecosystem, the soil type, and what vegetation is growing there now. If you have more than 1 management unit, you’ll need to do this part of each of them.

a) What’s the current condition of the land?

To ascertain the condition, McIntyre and Hobbs (1999) defined these 4 levels of degradation. The names they applied are from the perspective of the wildlife inhabiting them. Note the pattern designations from unmodified to destroyed and that will simplify this for now. Coupling these descriptions provides a perspective from the wildlife’s view.

Prioritizing management activities will be different for these 4 systems.

  • Intact – unmodified (e.g. a remnant)
  • Variegated – Modified (e.g. overgrown oak savanna)
  • Fragmented – highly modified (e.g. overgrazed)
  • Relictual – destroyed (e.g. cropped field)
4 types of degraded ecosystems

b) What’s the soil type or types within each management unit?

Know your soil type. You must know the soil moisture level of your soils before choosing and sowing native seeds. If you are sowing a seed that germinates best in dry, rocky soil into a wet mesic soil, you will not have good germination results.

NRCS has soil maps and they keep them up to date.

c) What’s growing on the land now?

You don’t need to be a plant expert to identify the plants growing on the land at present. There are some excellent apps that can be used and browse your bookstore for a field guide. 

Once you identify the plants, then you want to know if they are native or non-native. If you want to dig deeper, it will be to your advantage to know how each of these plants grow. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but knowing if they spread by rhizomes or are clonal will direct how you manage them. 

Here are the top 2 rated plant ID apps on the market today. 

Step 2: Create a management plan

We have our overarching goal. We know what the current state of our target property is. Now, how to figure out what to do where, when, and how. Expect that you’ll be amending and adding and adjusting this as your go. When you learn a new technique that you think will work, add it.

Hobbs and Norton (1996) provide the following key processes for writing your management plan. Use these steps to create long- and short-term goals. Writing them out will help you to think through and plan for any time and financial constraints, making efficient use of your resources and keeping you from becoming overwhelmed.


Create a bio-inventory of your land. This is important to do before any work begins and at periodic intervals Include methods for this? This is what our inventory looks like. Within each category there are resources and methods for how to survey. Exepct this to be an ongoing process but it is very helpful to have an initial inventory.


Identify what has led to the degradation. This is usually obvious. For Driftless Prairies, we have ecosystems degraded by overgrazing, neglect, and row cropping with synthetic biocides.


Identify methods and techniques to reverse this degradation while minimizing collateral damage and achieving your goals. You will need a combination of techniques and it will require trial and error. What worked on my land may not work on yours. To be successful, your methods must be more inclusive than reintroducing a single technique such as fire. Management processes should lead to achievement of a goal and not be the goal (Christensen et al 1996).


Document your progress and failures and celebrate your successes. Then regroup with what didn’t work well. There could be a million reasons for that lack of success, including that it was just the wrong weather. There are good listservs and Facebook groups that can help work through problems. Just don’t take every word at face value; remember dogma exists! Ask for the biological explanation rather than the anecdotal one! Sharing experiences helps us all but be sure you’re not falling into the “what’s easiest” vs “what’s best” trap.


Monitor – (aka Management by Walking Around) – You won’t know if “it” is working unless you’re paying attention. Regularly documenting with photo points is a fun way to monitor.

Step 3: Make your goals measurable

Develop measures of success — measuring success of restoration is challenging because of the unpredictability of nature. But you can measure other pieces that will give you meaning and demonstrate you are succeeding.

Here are some unique measures of success to consider

  1. Adding a species to your bio inventory
  2. Adding a species to one of your management units
  3. Increasing species that bloom at a particular time (e.g. if you have plenty that bloom in July but need a few more than bloom in early spring)
  4. Removing an unwanted species from a particular site
  5. Learning a new technique
  6. Understanding the biology of a plant
  7. Realizing that what you’re doing isn’t working on that parcel and regrouping
  8. Doing a technique less often – e.g. only needing to walk thru with the Parsnip Predator twice instead of three times for Queen Anne’s Lace
  9. Compile and maintain a Floristic Quality Assessment.

Avoid the Management Pitfalls

  1.  Avoid the tendency to rely on the same management technique for each project (Clewell and Rieger 1997). As an example, often burning is the first management technique recommended to begin a restoration. Depending on the condition of the land and the issues needing correction and your goals, this action could have a negative effect. (Put Shelley’s oak savanna write up here)
  2. Use techniques in combination. There is no singular silver bullet. If invasive plants have overrun the land, the original native seed bank may no longer be there. Burning alone will increase the invasive plants but coupled with another technique such as follow up herbiciding, overseeding, periodic grazing or mowing, it can be effective.
  3. Beware of the dogma! Always ask for the biological explanation to the advice you’re given.
  4. Don’t assume the person you are asking advice from understands anything more than the dogma. Don’t assume they know what your goals are and don’t assume they are tailoring their advice to those goals. Ask questions – lots of questions! A person’s knowledge base follows the same continuum that restoration goals do – from CRP-quality to high quality. Knowing this when you’re asking for advice is crucial!!
  5. This discipline is young. There is more that we don’t know than we do know. Be humble. Think of it as an experiment. Know there will be collateral damage but design your techniques to mitigate this. We’re doing this for the wildlife (insects included), right? So keep them in the forefront of your management decisions.

How do we know if you’re successful?

Success will be defined by you, based on your specific goals at your specific site(s). The results of restoration often differ from site to site and within sites; this is the randomness of nature. This unpredictability makes creating specific goals and objectives for each of the ecosystem functions imperative. Don’t be quick to judge that you are successful or unsuccessful, especially when talking with folks. We’re more likely to hear about the success stories than the horror stories. We are seldom “wrong” in our actions, but we find there are methods that are gentler, kinder, and have less collateral damage. Be kind to yourself! Nature plays the long game. We must be patient, persist, and pay attention.

No one wants to believe that what we are so sure of today could be wrong tomorrow.

Justin Thomas


Ehrenfeld, Joan G. 2000. Defining the limits of restoration: the need for realistic goals. Restoration Ecology 8(1): 2-9.

Hobbs, Richard J. and David A. Norton. 1996. Towards a conceptual framework for restoration ecology. Restoration Ecology 4(2): 93-110.

McIntyre, S. and Richard Hobbs. 1999. A framework for conceptualizing human effects on landscapes and its relevance to management and research models. Conservation Biology 13(6): 1282-1292.

Thomas, Justin. 2014. Smoldering questions and the opinion factory. Missouri Natural Areas Newsletter 14(1):3-8.