TBLM for Creeks, Streams and Rivers

Guides for Understanding and Managing Flowing Waters in Northern Great Basin

The SageSHARE team has been working since 2019 to extend Threat-Based Land Management into the critical mesic systems throughout sagebrush country. We have started with flowing systems and the development of a Manager’s Guide and Field Guide are well underway with anticipated publication in summer of 2023.

The team recently completed a series of state-wide workshops to solicit feedback from stakeholders, mesic experts and landowners to incorporate into the guide. The team is currently editing the guides with the feedback and anticipate peer reviewed publications in summer of 2023.

Why use a threat-based approach?

This tool is designed to rapidly assess conditions for perennial and intermittent lotic (flowing) systems and support decisions related to management of these mesic resources.  Lentic (or still-water systems, such as healthy meadows and some springs) are inherently different and should be assessed with the companion lentic guide (yet to be developed).  As a decision-support tool, this guide is not an instruction manual; it is, instead, a tool for understanding riparian function in a way that helps managers decide which riparian areas are functioning as they should, and which are not, as well as a general roadmap for maintaining the former and remediating the latter.  The intent is to provide a tool that is usable by a wide variety of natural resource professionals or land managers.  This guide provides a framework for land managers to efficiently identify, discuss, and address threats to riparian resources.

The goals of this tool are: 

1. Facilitate communication about riparian conditions across a broad audience of stakeholders;  

2. Provide an assessment that easily integrates with existing protocols and programs (e.g. Candidate Conservation Agreements with and without Assurances [CCA/As], Bureau of Land Management [BLM] Rangeland Health Assessments, etc.); 

3. Guide thought processes to consider factors related to current conditions and apparent trend that may be impacting stream resilience; 

4. Serve as an initial assessment to prioritize areas that may require more detailed investigation. 

This tool is not intended to replace other more detailed riparian assessments that may require experts from multiple disciplines (such as Proper Functioning Condition).  Rather, this tool is intended to complement these more time-intensive quantitative/qualitative assessments by providing: 1) an initial evaluation of existing conditions using terms and concepts that are easily communicated to a diverse audience; 2) an assessment of stream system resilience; and 3) a guide to combine #1 and #2 to assess and prioritize management needs.

The ecological categories used in this tool are not intended to represent every possible condition observed on the landscape.  Rather, they present a simplified approach intended to capture the majority of conditions land managers can reasonably expect to encounter and group these conditions into logical ecological states with similar attributes and management needs.  Ultimately, this model should help managers identify primary threats that may be impacting stream condition and resilience, and as necessary, trigger involvement of riparian experts to guide land management decisions to maintain or make progress towards the desired condition.

Who can benefit from this guide?

The complexity of ecological systems leads to several levels of understanding within and between groups of people.  From a management standpoint, we find it helpful to sort these levels into three broad tiers of “management awareness”:

Tier 1: A person who is concerned about the riparian resource, but has limited to no knowledge about riparian ecology.

Tier 2: A person who knows that there is something wrong or right with the riparian resource and understands the general direction management should take to either fix or maintain it.  Planning complex treatments generally requires input from someone with more detailed knowledge of riparian systems (see Tier 3 below).

Tier 3: A person who knows what is wrong or right with the riparian resource, and can produce a very specific management prescription to either fix or maintain it in the desired condition.

When it comes to riparian systems, Tier 1 is the most populated category in our experience.  In addition to concerned citizens within Tier 1, many land managers are often understandably intimidated by the complexity of riparian systems.

Tier 3 is also well-populated with people who produce research products and detailed tools (e.g., Rosgen’s Stream Classification, Stream Evolution Model, Great Basin Watershed and Ecosystem Assessment Products)  that can help increase our knowledge of riparian ecosystems.  Unfortunately, much of this information is within the realm of academic literature and highly technical guides that, while valuable from a science standpoint, are sufficiently complex to reinforce the notion amongst Tier 1 members that they could never have a good working understanding of riparian ecosystems (i.e., Tier 2).  This is problematic because Tier 2 managers are critical to making progress on riparian issues at meaningful scales.

Successfully growing the population of Tier 2 managers begins with giving practitioners tools that help foster their understanding of riparian ecosystems in a format relevant to management.  To that end, this Managers Guide is one such tool that specifically targets individuals in Tier 1 to give them general skills and vocabulary for riparian ecological concepts to assess common stream conditions, ecological threats, and risk factors.  With the background provided by this tool, we expect that Tier 1 individuals will become more confident and experienced Tier 2 managers. 

This guide does not include the level of complexity necessary to formulate complicated stream remediation plans; this specific set of skills is typically possessed by Tier 3 practitioners.  We instead focus on a Tier 2 level of understanding of basic riparian attributes that can be communicated to broad audiences yet inform meaningful management.

Overview of Method

Stream and river systems in the northern Great Basin are influenced by numerous risk factors that destabilize and compromise ecological function.  Land managers need to work at large spatial scales with limited resources to address these risk factors.

This guide provides a framework intended for use by a wide variety of natural resource professionals and land managers to efficiently identify, discuss, and address risk factors and associated threats to perennial and intermittent lotic (flowing) systems.

This approach follows the following five steps:

  1. Understand relevant ecology: This guide uses functional vegetation groups and physical stream characteristics to understand ecological states and assess apparent trend.
  2. Understand risk factors and threats: Multiple risk factors may contribute to the two overarching threats which reduce stream resilience: 1) degraded stream channel; and 2) loss of native stabilizing riparian vegetation.
  3. Define assessment area and delineate stream reaches: Using a combination of desktop tools and onsite evaluation, the user identifies influential landscape-scale factors and determines distinct and representative stream sections (reaches) to visit in the field.
  4. Understand ecological states and assess apparent trend: Understanding the ecological state and assessing apparent trend together helps to determine stream resilience.  This step addresses the questions, “Where are we now?” and “Where will we likely be in the future if we continue current management?” 
  5. Consider conservation measures to achieve desired outcomes: The ecological state and apparent trend determined in Step 4 may inform necessary changes to achieve desired outcomes and provide insight as to what tools and tactics may facilitate that change.  However, further investigation may be needed to understand the current condition and specific management actions required, as these will vary according to site-specific characteristics and land managers’ values and objectives.
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