This special issue of the Natural Areas Journal focuses on the stewardship of protected landscapes for the benefit of freshwater quality and quantity and for aquatic ecosystem integrity. Land stewardship, the responsible use and care of natural lands and ecological resources, can be done in ways that enhance, or at least avoid harming, connected aquatic ecosystems and the people that depend upon the renewable goods and services provided by fresh waters. There is a critical need for a compendium of current science on the effects of various land stewardship practices on freshwater ecosystems, to guide the planning and implementation of on-the-ground stewardship activities, identify knowledge gaps for research scientists, provide funders of land stewardship activities with knowledge that can be applied to the evaluation of grant proposals and project outcomes, and offer the scientific evidence underlying the most efficient and effective practices to decision makers involved in developing and amending conservation policy. Our objectives with this special issue are to further the process of compiling the relevant science and encourage those involved in conservation land management to automatically and routinely consider the effects of their practices on water quality and quantity.
The benefits of protected natural areas to freshwater quality and quantity and aquatic ecosystem integrity are indisputable, but how those protected lands are managed has a strong influence on the degree of benefit. Stewardship practices in riparian areas, floodplains, and other locations near surface waters have the greatest influence on freshwater resources. When done judiciously and based on current scientific understanding, they can reduce or eliminate excessive inputs of sediment, nutrients, pathogens, organic matter, and pollutants to fresh waters by minimizing disturbance to soils and to the soil-protecting and soil-building functions of vegetation. The challenges are not simply identifying the current best stewardship practices, but also include deciding among competing management goals and priorities; putting effective incentives in place (and amending or avoiding perverse incentives) for implementation of conservation practices; succeeding within a framework of social, political, and economic constraints; and acting effectively despite considerable uncertainty. This overview and the other papers in this special issue report recent advances in the environmental sciences, and also the science of human behavior, that will be pivotal for land stewards as they take into consideration the freshwater consequences of their actions.