Environmental policy increasingly emphasizes involvement of local users and land owners in ecosystem management, but conservation planning is still largely a bureaucratic-scientific endeavour of identifying biological values for protection. Neither biological inventories nor stakeholder analyses, that tend to focus on conflicting interests, capture human resources in the landscape or the social structures and processes underlying biological conservation values. Social-ecological inventories are therefore proposed during the preparation phase of conservation projects as a means to identify people with ecosystem knowledge that practise ecosystem management. The method presented here focuses on local steward groups acting outside official management plans. In a social-ecological inventory of a river basin of southern Sweden, local steward groups, their ecosystem management activities, motives and links to other actors involved in ecosystem management were identified through interviews, participatory observations and a review of documents and other written material. Several hundred active local stewards were organized in 10 local steward groups that managed and monitored a range of ecosystem services at different spatial scales. Contributions of local stewards included on-site ecosystem management, long-term and detailed monitoring of species and ecosystem dynamics, local ecological knowledge, public support for ecosystem management and specialized networks. Two conservation projects are used to illustrate how local steward groups came together in multi-level networks and collaborated around specific conservation issues. The projects have been linked to ecosystem management at the landscape level through a flexible municipality organization, the Ecomuseum Kristianstads Vattenrike (EKV). EKV has acted as a ‘bridging organization’, coordinating and connecting many of the local steward groups to organizations and institutions at other levels. The process has been guided by social capital and shared visions for the whole landscape. The study shows that ecosystem management likely relies on multi-level collaboration and social-ecological inventories may help identify actors that are fundamental in such management systems. Social-ecological inventories should be employed in any attempt to develop and implement ecosystem management.