I began my restoration project inspired by Aldo Leopold's concept of a land ethic, first described in print in 1949 in his classic book A Sand County Almanac, which I consider to be the environmentalist's bible. After nearly thirty years on my land, I believe that I too have become a steward and a conservationist in the Leo-poldian tradition. But with each rereading of his book it becomes clearer to me that because times have changed, bringing new challenges and ideas, his vision needs a similar update. Keeping the same foundation, it must respond to the magnitude of our current level of globalization and exploding conservation needs. Some of the differences aren't so great, but the imperative he suggested as far back as the mid-twentieth century requires us to reaffirm our collective position and spread the word far and wide. To have a sustainable future we must engage every willing person to join in creating a healthy vision of the earth.
Aldo Leopold started us down this path. At the end of A Sand County Almanac he clearly documents a vision for an ethical relationship to the land, which he elevates from its status as a mere setting for human activity, and one that is often taken for granted. He speaks instead of honoring it and fostering a bond based on love and respect.
In today's consumer culture, by contrast, the land is nearly always seen as a commodity to be bought and sold by the acre, divided into square feet and parceled out as lots. In this process of commoditization it is easy to lose sight of the role land serves. A schism exists between the perception of the value of land and its aesthetic and nurturing significance for humans and all other life forms. The streams don't calculate human needs. They would flow regardless. Birds and wildlife disregard our boundaries and our concept of ownership, as do weather patterns (until recently) and soil systems, wildfires and insect infestations. Mortgages and land contracts are arbitrary deeds, written for humans. Nonetheless they infringe on the rights of all the plants and animals that call the land their home.
Could you live without your kidneys? Healthy soils and vegetation are the ecosystem's kidneys. Without these filters, stormwater runs off instead of seeping down into ground water, and land health declines. Erosion leads to an inevitable depletion of biodiversity and decreased productivity on the land, in freshwater systems, and in the oceans, all of which adversely affects the ecosystem's potential for recovery.
Leopold eloquently argued for bestowing land with ethical rights. He didn't mention legal rights, and we can only assume that his concept of ethics transcended policy and law. In the years since he made this argument, our society has succeeded in expanding social justice for women and minorities, recognizing the rights of pets and farm animals, protecting scientific and wilderness areas, and beginning to legislate the protection and rights of citizens of the earth to decent water and air— almost inalienable rights that should be available to each human. We are making strides, although many questions of race and social equality are still unresolved. We are even more ambivalent toward biodiversity and ecosystem health—to date we have given it passing consideration at best.
One framework for determining what to do with land is a guideline present in numerous land policies, that the "highest and best use" of a particular stretch of land should be the basis for determining its value, a use that may or may not be the current use. This "highest and best use" is a somewhat vague standard to a layperson, but not to a lawyer or realtor. It is essentially defined as the most financially profitable use of the land. In practice, reliance on this standard is very troubling. After attending many meetings and participating in many debates over how many acres of nature and open space should remain in land developments, I find that the decision for more or less nature is usually contingent on the orator's persistence, not on the facts. In the end, unless some consensus is struck, an overstated economic argument usually prevails, with the result that nature is carved up into ever smaller and more isolated remnants.
Under its current definition, the "highest and best use" of land does not take into account the health of the earth and its inhabitants, including us humans, who are either too frightened to read the writing on the wall, too helpless in the face of corporate will, or too proud and deluded to reject our own fallacies and accept the consequences of our actions. Economies are powerful forces, and societies are hotwired into market-based value systems that trump the real highest and best use of land.
Unfortunately, with exception of a few nations, the rest of the industrialized world is trailing close behind America in ecological failures. European ecosystems are in dire straits. Business interests in the developing world—Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Africa—are also promulgating this no-win environmental doctrine, mainly because no objective criteria exist for judging ecosystem performance. There is no central database for environmental impact, nor agreed standard for the value of healthy functioning ecological systems. This lack of global stewardship and cooperation has accelerated decline. The conferences in Kyoto (1997) and Bali (2008) are steps in the right direction, because we do need broad consensus on global climate change and emissions caps. It is also a good thing that these cli mate change negotiations provide a forum for discussions regarding the value of nature. But people at the grassroots level must not wait for governments to solve environmental problems, even if they are chiefly responsible for allowing them. We also must not wait around for a certified consensus on standards or on the value of nature. We must take it on ourselves to work together to rebalance and restore nature.
We must view the health of the land from an ecological systems perspective analogous to the way we view human health. In this manner we can make the land ethic more tangible. Nature is largely self-regulating, just like the human body. Both require proper nutrition and sunlight to maintain well-being. Humans think we are taking care of the earth, but nearly always we are damaging it. Our species is invasive, colonizing, and overbearing; we must modify our behavior. If not, we will simply continue to bite the hand that feeds us. In contrast to our behavior, consider the valuable services a healthy planet provides at no cost: fresh water, purified air, and nearly boundless foodstuffs. It filters wastes and sewage, attenuates flooding, provides raw materials and fertile soils that grow lush vegetation, and offers habitats that afford us material, aesthetic, and spiritual luxury. A conservative estimate of the value of these services in human terms between Leopold's era and our own amounts to more than three trillion dollars annually.
The value of these ecosystem benefits and services makes for a strong argument against the doctrine of "highest and best use" in the narrow, profit-centric way it is generally interpreted. As we can now calculate in economic terms the reciprocal worth that an acre of prairie, desert, wetland, forest, or ocean provides for our health, we can no longer deny the value of ecosystem benefits. By extension, many seemingly absolute rights we have bestowed upon our species, however nobly intended, are not cost-effective; for instance, if we promise each family a home, we should be careful not to negate the value of the land it is built on. Every acre scarified and covered by manmade structures reduces nature's contribution, because the sum of all parts working in harmony is substantially greater than the value of the individual tract. "Highest and best use" considers only the parcel, not its intrinsic connections, including the multiplier effect of these contributions to greater global ecological function.
I was introduced to valuing nature early in my career when AES was hired to determine the value of a 500-acre coastal wetland on Lake St. Clair in eastern Michigan, just north of Detroit. The landowners had wanted to develop condominiums worth many tens of millions of dollars on existing landfill areas, but the development proposal was denied by state and federal agencies. The attorneys representing the developer decided to sue the regulators, claiming their decision to deny the permit for the condominium was arbitrary and capricious. They requested a valuation of the land to develop a rationale for suing the regulatory agencies. It took a year for the team of which AES was a part to measure the tangible wetland products in order to evaluate them. Besides seining and surveying the local fish population, we measured fish captures by fisherman in the wetland and tallied the hunters' duck and goose harvests. The fish were valued using the average price fetched at the local food market. AES also tallied the money spent per capita by the fishermen to fish and by hunters to transport themselves to and from, and hunt within, the wetland. Just considering the fish and duck populations that were hunted there, we concluded that each acre of wetland provided a tangible net benefit of over $20,000 annually in 1978 dollars. Furthermore, the flood control and water quality benefits provided by the wetland contributed a combined net value of over $100,000 per acre annually. The courts agreed that the federal and state agencies were arbitrary and capricious in their denial and directed the agencies to buy the land as part of a court settlement agreement. The court settled on the $20,000 figure, and the wetland had to be purchased through an inverse condemnation process by the agencies.
But if an inland freshwater wetland were to go on producing
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