The Importance of a Land Ethic

By Stephen Janak
County Extension Agent – Ag/NR
Colorado County


The year is 1900 in the Blue River valley of Arizona. The deep, fertile soil of the river bottom is paradise compared to the rough, arid landscape surrounding it. Aldo Leopold, Assistant District Forester and budding ecologist, tallies 4000 acres of prime farmland in the valley supporting 300 people on 45 ranches. Settlers are farming, growing hay, alfalfa, fruit orchards, and vegetable gardens, and livestock are grazing abundant grass. But the land was still viewed as a commodity, and the importance of ecological management was something only a few university professors were discussing in theory. Fast-forward only 20 years, and Leopold’s findings are devastating. Less than 400 acres of productive land remains of the initial four thousand. Overgrazing and poor land management has led to increased rainfall runoff and flash flooding. With higher volumes of water rushing down the river and fewer roots to hold the land in place, soil was eroded and washed downstream – lost forever. This same situation was being realized throughout the southwest, and by 1923 Leopold estimated that nearly 100,000 acres of agricultural land was lost to erosion. For the rest of his life, Aldo Leopold would stress the importance of a land ethic which would lead to true ecosystem management.

The term “ecology” comes to us from Greek and Latin languages. The first syllable “eco-“ is derived from the Greek word oikos which means “house” or “home.” The second syllable “-logy” comes from the Latin word logia meaning “the study of.” Thus, put simply, ecology is “the study of home” or the study of the Earth, our home. Ecology has been defined by German biologist Ernst Haeckel as the study of organisms and their interactions with each other and their physical environment. Ecosystem management then is a holistic approach that “aims to conserve major ecological services and restore natural resources while meeting the needs of current and future generations” according to Texas A&M AgriLife Research. For the settlers of Blue River valley, this meant that management of grazing livestock was an act not separate or disconnected from the plant community, the plant community was not separate from the water cycle, the water cycle was not separate from soil conservation, and soil conservation was not separate from grazing management. Furthermore, ecosystem management was not separate from human socio-economic welfare. One case study on the Blue River documented an increase of $6.50 per head in production costs and a 24% gross income loss as the rancher had to bring in feed and other resources from the nearest railroad because of soil loss and thus, loss of forage. Thirty-four homes were completely destroyed by increasing floodwaters, and 210 of the 300 people from 24 ranches were forced to pack up and leave because of the increase in production costs and income loss.

The problem, which still affects us today, is that one landowner could be practicing perfect ecosystem management and conservation, but still be negatively impacted by his upstream neighbor’s poor management. Again, management on one side of the fence is not separate from the profitability of land on the other side of the fence. Ecosystems do not recognize these manmade boundaries.

The field of ecology has advanced a great deal since the 1920s and we now have the knowledge, tools, and resources to manage the land sustainably, for the benefit of us and our future generations. Organizations like Texas A&M AgriLife Extension can provide the knowledge and resources, but it is up to the individual landowner to employ what Leopold called a “land ethic,” which means viewing the land not as a commodity, but as a natural resource to be managed for the mutual benefit and profit of all.


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