Is the Shift to "Ecological Sustainability" or Ecosystem
Management on U.S. Public Lands Merely a Sophisticated "NIMBYism" Masquerading as a "Paradigm Shift"? or
Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: Is it Only Half a Loaf Unless a
Consumption Ethic Accompanies It?
By Doug MacCleery
Over the last two decades there has been a substantial shift in the
management emphasis of public, particularly federal, lands in the U.S. That
shift has been to a substantially increased emphasis on managing these lands
for biodiversity protection and amenity values, with a corresponding reduction
in commodity outputs. Over the last decade, timber harvest on National Forest
lands has dropped by 70 percent, oil and gas leasing by about 40 percent, and
livestock grazing by at least 10 percent.
Terms like "ecosystem management," an "ecological approach to
management," and, more recently, "ecological sustainability" have been used
to describe this change in the management emphasis of public lands. Many have
referred to it as a significant "paradigm shift." Just recently, a Committee
of Scientists issued a report proposing that the National Forests be managed
for "ecological sustainability," where primary management emphasis is to be
placed on "what is left" out on the land, rather than "what is removed."
Commodity outputs, if they are produced, would become a derivative or
consequence of managing National forests for primarily a biodiversity
protection objective. Significantly, the Committee bottomed this
recommendation in part on "ethical and moral" grounds.
Many have attributed the move to ecosystem management or ecological
sustainability to a belated recognition and adoption of Aldo Leopold's "land ethic" -- the idea that management of land has, or should have, an ethical
content. This year, celebrations are planned commemorating the 50th
anniversary of the publishing of Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, in
which he spoke eloquently about the need for an ethical obligation toward land
use and management. One sign that Leopold's ideas have finally struck a chord
with the larger society is that conservation issues are increasingly being
taken up as causes of American churches.
While a mission shift on U.S. public lands is occurring in response to
changing public preferences, that same public is making no corresponding shift
in its commodity consumption habits. The "dirty little secret" about the
shift to ecological sustainability on U.S. public lands is that, in the face
of stable or increasing per capita consumption in the U.S., the effect has
been merely to shift the burden and impacts of that consumption to ecosystems
somewhere else. For example, to private lands in the U.S. or to lands of
Between 1987 and 1997, federal timber harvest dropped 70 percent, from
about 13 to 4 billion board feet annually. (Note: this 9 billion board foot
reduction is "log scale," which translates into about a 15 billion board foot
reduction in lumber that could have been processed from it -- or about one-third of U.S. annual softwood lumber production). A
significant effect of this reduction, in the face of continuing high levels of
per capita wood consumption, has been to transfer harvest to private forest
ecosystems in the U.S. and to forest ecosystems in Canada. For example:
· Between 1991 and 1996, U.S. softwood lumber imports from Canada
rose from 10.5 to 17.8 billion board feet, increasing from 27 to 36 percent of
U.S. softwood lumber consumption. Much of the increase in Canadian lumber
imports has come from the native old-growth boreal forests of northern Quebec.
The increased harvesting of the boreal forests in Quebec has become a public
· Harvesting on private lands in the southern United States also
increased after the reduction of federal timber in the West. Today, the
harvest of softwood timber in the southeastern U.S. exceeds the rate of growth
for the first time in at least 50 years. Increased harvesting of fiber by
chip mills in the southeastern U.S. has become a public issue locally.
Today the U.S. public consumes more resources than at any time in its
history and also consumes more per capita than almost any other nation. Since
the first Earth Day in 1970, the average family size in the United States has
dropped by 16 percent, while the size of the average single family house being
built has increased by more than 40 percent.
The U.S. conservation community and the media have given scant attention to
the "ecological transfer effects" of the mission shift on U.S. public lands.
Any ethical or moral foundation for ecological sustainability is weak indeed
unless there is a corresponding focus on the consumption side of the natural
resource equation. Without such a connection, ecological sustainability on
public lands is subject to challenge as just a sophisticated form of NIMBYism
("not in my back yard"), rather than a true paradigm shift.
A cynic might assert that one of the reasons for the belated adoption of
Aldo Leopold's land ethic is that it has become relatively easy and painless
for most of us to do so. When Leopold was a young man forming his ideas, more
than 40 percent of the U.S. population lived on farms. An additional 20
percent lived in rural areas and were closely associated with the management
of land. Today less than three percent of us are farmers and most of us, even
those living in rural areas, are disconnected from any direct role in the
management of land. Adopting a land ethic is easy for most of us today
because it imposes the primary burden to act on someone else.
While few of us are resource producers any more, we all remain resource
consumers. This is one area we all can act that could have a positive effect
on resource use, demand and management. Yet few of us connect our resource
consumption to what must be done to the land to make it possible. At the same
time many of us espouse the land ethic, our operating motto in the marketplace
seems to be "shop 'till you drop" or "whoever dies with the most toys wins."
The disjunct between people as consumers and the land is reflected in
rising discord and alienation between producers and consumers. Loggers,
ranchers, fishermen, miners, and other resource producers have all at times
felt themselves subject to scorn and ridicule by the very society that
benefits from the products they produce. What is absent from much
environmental discourse in the U.S. today is a recognition that urbanized
society is no less dependent upon the products of forest and field than were
the subsistence farmers of America's past. This is clearly reflected in the
language used in such discourse. Rural communities traditionally engaged in
producing timber and other natural resources for urban consumers are commonly
referred to as natural resource "dependent" communities. Seldom are
the truly resource dependent communities like Boulder, Denver, Detroit, or
Boston ever referred to as such.
One of the relatively little known aspects of Aldo Leopold's career is the
years he spent at the Forest Service's Forest Products Lab at Madison,
Wisconsin. While there, he spoke of the need for responsible consumption. In
1928 Leopold wrote:
The American public for many years has been abusing the wasteful lumberman.
A public which lives in wooden houses should be careful about throwing stones
at lumbermen, even wasteful ones, until it has learned how its own arbitrary
demands as to kinds and qualities of lumber, help cause the waste which it decries.
If management of land has an ethical content, why does not consumption have
a corresponding one, as well? Is there a need for a "personal consumption
ethic" to go along with Leopold's land ethic? In his wonderful land ethic
chapter in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote that evidence that no
land ethic existed at the time was that a "farmer who clears his woods off a
75 percent slope, turns his cows into the clearing, and dumps its rainfall,
rocks, and soil into the community creek, is still (if otherwise decent) a
respected member of society."
To take off on that theme and make it more contemporary, the evidence that
no personal consumption ethic exists today is that a "suburban dweller with a
small family who lives in a 4000 square-foot home, owns three or four cars,
commutes to work in a gas guzzling sport utility vehicle (even though public
transportation is available), and otherwise leads a highly resource
consumptive lifestyle is still (if otherwise decent) a respected member of
society. Indeed, her/his social status in the community may even be enhanced
by virtue of that consumption."
Ecosystem management or ecological sustainability on public lands will have
weak or non-existent ethical credentials and certainly will never be a truly
holistic approach to resource management until the consumption side of the
equation becomes an integral part of the solution, rather than an
afterthought, as it is today. Belated adoption of Leopold's land ethic was
relatively easy. The true test as to whether a paradigm shift has really
occurred in the U.S. will be whether society begins to see personal
consumption choices as having an ethical and environmental content as well
-- and then acts upon them as such.