Ethics… the sound of the word sends us whirling into flashbacks from classes in high school and college. It is defined as “moral principles that govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity” (Oxford Dictionary). In business, ethics refers to how to treat your customers and employees with respect and universal fairness. In philosophy, it is expanded to describe how we treat our fellow human beings and members of our community. But what about the land itself on which humans live and businesses operate?
Photo credit: Natural Resource Interns from Walking Mountains Science Center spent a day taking care of the Two Elk trail by doing some basic trail maintenance after the trail opened for the season (June 30, 2020)
Many cultures around the world honor the land above all else. They express gratitude towards all parts of the landscape through ethical use and conservation of resources including soil, plants, wildlife, water, and air. Historically, the Ute Tribe used the Eagle River Valley as their summer hunting lands before settlers came to the area. The Ute people are the original stewards and caretakers of the land and they continue to value all the natural resources that the landscape has to offer.
While the idea of treating the land with respect has been practiced for thousands of years, it wasn’t until 1949 that a conservationist by the name of Aldo Leopold coined the term “land ethic.” Leopold emphasized the importance of treating the community with respect and “[enlarging] the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” Leopold explained that an ethical relation with the land is rooted in “love, respect, and admiration… and a high regard for its value.” People are connected to the land, and therefore have a moral obligation to take care of it.
Here in the Eagle River Valley, recreating in our beautiful wild places is why many of us choose to call this landscape home. We love our trails and ski runs and rivers and wilderness, but are we practicing a land ethic while we spend time in these places? Are we treating the land with the same respect that we would treat our friends, family, and other members of our community?
While Leopold’s definition of a land ethic remains broad, the actual ethical treatment of the land can be pretty specific… picking up trash you find on the trail, cleaning up after your pet, conserving water, following local fire restrictions, using your votes and dollars to support land conservation efforts, following the seven principles of Leave No Trace, and so much more.
Next time you find yourself outside doing what you love, take a second to think about your personal land ethic. Define what you believe to be the right and wrong way to behave towards our community, including the land, and make an inventory of what you are already doing to respect our landscape. Next, think of one or two things that you can focus on adding to your inventory with the best interest of the land in mind.
Leopold believed that a land ethic would have to “evolve… in the minds of a thinking community.” We are all a part of the thinking community and our actions can shape and conserve this landscape for generations to come.
Carrie Anderson is the Environmental Leadership Coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She is often seen exploring the wild places, trails, and ski runs in the White River National Forest and beyond.
Oxford English Dictionary
Simpson, J. A., Weiner, E. S. C., & Oxford University Press. (1989). The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Ute Land Trust
Our Mission. (2020). Ute Land Trust. https://www.utelandtrust.org/
Aldo Leopold Foundation
The Land Ethic. (2020). The Aldo Leopold Foundation. https://www.aldoleopold.org/about/the-land-ethic/
A Sand County Almanac
Leopold, A. (1986). A Sand County Almanac (Outdoor Essays & Reflections) (7th printing ed.). Ballantine Books.