Aldo Leopold Land Ethic and Sherwood Park

City parks are a useful tool in raising awareness for environmental problems, by providing people with an opportunity to see the beauty of nature beyond the narrow view of a household garden, of a potted plant in the corner of a room, or a small cactus completely out of place on an urban office desk. Many people who have lived exclusively in an urban environment, however, have never had a chance to see nature in anything other than this light. Parks allow people to witness nature in hopes that they may take home with them the mentality that nature is something to be protected. This paper examines Aldo Leopold’s land ethic and applies it to Sherwood Park to discover if under the land ethic it is ethical. Further, it will be questioned whether the nature in the park can actually be restored to its original beauty, and what some problems may be with the method used to limit human interaction with nature.

Aldo Leopold dedicated his entire life to the conservation effort. His most notable contribution to the field is his work on a land ethics. One of the main reasons why he formulates a land ethic is to end the connection between the economic value of the land and any notion derived from this of what is acceptable to do to the land. For instance, he does not want a group of trees to be protected if the rationale behind doing so is in order for them to become larger so that in the future when they are more valuable they will be cut down. Rather he would want the trees to be protected for their value as part of the biotic community. When an economically driven ethics is used not only do certain plants and animals become completely worthless, but entire biotic communities do as well.[1] Leopold wants to eliminate the economic-based standard of evidence for validity when looking at what is an acceptable way to treat the land. He attempts to do this through his development of a land ethics.

Leopold recognizes ethics as a limiting factor on a person’s freedoms.[2] This limiting factor found in ethics is a necessity. It protects the community in such a way as to balance the instinctual behavior of people to compete with one another, with a reason for people to co-operate.[3] Leopold wants to extend the sense of protecting a community to encompass the land as well.[4] When referring to the land Leopold does not just mean the soil but also everything on or dependent on the soil.[5] So, while the instinctual feeling of competition may lead people to cut down all the trees in Canada, Leopold wants to develop a land ethic to force co-operation among those living in the same community. This is to ensure that there will remain a place to compete in, in the first place.

From this concept of ethics, he builds an environmental ethics in order to put limitations on how people can interact with nature. At the core of his ethics is an attempt to place moral obligations on the private landowner so that even if someone owns the land they cannot simply do as they wish to it.[6] A logging company, for instance, could not buy large tracts of land and cut down all the trees under the notion that it is their land and they can do whatever they want with it. As was the case in the past when women were viewed as property and an ethic still existed on how to interact with women, albeit not the best one, Leopold wants the same situation to occur with the environment. No longer does he want the ownership of land to be a justification for someone being able to do whatever they wish to it. Leopold’s land ethic tries to show people what one person does on their land can and often does, affect what happens on another person’s land and that this complex interaction should not be overlooked.

Leopold sees nature as an extremely complex chain of which its ability to function is dependent on both the co-operation and competition of the diverse parts.[7] What happens in one area will undoubtedly influence what happens in another. There is no part of nature which can be placed in its own little bubble. Leopold sees the land as a “fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.”[8] The proverbial circle of life as it were. With this view of nature, it is easy to understand why Leopold would want to put moral obligations on private landowners. What private lands owners do on their land will have an effect on what happens on another person’s land, and so some degree of responsibility must be established. Leopold does this through his concept of a land ethic.

What Leopold would like the landowner to acknowledge and follow is found in his famously quoted maxim “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”[9] Under this land ethic the right thing to do when interacting with nature is anything which would preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the area while anything contrary to this would be wrong. So for example, under this land ethic, a private owner of land could not clear-cut his section of land because it would preserve none of the three criteria. It would, however, allow the owner to cut down trees selectively in a manner which preserved the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community rather than in an approach that did the opposite. It is through this maxim that Leopold gives private landowners ethical obligations to the land. This, in turn, limits what can be done to the land and justifiably forces co-operation among members of the same community. It is this sense of a common community which Leopold is trying to get others to recognize. Land as a community not a commodity.

This land ethic as developed by Leopold is not without its problems. One main problem is that it is unclear how preserving the beauty of the biotic community could limit someone from doing anything. While integrity and stability are closer to the realm of objectivity, beauty is almost entirely subjective. Where one person sees a hideous barren wasteland, another could just as easily see a picturesque landscape. There would be nothing under the beauty criteria that would stop someone from cutting down large areas of trees to make a big grassy field. Furthermore the idea that the biotic community is a beautiful thing is entirely ethnocentric. While there are many beautiful biotic communities, there are undoubtedly many biotic communities which humans would not find beautiful. A good example of this would be parasites living off the carcasses of the dead, or the entire insect community in general, which people seem to inherently find gruesome. What the beauty of a biotic community is too a human should not only be irrelevant but even if it were relevant, it would be hard to argue whose idea of beauty should be followed.

Another problem with the land ethic is that it does not exclude the possibility of continuing to view the land as a commodity which Leopold seems to want to get away from. Although it would be a giant step forward if such obligations to the land were implemented it would not necessarily mean that people would stop viewing the land as a commodity. If people knew that the only way they could continue to profit from the land for many generations were to implement this land ethic, it would not in any way mean that those making money off the land viewed it as anything different than a commodity.

Sherwood Park is a fairly typical city park aside from its size. Being comprised of forty acres makes it a larger than a normal park, when compared to the parks, found further downtown. It is built around a ravine and is primarily comprised of fenced nature trails, and specific places designed for children to play in. Situated only a short distance north-west of Bayview and Eglinton the way in which Sherwood Park is set up is excellent in highlighting the themes and concerns found in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic.

The fact that Sherwood Park surrounds a ravine leads one to suspect that it was initially the leftover land in the area which could not be developed. With the difficulty of building on a ravine the park may have initially been one of those biotic communities which were entirely written off as having no economic value. This would be an unacceptable way to view the land to Leopold. Although there is an intense preservation effort currently going on in the park, it can still be said that the way in which people are viewing the park has not changed, rather it has flipped. Instead of looking at the park as having no economic value, the park is looked at as having great economic value for raising the property values in the area. With green space becoming less available while demand remains constant, having a large park near a house is an attractive selling point people are willing to pay considerable amounts of money for. So although how people see the value of the land as changed that fact that it is still being seen as a commodity would be something Leopold would be opposed to.

Although the way in which the park is being viewed might be something Leopold is against he certainly would not be against the way in which it is being preserved. Sherwood Park fulfills all three of the main criteria of preserving the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community in the area. It achieves each of these goals primarily through a system of fenced nature trails called “Discovery Walks”. The nature trails in the park are intended not only to guide people from one area to the next and provide a scenic view along the way, it is also used to limit where a visitor to the park can go. Limiting where a visitor can walk is useful in that it limits the possibility of damage to the area to a specific and easily monitored section. By keeping people sectioned off from the environment the biotic community in the area can be kept in an unimpaired condition, which would then naturally preserve the beauty, integrity, and stability of the area. This limiting factor on the part of those visiting the park may have just what Leopold had in mind when he recognized that some form of limitation on people’s freedoms will be needed.[10]


There are some in the environmental community such as Robert Goodin who would argue that it is not. Attempting to restore the nature in the area to its original value, value in the non-economic sense is impossible. Those who agree with this are working with the idea that nature is a pristine otherness to human culture which value reduces the more humans intermix with it.[11] Thus “a restored bit of nature is necessarily not as valuable as something similar that has been ‘untouched by human hands’.”[12] Goodin would say that what will exist in Sherwood Park in the future, once the restoration process is completed, will be some form of fake or forgery of the original one which value will be less than the original.[13]


Although some form of limitation is needed in order to preserve the biotic community, there is a downside to the use of nature trails to do so. Nature trails separate humans from nature, and the sense that humans are part of the interconnectedness of nature is lost. Otherness to the land can easily be a rationale for humans to dominate over nature as nature’s guardian.

The way in which the nature trails in Sherwood Park are set up completely limits the degree in which people can interact with nature. Not only are there many signs that instruct people to follow the paths but there are fences on both sides of the path as an extra obstacle. There is no sense of interacting or experiencing nature while on the nature trail. This is done so that ideas of nature such as those put forth by John Passmore can be maintained. Passmore states that nature is anything which is not human or human in origin.[14] It is a sort of distinction which views nature as the part of the world which is prior to human activity which we have had no hand in creating.[15] Although it is clear that the areas off limits in the park are not prior to any human activity, it is intentionally being left alone so that aside from the initial partitioning off of the area humans will have no hand in creating the land. People have been intentionally separated from the land in Sherwood Park in order to create an area of nature untouched by humans. This intentional separation furthers the notion of nature as an otherness to humans.

It has been said that the concept of nature as “otherness” to humanity is fundamental.[16] The reason for this being fundamental is that in order to define humanity it is not sufficient to use the definition of nature. Differences must be used and the fact that there is something different than humanity must mean that there is something other to humanity which it can differentiate itself from. “To the extent that we relate to it, we are outside nature.”[17] The otherness of nature to humans is clear, what is not so clear however is what this means for how people should treat nature. It can be taken to mean that humans should not interfere with nature but it can also be taken to mean that humans have some role in maintaining it. A problem arises though when humans take this otherness and separation with nature to mean that it can be dominated.

The notion that nature is something which can be dominated is certainly present in Sherwood Park. The entire restoration process is dependent on the idea that humans can know what is best for the area and that what they are doing is just that. This is no reason though to think that humans can or do know what is in the best interests of nature. The signs hung all along the fence also indicate a sense of human domination and control over nature. It is clearly stated on each sign that the goal of the fences is to limit access in order to prevent erosion and to restore the native vegetation. Preventing erosion and restoring the native vegetation is completely out of the hands of those working in the park and yet they are taking credit for it. Humans are manipulating Sherwood Park to their own specifications of what they view nature should be.

Sherwood Park meets all of the criteria in Aldo Leopold’s land ethic when determining what is right. Through the use of nature trails the lands integrity, stability, and beauty will be preserved for many years to come. The park though is still being looked at in economic terms as a commodity is something Leopold would be against. According to environmentalists such as Robert Goodin, it will not even be possible to restore the area to its original nature. Instead, Goodin would say that only a forgery of the original can be made. The limitations placed on people in the park raise the problem of human domination over nature through completely separating humans from nature and eliminating any chance at interacting with it in a meaningful way. We are placing nature in manipulated little bubbles for ourselves to observe. It is as though we have created a zoo for people to observe nature in. What they are really seeing though is not nature at all but rather a forgery of the original which we have manipulated into existence.

[1] Aldo Leopold “The Land Ethic” p.377

[2] ibid p.373

[3] ibid p.374

[4] ibid p.374

[5] ibid p.378

[6] ibid p.378

[7] ibid p.378

[8] ibid p.378

[9] ibid p.382

[10] ibid p.373

[11] Kate Soper “The Discourses of Nature” p.16

[12] Robert Goodin “Green Political Theory” p.41

[13] ibid p.41

[14] John Passmore “Man’s Responsibility for Nature” p.207

[15] Kate Soper “The Discourses of Nature” p.16

[16] ibid p.16

[17] Robert P. Harrison “Toward a Philosophy of Nature” p.427