Article 7:

(Essay) Lines across the Land

By Richard Knight, Department of Fishery and Wildlife Biology, Colorado State University

It is a fact, patent both to my dog and myself, that at daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over. It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded. Expanses unknown to deed or map are known to every dawn, and solitude, supposed no longer to exist in my county, extends on every hand as far as the dew can reach.
—Aldo Leopold (1949)
In the course of settling and building nations that lay across continents, humans inevitably drew lines across the land. Whether these brushstrokes reflected different political jurisdictions, partitioned private from public lands, or were simply survey boundaries by which land was measured (e.g., sections, townships, ranges), our world has been, and continues to be, artificially fractured, fragmented, and fissured. It seems the very endeavor of being human involves partitioning, dividing, and allocating resources along a variety of human-defined borders.

Due to our pervasive nature for drawing lines upon the land, it was inevitable that public lands, nature reserves, multiple use areas and parks would have boundaries defined by human constructs. Had our public-land units been designed by ecologists, rather than surveyors acting through administrative orders, their shapes, sizes, and locations would have been quite different from how they appear today. For example, rather than a gunbarrel straight line defining one border of a national park, the boundary might have reflected the inherent winding line of a watershed or ridgeline. Instead of a forest reserve boundary demarcated by a state border, the management unit might instead have ended at the edge of a broad climate pattern or a major vegetation type.

Up until a short time ago, these would have been no more than ecological musings but a change in how we perceive land management offers hope that the future will see administrative lines more closely mirroring ecological boundaries. For a variety of reasons, natural resource managers have behaved as though their borders were inviolate to forces from without (Pickett and Ostfeld 1995). This belief certainly simplified their lives for, after all, if one assumed that boundaries were like steel walls that would prevent biotic and abiotic fluxes from passing across them, there was little need to consider what took place on the other side. Accordingly, a national park employee would not have to communicate with an adjacent national forest, nor would a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office have to interact with the private landowners contiguous to their boundary.

Thus, it became customary to view parks and other public lands as islands of protection in seas of development. Within their closed borders resource managers could retain a seemingly ideal world that captured the balance of nature (Wagner and Kay 1993). Systems were viewed as self-regulating in which disturbances were exceptional and that possessed a single end point where the area would be in equilibrium with the environment (Pickett and Ostfeld 1995).

The past decade has seen a substantial shift from this idealized world of closed systems. Indeed, this belief that humans could command nature has come to be viewed as a “pathology” of natural resources management (Holling and Meffe 1996). Today, agencies responsible for managing ecosystems are encouraged to replace a view of nature as ordered and under their control with one that accepts the dynamic nature of ecosystems captured in the phrase “the flux of nature” (Pickett and Ostfeld 1995). This new perspective accepts the natural variation in ecological systems and believes that this flux is essential for ecosystems to retain their resiliency.

As we approach a new century, federal and state land-management agencies in the U.S. are now addressing the challenge of managing ecosystems (Interagency Ecosystem Management Task Force 1995). This has necessitated a shift in focus, from one that is less concerned with specific administrative units to one that emphasizes the health and land use practices of the more broadly defined ecosystem. Because new and emerging issues of biodiversity and ecological integrity cut across lands under a variety of ownerships (public and private alike), the need for collaboration among agencies, owners, and stakeholders becomes paramount (Knight and Landres 1998). Ecosystem management at the landscape level can only be achieved by creating an interactive network of ideas, information, and skills. This perspective recognizes the diversity of legitimate interests and capabilities in a pluralistic society, and the fact that information, values, resources, and power are fragmented across geographic boundaries, social groups, organizations, agencies, and disciplines (Wondolleck and Yaffee 1994). To be successful, strategies to sustain healthy, diverse regions will have to focus on the management of landscape-scale ecosystems. This suggests the need for a far greater level of coordination, cooperation, and collaboration across jurisdictional and property boundaries in order to achieve the goals of ecosystem health and the diversity of needs typically found among a variety of public and private stakeholders (Landres 1998).

There is evidence that a shift to cross-boundary management through cooperation and collaboration is occurring (Wondolleck and Yaffee 1994). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is participating in biological diversity initiatives using watershed boundaries, rather than traditional artificial borders. Furthermore, watersheds have been clustered into ecosystem units, and ecosystem teams have been formed to develop ecosystem plans for watersheds in these units. Recently, a national forest and BLM element in Colorado “dimmed” their artificial boundaries by merging their two units into a single, much larger area that more closely reflects ecological boundaries.

Administrative boundaries are artifacts of human occupancy and management of the land. Surprisingly, many believe that these boundaries are permanent, stamped indelibly upon our countryside. Since even ecological boundaries are in a constant dynamic, it is certainly erroneous to assume that administrative boundaries are immutable. For a moment, can we imagine a future with fewer boundaries, a more integrated landscape that would facilitate movement of both humans and wildlife? One whose administrative borders are more aligned with natural demarcations upon the land, such as rivers, ridgelines, and changes in major vegetation types? One where administrative boundaries are modified, softened, or even abandoned? Given the breadth of different types of boundaries, and the complexity of social and biological issues associated with trans-boundary topics, how can we better manage lands created by administrative boundaries?

These are unanswered questions that land stewards will grapple with for as long as people cultivate a land ethic. By accepting the dynamic boundaries of ecosystems, and the impositions people place on the land, we are moving in the right direction.

Literature Cited

Interagency Ecosystem Management Task Force. 1995. The ecosystem approach: healthy ecosystems and sustainable economies. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.

Holling, C. S. and G. K. Meffe. 1996. Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conserv. Biol. 10:328–337.

Knight, R. L. and P. B. Landres. 1997. (eds.). Stewardship Across Boundaries. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Landres, P. B. 1998. Integration: a beginning for landscape-scale stewardship. In R. L. Knight and P. B. Landres, (eds.). Stewardship Across Boundaries, pp. 337–345. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Leopold, A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, New York.

Pickett, S. T. A. and R. S. Ostfeld. 1995. The shifting paradigm in ecology. In R. L. Knight and S. F. Bates, (eds.), A New Century for Natural Resources Management, pp. 261–278. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Wagner, F. H. and C. E. Kay. 1993. “Natural” or “healthy” ecosystems: are U.S. national parks providing them? In M. J. McDonnell and S. T. A. Pickett, (eds.), Humans As Components of Ecosystems: the Ecology of Subtle Human Effects and Populated Areas, pp. 257–270. Springer Verlag, New York, NY.

Wondolleck, J. M. and S. L. Yaffee. 1994. Building bridges across agency boundaries: in search of excellence in the United States Forest Service. Pacific Northwest Research Station Report, Seattle, Washington.