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Stewardship and management of freshwater ecosystems: From Leopold's land ethic to a freshwater ethic

February 17, 2021
  1. In 1949, Aldo Leopold formalized the concept of the ‘land ethic’, in what emerged as a foundational and transformational way of thinking about natural resource management, biodiversity conservation, and stewardship in terrestrial systems. Yet, the land ethic has inherent linkages to aquatic ecosystems; Leopold himself conducted research on rivers and lakes, and freshwater ecosystems figured widely in his writing.
  2. We reflect on the land ethic and other aspects of Leopold's scholarship to identify key messages that provide insight into the stewardship and management of freshwater ecosystems around the globe. We also frame what we call the ‘freshwater ethic’ around Leopold's legacy. Although Leopold could not have envisaged the stressors affecting modern aquatic ecosystems, his core principles remain salient. These apply not only to ecosystem protection, but also to the ethics of modern conservation economics, sustainability, and the protection of natural capital, in which lakes, rivers, and wetlands now figure prominently.
  3. We identify key ‘Aldo-inspired’ recommendations for protecting and restoring freshwater ecosystems in the Anthropocene that emanate directly from his writings (e.g. adopt an ecosystem approach, identify win–win–win scenarios, recognize the irreplaceability of wild waters, and strive for freshwater optimism).
  4. In an epoch where links between people and nature are becoming more explicit in environmental management, policy, and governance, we suggest that Aldo Leopold's work illustrates how inspirational, seminal thinkers have offered leadership in this domain. We contend that today there is still much that can be learned from Leopold, especially by the next generation of environmental practitioners, to ensure the effective stewardship of our aquatic ecosystems.
  5. We submit that the adoption of a freshwater ethic in parallel with Leopold's land ethic will enhance the stewardship of the world's increasingly threatened fresh waters by raising the profile of the plight of fresh waters and identifying enduring actions that, if embraced, will help conserve and restore biodiversity.

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