Skip to main content

Investigating Land Ethics

Exploring land usage through historical case studies and a student symposium

You have just finished a vacation at Yellowstone National Park. On your trip, you and your family saw the natural wonders preserved there: the colorful, steaming geysers; the wild rivers; the lush forests; the powerful bison; and the majestic eagles. You likely got stuck behind other people visiting at the same time while driving around the vast wilderness. On your way home, you passed through Gallatin National Forest and noticed cows grazing in some areas, logging operations in others, and a few controlled burns. All are attempts to sustainably manage the timber provided by the forest. Once outside of the Gallatin, you see vast farms and larger cattle operations. You arrive at a town and see a collection of homes, businesses, and town government buildings. As you drive home, you think about why these areas are used so differently and what led to such different perspectives.

Land ethics are the ways that we justify our usage of the land. Today this topic is more important than ever as we balance our needs, such as food, water, and energy, with the systems of the natural world. The activity described here introduces students to the concept of land ethics using historical case studies of five common categories of ethics. The activity ends with a symposium examining a real-life example: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in southern Utah, and the potential future use of this land (see Figure 1). Engaging students in argumentation about this example allows them to see multiple sides of this complex issue.

Current land use in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM).

History of land ethics

One of the first to write about human impact on the land was Alexander von Humboldt, who shared his accounts of travels through Spanish South America in the early 19th century. His observations at Lake Valencia documented how the locals witnessed a decrease in the amount of water available for agriculture due to deforestation and changes in the local climate (Wulf 2016). He saw for himself the interconnectedness of nature and our impact on it.

This sparked a discussion on what effect, if any, humans and human activities had on the land and nature in general. Prior to Humboldt, the dominant school of thought was largely centered on the idea that the Earth was created for use by humans. We as a species could bend the planet to our will, and be rewarded indefinitely for doing so. Those in charge of forestry efforts were the first to recognize that the land would not provide forever. They saw a decrease in the amount of lumber they were producing as the oldest, tallest, and largest trees had already been removed, leaving only younger, smaller trees.

Land ethics as an organized field of study emerged in the 20th century (Allchin 2019). In 1948, Aldo Leopold opened the discussion to a wider audience with A Sand County Almanac, in which he introduced and named the concept of land ethics, the ethical guidelines by which people should use the land. The five branches he described included economic (focusing on monetary gain from the land), utilitarian (focusing on using the land in the best way for the most people), libertarian (focusing on the land rights of the individual), egalitarian (focusing on shared and equal access to the land), and ecological-based land ethics (focusing on the natural value of the land). The conversation has continued to evolve as we see firsthand the impacts humanity can have while meeting individual and societal needs.

Lesson Elements

Science is underpinned by collaboration and argumentation; scientists develop and critique arguments as part of their everyday work. Discourse in the science classroom, however, has historically been dominated by direct instruction. Argumentation has been increasingly included in classroom activities in an attempt to develop more authentic science tasks (Schwarz, Passmore, and Reiser 2017). Historical case studies are one way of introducing a topic for argumentation (Rogan-Klyve et al. 2015; Askew and Gray 2016; Herreid, Schiller, and Herreid 2012) because they give the reader a chance to see historical scientists as more than just names, dates, and accomplishments. In this activity, historical case studies were used alongside a symposium to engage students in argumentation about the different types of land ethics that affect our public lands.

Land ethics activity

This activity consists of two main parts: the use of historical case studies and a symposium leading to a protection plan for GSENM. All documents described below are available online. While this is described as a two-day lesson, some classes may take an additional day to increase the time students have for research. While we used this activity in an environmental science course, it could also be used in a biology unit focusing on human impacts on the environment.

Day 1

Prior to starting the activity, it was important to look at why students should care about land ethics, let alone a national monument in another state. To begin, we chose a park that was nearby and known to the students. We presented students with the five scenarios in Figure 2 and asked them to think about how these changes would affect their use of the park. Are these decisions fair? Who is helped and who is harmed? After the students had a chance to discuss their reactions, we introduced them to GSENM using an introductory video. While watching the video, we asked the students to note some of the uses they see or the natural and cultural resources depicted. After a discussion, we broke the class into five groups of 4–5 students (chosen randomly), one for each land ethic, and described that we were going to be looking at the challenge of deciding what to do with GSENM and learning about the different perspectives.

Five scenarios for introductory activity.

To introduce land ethics, we examined how Alexander von Humboldt’s study of the Spanish colonies in present day Colombia and Venezuela started a dialogue on the impact of human use of the land. The introductory case study also briefly describes the five land ethics and some of the individuals who championed them in the past. The symposium letter and the quick resource fact sheet from the scenario document were handed out at the same time as the case studies. These documents gave guidance on useful information that the students could reference, and introduced them to the symposium that took place on Day 2.

Each case study has sections about its origins, which individuals and organizations typically use the land ethic, and their benefits and risks. Some of these talking points are in Figure 3. Students then thought about the roles they want to represent in the upcoming symposium. Students were able to draw from any appropriate organization for their given land ethic, and be a representative of that group. Some examples of representatives are in Figure 4. The goal of Day 1 was to introduce the idea of land ethics and for groups to prepare for the symposium on Day 2.

Example talking points by land ethic
Examples of potential roles by land ethic.

Day 2

On Day 2, students applied the information from the case studies to construct an argument for their land ethic and to prepare a protection plan for the GSENM. To prepare, the groups put together an introduction for themselves, as described in the invitation letter. This tied into the symposium and helped students develop their opinions on the parts of the protection plan.

The goal of the symposium-style meeting was to better understand the diverse perspectives at play in the GSENM. We chose the GSENM because it is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), rather than the National Park Service. The BLM has a mission that tends to be more economically based, allowing larger varieties of uses ranging from agriculture and recreation to mineral extraction. Having a variety of interests and uses for the protection plan of GSENM makes the location a good selection for a place to talk about land ethics.

As the students prepared for the symposium, they made sure that each person in the group could discuss how their chosen role hopes to use the land, what risks and benefits exist for their primary land ethic, and most importantly, how their land ethic can work with that of others. As a group, the students shaped a shared position for their land ethic. They developed further pros and cons of their stance, brainstormed examples of where these ethics are seen in the world, how effective they have been in the past, or any other relevant information that they thought would strengthen their stance.

When bringing the whole group together, we gave each group a chance to present an opening statement, introducing their assigned land ethic. Afterward, the groups engaged with the merits and risks of using each one of the land ethics, including what sort of resource or land each would be best suited to. The goal of the symposium was not to prove that one land ethic is better than another. Rather, the point was to build a consensus of why these land ethics exist and the role they play in our discourse today. This is where most questions arose. Figure 5 displays a few challenges our students had during the activity. Figure 6 shows the rubric we used to assess the quality of the symposium.

Potential challenges and how to address them.
Symposium rubric.

During preparation for the symposium, we found that some groups required extra assistance because of the complexity of their position. We used strategic grouping to help alleviate this problem and focused more of our time during student preparation for the symposium with these groups. Additionally, given the reading level of much of the material available we would recommend providing a few resources directly to the group along with an outline to help them get the main information from the readings. We also found it important to encourage all groups to think about the types of questions they are going to ask the other groups, and what questions the other groups might ask of them to encourage deeper thinking.

As part of the symposium, the students came to a consensus on a five-part protection plan by voting as stakeholders. Each land ethic had one part written specifically for them that they could argue for. Unlike the first part of the symposium, students were not bound to their assigned land ethics while voting. If another student had made a convincing argument, they could vote for or against it based on another land ethic.

The five parts of the protection plan were: (1) All collection of plant, animal, fossil, or artifacts will be done by permit only; (2) Cattle grazing is permitted throughout the GSENM area; (3) Areas rich in mineral deposits, such as copper or coal, will be opened for mining, assuming no human artifacts or fossils are found; (4) All for-profit groups operating in GSENM must have at least one person on staff to explain what they are doing to visitors from the general public; (5) Culturally and traditionally associated tribes will retain access to their ancestral lands.

As the activity moved into the voting portion of the symposium, the students were provided with five sticky notes each. These sticky notes served as a “yes” vote for the five parts of the protection plan. Students placed their sticky notes by any of the five parts of the protection plan that they agreed with. The five parts can be placed on whiteboards, chalkboards, or poster paper. All parts receiving votes greater than half of the number of participants passed, and those that received fewer than half of the numbers of participants did not pass. If any ties occurred, students would present arguments about reasons to vote for or against the part in question.

As an extension, student groups could evaluate and develop arguments for the five different land protection plan suggestions to present as part of the symposium. They could evaluate how the implementation of their chosen suggestion could cause changes to the GSENM region. While this would take additional class time, it would allow the students to make the effects of changed policies on the GSENM more explicit.


By combining historical case studies with a symposium, this activity gave students the opportunity to engage with multiple ideas about land ethics in the context of a real national park. The historical case studies humanized the individuals who helped to form the land ethic ideas we use today. In the end, the activity helped our students better understand the varied land ethics and how they shape the land around us.

Connecting to Three-Dimensional Standards

Science and Engineering Practice


Engaging in Argument From Evidence

Evaluate competing design solutions to a real-world problem based on scientific ideas and principles, empirical evidence, and logical arguments regarding relevant factors (e.g., economical, societal, environmental, ethical considerations).


Classroom Connection:

Students will engage in argumentation during the symposium using the case studies and personal experiences to develop the position of their land ethic, and ultimately a shared consensus about how the land should be used.

The class will design a solution to the land use problem by coming to consensus on the protection plan.



Disciplinary Core Idea

HS-ESS3.A: Natural Resources
Resource availability has guided the development of human society.

Classroom Connection:
Students will have to address all resources at GSENM to develop their stance on the protection plan, including cultural ones from previous groups that called it home.

HS-ESS3-C: Human Impacts on Earth Systems
The sustainability of human societies and the biodiversity that supports them requires responsible management of natural resources.

Classroom Connection:
Each part of the protection plan draws on either the management of or the use of natural resources. As students present their arguments, this will be another factor for them to consider.

Crosscutting Concept

Stability and Change

Change and rates of change can be quantified and modeled over very short or very long periods of time. Some changes are irreversible.

Classroom Connection:
Students will have to think about both stability and change as well as cause and effect in coming to consensus for their protection plan.



Performance Expectation

  • The materials, lessons, and activities outlined in the article are just one step toward reaching the performance expectation listed below.

HS-ESS3-2. Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.
HS-ESS3-3. Create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among management of natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, and biodiversity.

Connecting to the Common Core State Standards


RST.11-12.1  Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to important distinctions the author makes and to any gaps or inconsistencies in the account. (HS-ESS3-1, HS-ESS3-2)

WHST.9-12.2  Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes. (HS-ESS3-1)


Allchin D. 2019. From Leopold’s “Land Ethic” to ecological hubris. The American Biology Teacher 81 (4): 291–293.

Askew J. and Gray R.E. 2016. Settling the score: Exploring the historic debate over atomic bonding. The Science Teacher 83 (8): 46–54.

Herreid C.F., Schiller N.A., and Herreid K.F. 2012. Science stories: Using case studies to teach critical thinking. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Leopold A. 1970. A Sand County almanac. New York: Ballantine Books.

Rogan-Klyve A., Halsey Randall M., St. Claire T., and Gray R.E. 2015. Bringing historical scientific arguments back to life: The case of continental drift. Science Scope 38 (7): 25–33.

Schwarz C.V., Passmore C., and Reiser B.J. 2017. Helping students make sense of the world using next generation science and engineering practices. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Wulf A. 2016. The invention of nature. New York: Random House.


Earth & Space Science Literacy


Middle School

Asset 2