Ecological Integrity in Protected Areas: Two Interpretations

Document Type


Journal/Book Title/Conference

Seattle Journal of Environmental Law



Publication Date

Spring 4-1-2013

First Page


Last Page



Federal environmental legislation and policy in the United States require that managers seek to maintain natural conditions or “naturalness” within national parks, wilderness, and other protected areas.1 A number of experts in protected area management have argued, however, that naturalness should be abandoned as a mandatory goal in these areas. In the recently published book, Beyond Naturalness, leading management experts strongly recommend changes in protected area law and policy to allow alternative goals.2 One goal recommended by these experts for many management situations is maintaining ecological integrity.3 Indeed, ecological integrity is currently the management goal required by law in Canadian national parks.4 “Ecological integrity” has no uniformly accepted meaning, however. At least two different interpretations can be found in the literature. In one interpretation, an ecosystem has ecological integrity if it is either pristine, existing entirely free of human influence, or it has been only minimally influenced by humans.5 An ecosystem with ecological integrity may serve as a standard or benchmark for assessing the degradation of natural ecosystems by human activities.6 Authors of Beyond Naturalness, and other environmental management experts, have in mind the second interpretation in which humans are considered an essential component of an ecosystem.7 An ecosystem is thought to have ecological integrity if it satisfies preferences within society concerning how that ecosystem is structured and functions.8 Under this interpretation, the focus is on desired attributes rather than natural conditions.9 In this article, after describing the two interpretations in detail in sections II and III, I will argue that ecological integrity, understood in the second way, is at odds with the fundamental goal in protected areas of preserving native biodiversity. In section IV, I will present examples of threats or potential threats to native biodiversity that arise as open-ended preferences are imposed onto nature. As I will then show in sections V and VI, in spite of the development of wilderness, national parks, and other protected areas to meet human needs and satisfy visitor preferences, these ecosystems are managed to remain pristine or only minimally influenced by humans. This is mandated by environmental law and policy. These ecosystems are managed, that is, to maintain “ecological integrity” in accordance with the first interpretation. The second interpretation has merit, however, and cannot be ignored. In the conclusion, I will explain how the two interpretations of “ecological integrity” properly fit together in the management of protected areas.

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