Striving Toward a Washington County Land Ethic


Aldo Leopold, a famous author (among conservationists at least) once wrote:

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.”

To me, the land ethic means taking responsibility for the world around us.  It also means living a life that recognizes our personal impacts on the land and works toward giving as much or more than it takes.  How are we, as a community, doing in Minnesota and Washington County in particular?  A lot has happened in the last few years that indicates we are moving in a direction that does enlarge the boundaries.

Just this week the Washington County Board adopted the Land and Water Legacy Program Top 10 Priority Conservation Area Report.  This report identifies high quality natural areas in the County (currently under private ownership) that are important for habitat, species diversity, and water quality.  Purchasing these areas or placing them under permanent protection will meet the purposes of the voter-approved referendum (a completely voluntary program passed in 2006) that authorized Washington County to issue up to $20 million in bonds for land preservation, water protection and parks.  A significant majority of residents passed this referendum.

More recently, the residents of the State of Minnesota passed a similarly named constitutional amendment.  This 3/8 cent increase in sales tax is directly contributing to more conservation all over Washington County.  Projects are completed, underway, or planned in Denmark Township, Afton, Lake St. Croix Beach, Stillwater, Woodbury, Forest Lake, and more.

Another way I like to gauge the level of interest in protecting land and water resources in Washington County is to check Facebook – the St. Croix River page in particular.  And yes, the page is nearing 20,000 likes.  That’s a lot of people who care about the St. Croix.  There’s a lot of energy and passion about the river.

Do these actions indicate a growing land ethic?  Perhaps, but it is relatively easy to check a ballot box or click a button.  A more real test is personal action.  Not surprisingly, over the past few years we’ve seen a steadily increasing number of projects implemented by residents, ranging from farmers to homeowners to businesses.  In 2010 over 80 projects (raingardens, wetland enhancements, conservation plantings, etc.) were built.  In 2011 that number increased to 111!  We anticipate that number to increase in 2012.

I keep running into more and more county residents who’ve tapped into the technical expertise and financial support available through the Conservation District.  Sometimes in the strangest places.  My favorite example recently is when I went to the local bank to talk about loan options.  I told the person who I worked for and she exclaimed, “I love my rain garden!”  Yes, the community continues to enlarge.

What’s next?  The answer to that question is up to each of us.  So, if you want to learn more about what you can do to tend to the land, build the boundaries of our community, and strive toward a land ethic in Washington County, please call the Washington Conservation District at 651-275-1136 or visit our website at

Guest Writer: Jay Riggs is the District Manager of the Washington Conservation District.  He’s been working on water quality and natural resource management issues for over 20 years.  Contact him via email at