In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ecological Integrity: Conceptual Foundations and Applications

  • Introduction
  • History of Ecological Integrity
  • Global Concerns and Rationale for Ecological Integrity
  • Definition and Concepts
  • Ecological Integrity, Ecological Health, and Park/Preserve Management
  • Evolution of Biological (Ecological) Indicators
  • Ecological Assessments

Environmental Science Ecological Integrity: Conceptual Foundations and Applications
Robert M. Hughes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0113


As the term suggests, ecological integrity refers to the pristineness, undiminished wholeness, or completeness of an entire ecosystem, whether it be a planet, an ecoregion, a preserve, a pond, or an alpine meadow. The concept of protecting large natural areas from development is the basis for marine and terrestrial national parks, biological reserves, and wilderness areas distributed globally. Nonetheless, how one defines, determines, and assesses ecological integrity remains unclear, if not controversial, to many scientists, managers, politicians, and concerned citizens. Part of this ambiguity arises from the multiplicity of terms associated with ecological integrity, such as ecological health, ecological sustainability, ecosystem services, environmental health, biological integrity, biological diversity, and natural. Therefore, any comprehensive discussion of ecological integrity must incorporate discussion and clarification of those terms as well as a brief history of the use of the concept.

History of Ecological Integrity

The concept of ecological integrity was introduced by Aldo Leopold (Leopold 1949) who stated that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (p. 224–225). Since then, the term has been incorporated in several legal documents. Section 101(a) of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, the objective of which “is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” (p. 1). The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) of 2012 indicates that the purpose of the GLWQA of 1972 is “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Waters of the Great Lakes” (p. 5). The Government of Canada 1999 states that the 1979 Parks Canada policy is that “ecological and historical integrity are Parks Canada’s first considerations and must be regarded as prerequisites against use” (p. 1). The Ministry of Environment 2014 determines that Chapter 6 (article 225) of the 1988 Federal Constitution of Brazil is that it is the responsibility of the State “to preserve the diversity and integrity of the genetic patrimony of the country” (p. 155). United Nations 1972 supports safeguarding natural ecosystems for present and future generations, and principle seven in United Nations Conference on Environment and Development 1992 avows that “States shall co-operate . . . to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem” (p. 2).

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