The importance of land-use legacies to ecology and conservation

David Foster, Frederick Swanson, John Aber, Ingrid Burke, Nicholas Brokaw, David Tilman, Alan Knapp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

914 Scopus citations


Recognition of the importance of land-use history and its legacies in most ecological systems has been a major factor driving the recent focus on human activity as a legitimate and essential subject of environmental science. Ecologists, conservationists, and natural resource policymakers now recognize that the legacies of land-use activities continue to influence ecosystem structure and function for decades or centuries - or even longer - after those activities have ceased. Consequently, recognition of these historical legacies adds explanatory power to our understanding of modern conditions at scales from organisms to the globe and reduces missteps in anticipating or managing for future conditions. As a result, environmental history emerges as an integral part of ecological science and conservation planning. By considering diverse ecological phenomena, ranging from biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles to ecosystem resilience to anthropogenic stress, and by examining terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems in temperate to tropical biomes, this article demonstrates the ubiquity and importance of land-use legacies to environmental science and management.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-88
Number of pages12
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2003

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This manuscript benefited greatly from suggestions from John Hobbie, Steve Carpenter, Tim Seastedt, Glenn Motzkin, Tim Parshall, Dave Orwig, Nancy Grimm, Monica Turner, Matthew Greenstone, and two anonymous reviewers. Dorothy Recos Smith, Audrey Barker Plotkin, and Debbie Scanlon contributed extensively to the development of the manuscript. The work described in this article was broadly supported by the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research program and other state and federal agencies.


  • Conservation
  • Disturbance
  • Ecosystem process
  • Land use
  • Natural resource management


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