To evaluate the condition of a place, we must be able to define the attributes of natural, or undegraded, environments as a model. This condition - integrity - serves as the benchmark, standard, or reference condition; it connotes being unimpaired, whole, undiminished, or natural. The complex ecological systems that evolved at a site have already proved their ability to persist in and sometimes modify an area's physical, chemical, and biological environment. Their very presence means they are resilient to the normal variation in that environment; these ecological systems have integrity. Because evolution has tied ecosystems characterized by integrity to their home places, integrity becomes a valid benchmark against which to compare and evaluate places altered by human actions. Ecological indicators can calibrate biological or ecological condition in terms of deviation from that natural integrity, and such deviation reflects declining condition, perhaps to a point that might be considered poor or unhealthy.
In contrast to integrity, the concept of health embodies a human value judgment; that is, what we define as unhealthy might vary as a function of societal goals. Not everyone, for example, might define a river as healthy by the same criteria. Carp (Cyprinus carpio) fishermen might regard a turbid stream that supports a large carp population as healthy, while swimmers and smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) fishermen would no doubt consider that same stream unhealthy. Similarly, our perception of health in a designated wilderness or a national park might differ from that in a large urban park such as New York's Central Park.
But there are limits. Consider a parcel of farmland. If agricultural practices there damage the land so that farming can no longer take place on that parcel, or if these practices harm nearby rivers and streams and other downstream places, then farming that parcel using those practices is not sustainable. Neither the place nor the practices can therefore be considered healthy.
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