Leopold's Land Ethic: A Vision for Today

Article by USFWS Director Jamie Rappaport Clark, appeared in Winter 1998 issue of Wildlife Society Bulletin (v.26, n.4), page 719 to 724


January 26, 1998. The crisp winter day greeted us with creamy, white snow blanketing the ground. Surrounding us, towering ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) reached for the clear, cerulean-painted sky. We couldn't have asked for a better day to celebrate restoring a missing piece of our nation's natural heritage.

I was at the Apache National Forest in eastern Arizona to release the Mexican gray wolf (Canus lupus baileyi) back into the wilderness of the desert southwest. After an absence of nearly 50 years, the wolf would return home and once again roam this rugged landscape. For the past 9 years of my career, I had worked to make this day a reality. This became one of my passions in life; to remind me of my goal, I even named my golden retriever, Bailey, after the Mexican gray wolf.

On that beautiful day in Arizona's Blue Range Mountains, I felt not only pride, but the significance and symbolism of what was about to happen. Peering into the crates holding the wolves, I remembered the words Aldo Leopold wrote in his essay, "Thinking Like a Mountain": "...only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf" (Leopold 1966:137). Many of us on the mountain that day had attempted to listen objectively to the voice of this wilderness symbol, and now we could only hope the mountains would agree with what we were about to do.

As Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babhitt raised the sliding doors on the crates, the wolves darted from the confines of their temporary imprisonment. As they entered the acclimation enclosure, I sensed the mountains breathed a sigh of relief -- the "green fire" missing for so long had returned. Once the wolves would be permitted to leave the enclosure for the wilds of the Blue Mountains, another piece of nature's puzzle would he back in place amidst this vast landscape.

The reintroduction of wolves to Arizona is an example of the hard-earned successes of the Endangered Species Act (16 U.S.C. 1531-1544). The Act has saved not only well-known species such as the Mexican gray wolf, but also significant numbers of lesser-known species whose contribution to the overall ecological health of the land remains unknown. To remind myself of the value of these lesser-known species, I often reflect on the words Leopold (1966:190) wrote in his essay, "The Round River":

"The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in irgnorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would disregard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution to intelligent tinkering."

To me, this simple passage explains 1 reason why we work hard to recover our endangered species, to restore our damaged waterways, to conserve our public lands, and to provide opportunities for the American public and people around the world to revel in the splendor of our nation's natural heritage. Leopold was ahead of his time; for years his ideas were not widely incorporated into resource management. Today, we know that every component of the system, large or small, plays a role in preserving and maintaining the integrity of an ecosystem. The challenges facing us as we attempt to preserve our natural heritage will not he easy to resolve. For the resource professional in today's world, it requires not only dedication, skills, and knowledge, but a heart-felt passion for all things that are natural, wild, and free. It also requires a new way of implementing wildlife conservation; no longer can we do business as usual. The stakes are too high, and the challenges are too daunting.

As much as we can celebrate our successes in conserving and restoring our nation's wildlife heritage, the truth is that things still aren't right on the landscape. For some in the profession, it remains a struggle to embrace Leopold's land ethic, to break out of the paradigm of single-species management. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in the campaign to conserve and restore our nation's endangered species. For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), this has meant a change in both our approach for conserving fish, wildlife, and plants and in our daily operations as an agency.


Throughout much of its history, the USFWS, as well as other federal land management agencies and state game and fish departments, focused on the management of game species. For the USFWS, the primary focus was on waterfowl. Although a shift away from single-species management to protecting all the "cogs and wheels" of an ecosystem is occurring in many resource agencies, including ours, the traditional attitude still prevails in some corners. The new way of doing business, of looking at the whole landscape and making decisions based on the concepts of landscape ecology and conservation biology, remains difficult for many to accept, implement, or simply to understand.

As we enter the next century, our methods for protecting and conserving our nation's wildlife resources must become more innovative, creative, and inclusive of all living things. The traditional, single-species approach to wildlife management that was instrumental in recovering many of our game species has now evolved into an approach that considers the entire landscape. We now acknowledge the "dynamics of nature," instead of the traditional "balance of nature." We incorporate into our management strategies the use of natural processes to recover and restore our degraded landscapes.

No one said it would be easy -- the new methods of resource conservanon are just as demanding and challenging as the techniques our predecessors used in the early days to restore our nation's depleted game populations. Just as for them, for us too, resource conservation remains a daunting task. Instead of just creating and enhancing habitats for wildlife, we must now try to restore and protect existing landscapes.

It is easy for many of us in the profession today to criticize the approaches used by our predecessors to restore our Nation's wildlife heritage. That's unfortunate and unfair. What was accomplished by these pioneers was extraordmaiy and commendable. The issues facing our wildlife heritage today hardly existed 60 years ago. During those early years many of today's problems, where they did exist, could not he recognized, or were not considered problems at all. Little thought was given in the early days to habitat fragmentation, endangered species, or wildlife conservation from a landscape perspective. The senous environmental damage from contaminants or the intrusion of invasive, alien species was virtually nonexistent. The accomplishments of early resource professionals are well known: the dramatic population increases in white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), and elk (Cervus canadensis) are a few of the great successes. However, in many situations, the approaches used to restore game populations became detrimental to the other "cogs and wheels" of the landscape: developing edge habitat at the expense of protecting and, more importantly, restoring extensive tracts of intact forest habitat; impounding tidal wetlands for waterfowl at the expense of destroying vital spawning grounds for marine life; introducing exotic species such as the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and the salt cedar (Tamarix chinensis) to enhance wildlife habitat; and releasing nonnative sport fish that would outcompete native species in our rivers.

During those early days it was much easier to deal with 1 species at a time. For some time the single-species approach worked, but society's impacts and demands on our natural resources became more complicated. Therein lies the challenge for today's wildlife professionals -- how to make the transition from creating and enhancing habitats to restoring and protecting landscapes that are the "last of the best and the best of the rest." How do we take the approaches and techniques used successfully in restoring game populations and integrate them into new methods to protect and restore a whole array of plants, animals, and their habitats?

In many of the USFWS programs, most notably the endangered species program, we have leaaned the critical importance of collaboration, sharing knowledge and stewardship responsibilities within and among USFWS programs. Amazing success has been achieved with endangered species conservation efforts. The extinction of >1,100 species from the earth has been averted. Populations of >44% of the species listed under the Endangered Species Act are either stable or increasing. Considering the rapid expansion of the population and economy of the United States in the last 25 years, accompanied by pressures for development that have crowded out native species at an unprecedented rate, this is an excellent record.

Though extinction has been averted for some species, the challenge is much greater heading into the 21st century. We currently have >200 candidate species awaiting the initiation of the formal listing process. Essential habitats are still being fragmented and degraded, and the global human population continues to grow. By the middle of the next century, the population of the United States will have grown by 125 million people; that's 15 more New York Cities. Imagine what our country will look like when we have to house, clothe, feed, and find employment for another 125 million people. Imagine the impact this will have on our forests, rivers, wetlands and the fish, wildlife, and plants that depend on these systems.

To meet this challenge, we all must recommit ourselves to Leopold's vision of looking at the land and all its constituent parts. Not only must we do this as a profession, we must ensure the American public understands and supports the land ethic as well.


Within the natural resources conservation profession, we have sought to capture this vision with terms such as ecosystem management, landscape conservation, and "looking at the big picture." Whatever term we use, we are challenged to broaden our individual or organinational frames of reference: to think globally and act locally.

Developing strategies to protect our wildlife resources begins with the basic premises of Leopold's land ethic. Although some adaptation may be required, the land ethic remains as viable and important today as it was 50 years ago. Conservation of our precious natural resources presents us with these challenges:

Recognize the dynamic nature of an ecosystem. When implementing management actions on the landscape, we must incorporate considerations for ecosystem resiliency and develop strategies that can accommodate unexpected events or natural disturbance regimes.

Constantly monitor the natural resources and related management actions so that any needed adjustments can be made. This approach involves continual experimentation with management strategies and approaches, with the understanding that decisions may at times have to be made with less-than-perfect knowledge. Management approaches and techniques must remain adaptable to change.

Strive to maintain existing native plant and animal populations, and restore those that have suffered drastic declines due to human interference. Let's finally accept the fact that we induce failure when we try to control the natural variation of a system. For wildlife conservation, we must adapt the management practices to the system, not the other way around. To the extent practical, we must allow natural processes to operate unimpeded. Instead of creating or enhancing artificial habitats for a few high-interest species, we need to focus our actions on restoring and protecting native communities.

Set clear goals and objectives, including targets that can he measured to monitor ecosystem condition. We must know what we have before we do something with what we ve got. Once this is accomplished, we will be better equipped to make decisions on how best to proceed in restoring and protecting our wildlife resources.

Incorporate aesthetic concerns and amenity values into our management approaches. Both elements are important to preserving the natural integrity and appearance of the landscape. When the public can understand the connection between the value of maintaining the integrity of a landscape and its role in protecting the welfare of humans, we will add to our number of advocates for the resource.

Involve the public as an informed, active participant in the process. We must develop approaches that meet the needs and interests of the various groups within our culturally diverse society. Generic public-outreach and environmental-education programs are no longer effective in today's world. The challenge lies in our ability to reach out to all groups, especially those without a traditional respect for or understanding of the natural world, and to persuade them to understand and embrace the concepts of good land stewardship.

Develop partnerships. We must recognize that we cannot do the job alone. We must depend on collaborative efforts involving all stakeholders to ensure long-term conservation. Successful partnerships are essential, but challenging. Partnerships require adaptability, risk-taking, innovations, a shared vision, active participation, and commitment by all parties involved.


As the new millennium comes upon us, the USFWS is, indeed, integrating these essential components of Leopold's land ethic into operations. Continuing to implement an ecosystem approach to fish and wildlife conservation within our own agency, while respecting the strengths of our traditional program orientation, is a constant challenge, though many opportunities have arisen over the past few years. We still want and need to have a strong refuge system, a progressive endangered species program, and solid programs for fisheries, migratory birds, law enforcement, and habitat conservation. At the same time, we need to ensure collaboration among our biologists, and with other disciplines within our agency, to address and resolve conservation challenges in specific ecosystems. There is no question that we have recognized that the ecosystem approach to conservation is our future. Landscape-level conservation through cross-program coordination within the USFWS and in partnership with other organizations and individuals is the job of the USFWS; it is the "normal work" of all our employees, a mission to which our individual and collective efforts must contribute.

To help this process along, the USFWS is focusing on building partnerships with other federal agencies, states, local governments, corporations, foreign countries, conservation organizations, tribes, sportsmen's groups, and private landowners. Over the years, many of our most effective conservation efforts have been through partnerships. Whether in habitat conservation plans, refuge comprehensive conservation plans, safe harbor agreements, or aquatic restoration initiatives for river basins, we know that we cannot do the job alone. We must stay committed to working with others to accomplish the increasingly complex task of resource conservation.

In the 21st century, the great victories for conservation may be achieved in cooperation with people who know little about resource conservation or have a far different perspective

on the management and use of natural resources than our own. To work successfully with these people, we must see what they see; we must be able to convey to them what we see; and, together, we must find common ground.

Essential to our success as a conservation agency is our ability to communicate. Good biology alone will not get the job done. If we cannot communicate clearly and convincingly, we will not be able to achieve our mission. Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson demonstrated the power of words to mobilize people for conservation, and we have seen many cases where good communication and outreach have made it possible for us to move forward, even in highly controversial cases such as the reintroductions of wolves to Arizona and Yellowstone National Park or California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) to the Grand Canyon.

As in other federal, state, and local conservation agencies, the USFWS is a family of dedicated resource professionals working to conserve our wildlife heritage. Our commitment and passion is not for money, prestige, or visibility -- it is a commitment to conservation.

For us, the sight of a soaring condor, a flock of geese in flight, or even something as simple as a black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus) at a barnyard feeder stirs our souls and lifts our spirits. For us, wildhfe conservation is a sacred responsibility; we have been given stewardship over something precious and irreplaceable.

As those of us in the conservation profession deal with the difficult issues ahead, it is my hope we will always keep these things in mind. We must have a sure knowledge that some things are priceless; this is a knowledge that, as Leopold observed, although there are many things we can live without, wild creatures and wild places are not amongst them. Fifty years ago, Leopold captured this vision in A Sand County Almanac. Now the perpetuation of that vision is up to us!


Leopold, A. 1966. A sand county almanac with other essays on conservation from Round River. Oxford University Press, New York, New York.