Opening speech by the Director, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to: Leopold Conference

[NOTE: delivered on May 14, 1999 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia]


Thank you, Rick. And welcome everyone, to the National Conservation Training Center. As you spend the next two days here, I hope you take time to roam the campus to soak in, not only the scenery, the birds, and wildflowers, but to seek out the many exhibits, displays, and photographs about the history of conservation in this great country of ours. Within the halls of this facility, whether it's the dining hall, the lodges, or the instructional buildings, you'll find countless reminders of those who came before us; of those conservation professionals who dared to dream, to take risks and to use innovation to protect our nation's wildlife and wildlands heritage for future generations. And who knows, you might even see a photograph of someone you worked with or knew!

For us in the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Center has become a place where we have discovered a sense of home, a sense of history about this incredible profession that we have dedicated our lives, our hearts, and our passion to. You can't help but be proud, humbled, and honored when gazing upon the likes of Roosevelt, Muir, Carson, Darling, Leopold and the many other conservation heroes profiled here.

For the next two days, we are here to celebrate, to commemorate, to explore, and to reflect upon Aldo Leopold's land ethic; of how to tread lightly on the land. In simple, elegant prose, "A Sand County Almanac", published 50 years ago, provided the engine that would, over the next five decades, drive our profession into recognizing that every "cog and wheel" do, indeed, matter.

I doubt there is one nature lover among us or in this country that doesn't have at least one copy of "ASCA" and for most of us, there are several. I know in our household, there are at least four copies in various stages of wear. And that's not including the copies my husband and I each have in our offices.

A reviewer in Audubon once wrote that "ASCA" is "the closest text to a Bible the conservation movement has produced." A time span of fifty years has yet to diminish the power of Leopold's words. It has often been said the true test of a classic is its ability to remain fresh to a new generation and "ASCA" exceeds this test. Just read the opening sentence from the book's foreword:

"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot."

And as I look out among you this morning, I know I am among those who cannot live without wild things.

Among us this weekend are representatives from the many public land management agencies: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Department of Defense. I'd like to offer two quotes from "ASCA" that are every bit as applicable today as guides to managers of our public lands as when Leopold wrote them: "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."

"The last word in ignorance 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 discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."

These are two of the most recognized and enduring passages ever written about our connection to nature and the value of practicing a land ethic. I believe the challenge for us as public land managers is to ensure we look at the land as espoused in "ASCA", in particular to how these two quotes apply to living lightly on the land.

This conference has brought together many notable conservationists; from academia, from state and federal government, from conservation organizations, and from Leopold's circle of family and friends. During the conference, they will share with you their insights and perspectives on Leopold's life, his land ethic, and the relationship of the land ethic to public land stewardship today and in the future.

The conference has four parts:

  • This morning, we will examine Leopold's challenge for public land managers.
  • During the afternoon, we will engage in a philosophical discussion of the land ethic.
  • Tomorrow, most of the day will explore ongoing field efforts demonstrating a land ethic to resource conservation.
  • The conference will conclude with a distinguished panel exploring ideas about the land ethic and the future of public lands in the next century.

This evening, I hope you will join me for a reception in the Roosevelt Room and later for dinner and entertainment.

I hope you enjoy your stay at the Training Center. This should be a memorable two days.

Let's learn and have fun!