Aldo Leopold (1887-1948)


    Aldo Leopold, one of the great American conservationists and philosophers of the 20th century, wrote extensively about people as part of the natural world. His writings expanded the discussion about why and how we choose to preserve natural resources. Leopold questioned the assumption that the primary motive for managing natural resources was to benefit people. Instead, he wrote that natural resources have an inherent right to protection.

    In his seminal book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold advocated a new land ethic, in which humans see themselves as part of a larger ecological community. He argued that humans have a responsibility to pursue actions which benefit the ecological community as a whole and not just the human elements of it.  His thinking was highly influential within the environmental movement, and helped lead to the passage of the Wilderness Act 15 years after his death.

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center hosted the conference “Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: A Legacy for Public Land Managers” in 1999.  The following was excerpted from an essay by Curt Meine, Research Associate, International Crane Foundation, published in the conference proceedings (Wadsworth, K., H. Kirchner, and J. J. Higgins, editors. 2000. Pheasants Forever, St. Paul, MN. 155 pp).

    Leopold belonged to the first generation of trained American foresters, graduating from Yale University’s Forest School in 1909. In a nearly 20-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, he gained expertise in a wide range of subfields, including soil and water conservation, game protection, range and watershed management, and recreational planning. Leopold earned a reputation within the Forest Service as one of its most able and creative leaders, highly regarded for his innovations in forest administration. In the 1920s, he spearheaded the movement to protect wild lands under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service and was largely responsible for designation of the nation’s first wilderness area, the Gila, on the Gila National Forest, in 1924. A decade later, in 1935, he helped to found the Wilderness Society, providing a broad philosophical and professional base for the new organization. Leopold also conducted important field research in forest ecology during his Forest Service years and, in 1924, was appointed assistant director of the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. He remained in that position for four years.

    After leaving the Forest Service in 1928, Leopold devoted himself to game (later wildlife) management as it emerged as a distinct field within conservation. Drawing upon contemporary advances in animal ecology, Leopold provided the field with its first textbook, Game Management, published in 1933. He was named the nation’s first professor of game management, also in 1933, at the University of Wisconsin. He guided the field through its first important decade, leading it beyond its original mission of perpetuating populations of game animals and integrating it with other conservation fields. In the process, he provided foundations for later developments in ecology, sustainable agriculture and conservation biology.

    Leopold also was an early advocate and practitioner of ecological restoration – professionally at the University of Wisconsin’s arboretum and other lands, and personally at his farm property is Sauk County, Wisconsin (which the Leopold family acquired in 1935). He was a widely respected communicator, constantly writing and speaking to varied audiences on a wide range of conservation topics. As a teacher, he instructed leading professional as well as hundreds of undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin. He participated actively in dozens of professional societies and conservation organizations at the local, state, national and even international levels, and was a prominent player in the development of conservation policy throughout his career.

    As notable as Leopold’s achievements were, all of the foregoing (and much else besides) occurred before he had even begun to contemplate the collection of essays through which the world would come to know him. Leopold’s list of professional accomplishment was impressive long before he began work on the manuscript that became A Sand County Almanac – before, in fact, the voice of the Almanac had matured.

    The voice of Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac, then, was late in its development. It first emerged in the late 1930s, just as Leopold was fully integrating his conservation ideas (a phase culminating in 1939 with publication of his essay “A Biotic View of Land” in the Journal of Forestry.) The Aldo Leopold that most of the world knows, admires and criticizes is really the late Leopold, and then only a part of that. It was, of course, one of the ironies of Leopold’s life that he would not live to see A Sand County Almanac published or know its influence. Indeed, he would never even know his book by that title, which was assigned posthumously; his name and the book title became paired only after Leopold’s death in 1948

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