Aldo Leopold

If the individual has a warm personal understanding of the land, he will perceive of his own accord that it is something other than a breadbasket. He will see land as a community of which he is only a member...He will see the beauty as well as the utility of the whole, and know that the two cannot be separated. We love (and make intelligent use of) what we have learned to understand.1

Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887, the eldest of Carl and Clara's four children, an American family of German ancestry. Aldo had two brothers and one sister. His father was fond of hunting and introduced his sons to it at an early age; and before the advent of game laws, he imposed upon himself and his sons a sporting ethic, including closed seasons and bag limits. Leopold dedicated his first published book, Game Management, to his father, 'a pioneer in sportsmanship'.2 His mother was interested in music, especially opera; from her he acquired a keen aesthetic sensibility. Leopold was educated in Burlington public schools, the Lawrenceville Preparatory School in New Jersey, and the Sheffield Scientific School and Forest School of Yale University, from which he was graduated in 1909 with a master's degree. He immediately joined the US Forest Service and was posted to District 3, the Arizona and New Mexico territories. After a shaky start, Leopold advanced through the ranks to become Assistant District Forester in Charge of Operations, the second highest position in the unit. He married Estella Bergere in 1912, and together they reared five children, Starker, Luna, Nina, Carl and Estella—all of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in the geo-biological sciences or conservation. In 1924, Leopold accepted a transfer to a comparable position at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. During his fifteen-year tenure in the southwest, he was primarily interested in 'secondary' forest uses, especially recreational hunting. After four years in his job as Assistant Director of the Forest Products lab, Leopold resigned to pursue his vocation full time. Supported by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute, he conducted game surveys of eight midwestern states and worked on a textbook of game management. In 1933, after several months of unemployment during the depths of the Great Depression, Leopold joined the University of Wisconsin as the nation's first professor of game management. He spent the rest of his life conducting research, teaching, writing and shaping conservation policy in this capacity. Leopold died suddenly of a heart attack in 1948, just a week after learning that his new book manuscript, which would become A Sand County Almanac, had been accepted for publication by Oxford University Press.

Leopold was an innovator and a visionary. He was indeed a founder of a number of environmental fields. First, and most obviously, Leopold was a founder of game management, which became wildlife management in his own lifetime, then wildlife ecology, and finally now conservation biology. This, Leopold's central and eventually professional interest, grew directly out of his life-long passion for hunting, which he acquired in boyhood. The original idea was simple: for a variety of reasons American game was growing scarce in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and game management was essential for 'producing something to shoot'.3 At the end of his life, Leopold envisioned the desire to 'seek, find, capture, and carry away' game animals becoming transformed into the desire to seek, find, capture, and carry away knowledge about animals of all kinds; that is, the transformation of the consumptive sport of hunting into the non-consumptive 'sport' of wildlife research.4

Leopold was a founder of the North American Wilderness Movement. In the 1920s he argued passionately and voluminously for a system of wilderness areas in the national forests, primarily for purposes of primitive and virile kinds of recreation. The first National Forest Wilderness Area, surrounding the headwaters of the Gila River in Arizona, was designated the year he left the region. Leopold helped form the Wilderness Society in 1935. His understanding of the importance of wilderness shifted, during his university years, from an emphasis on recreation to biological conservation. Designated wilderness areas were important to conservation for two reasons. First, they afforded a vital habitat for some 'threatened species'—those that, for whatever reason, do not co-exist well with human beings, our cities, suburbs, factories, dwellings, farms, ranches and mines.5 Second, wilderness areas provide 'a base-datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism'.6 By reference to such base-data in 'each biotic province' we can measure the health of similar areas (which should also be conserved to the extent possible) that are used for timber extraction, grazing and farming.7

Leopold was a founder of ecological restoration, another very recently emerged formal conservation discipline. In his view, the main purpose of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and Wildlife Refuge in Madison was 'to construct.. .a sample of original Wisconsin, a sample of what Dane County looked like when our ancestors arrived here in the 1840s'.8 In addition to his restoration work at the Arboretum, Leopold spent leisure hours during the last thirteen years of his life restoring a property that he bought in 1935 on the banks of the Wisconsin River. The first part of his chief work, A Sand County Almanac, is devoted to literary sketches of this place. In the Foreword, Leopold describes this section of the book in terms of ecological restoration. 'Part I tells what my family sees and does at its week-end refuge from too much modernity: "the shack." On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger and better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere.'9

Leopold was a founder of ecosystem-management forestry, to which the US Forest Service has been converting since 1992. For most of the twentieth century, the Forest Service was devoted to an agronomic model of forestry, the purpose of which was, in Leopold's words, 'to grow trees like cabbages, with cellulose as the basic forest commodity'.10 The alternative that Leopold envisioned 'sees forestry as fundamentally different from agronomy because it employs natural species and manages a natural environment rather than an artificial one'.11 The current policy of ecosystem management adopts another conservation concept that Leopold formulated—'land health'—as its norm. The basic idea is to manage forest ecosystems with the primary goal of restoring or maintaining their health, with commodity extraction an ancillary or subordinate goal. Land health is a concept that Leopold struggled to articulate during the last years of his life. He most frequently characterized it as 'the capacity for self-renewal in the biota'.12 Today the concept is called 'ecosystem health', and is defined in terms of normal ecosystem processes and functions. Beginning in the 1990s, there is an International Society for Ecosystem Health, which has convened several global congresses, and an academic journal, Ecosystem Health, which has been in publication since 1994.

Leopold contributed foundationally to conservation philosophy. He himself closely associated land health with land integrity, the full complement of the native species of a biotic province in their characteristic numbers. He believed that preserving its integrity was a necessary and sufficient condition for preserving a particular piece of land's health. Today, ecosystem health and biological integrity are not so tightly coupled. The biological integrity of an area is a sufficient, but not a necessary, condition for its ecosystem health. Certainly, that is, an ecosystem containing the full complement of its native species populations in their characteristic numbers will be healthy, but an ecosystem with a simplified biota, including non-native species, may also exhibit normal processes and functions. Leopold himself was especially interested in promoting land health as the conservation norm for the extensively modified farmscapes of southern Wisconsin. To this central conservation concern of his latter years, he linked both his concern for wilderness preservation and ecological restoration. Wilderness provided 'the most perfect norm' of ecosystem health; less perfect, but still useful is 'a reconstructed sample of old Wisconsin to serve as a benchmark „.in the long and laborious job of building a permanent and mutually beneficial relationship between civilized men and a civilized landscape'.13 Leopold frequently characterized this relationship as 'a state of harmony between men and land'.14

Contemporary practitioners in many other environmental fields can (and do) legitimately claim Leopold as an important figure in its development. Take range management: while with the Forest Service, Leopold discovered connections between over-grazing, fire suppression and the disastrous shift from grassy forage to unpalatable brush in the southwest, and recommended management strategies for range recovery in the region. Take erosion control: Leopold was alarmed by the extensive grazing-related erosion he encountered in the southwest, and continued to be concerned about it in the midwest; and he worked in both regions to stanch it. So great, indeed, was his concern about erosion that it may give a more literal sense to his 'land ethic'. Take sustainable agriculture: Leopold's Chair of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin was at first located in the Department of Agricultural Economics and much of his work on the ground was with farmers, first to encourage them to 'grow' a 'crop' of wild game, and later to practise methods of farming that are more accommodating to wildlife of every kind. Shortly after assuming his academic duties, Leopold began monthly broadcasts over the University's extension radio station, addressed to farmers; the next year he began offering a Farmer's Short Course in Game Management; and, between 1938 and 1942, he published a series of thirty-four short 'how-to' pieces in the Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer. Leopold was among the first to observe and decry 'the tremendous momentum of industrialization...spread to farm life' and to conceive an alternative 'new vision of "biotic farming"'.15 Take environmental history: Leopold's essay 'Good Oak' in Sand County is a pioneering contribution to the field. Take environmental policy and law: Leopold chaired a blue-ribbon American Game Association Committee on Game Policy and was the senior author of its influential

1930 Report. He was offered the job of Chief of the United States Bureau of Biological Survey (forerunner of the present US Fish and Wildlife Service) in 1934, but turned it down. He was also appointed to the Wisconsin Conservation Commission in 1943 and was embroiled for the rest of his life in bitter controversy over his recommended state deer management policy. His conservation policy advice was sought on every scale, from the local and private to the public and national. Take environmental education: in addition to training graduate students for careers in wildlife management, Leopold offered an undergraduate Wildlife-Ecology course open to any University of Wisconsin student. He published a paper addressed to fellow academics in the field titled 'The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education', the most important advice of which was 'to use wildlife ecology to teach the student how to put the sciences together'—because 'all the sciences and arts are [conventionally] taught as if they were separate', but 'they are separate only in the classroom'; all one need do is 'step out on the campus and they are immediately fused'.16 Take nature writing: A Sand County Almanac has become more than a classic in the field; it is a genre exemplar.

Of all the environmental fields that Leopold either founded or that his genius shaped, none is of more lasting significance than environmental ethics. The climactic essay of the Almanac, 'The Land Ethic', is the seminal text in this new field of philosophy. After all of his years working for a public conservation agency, the US Forest Service, and helping to formulate policy and law for such newer agencies as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Biological Survey, Leopold came to believe that conservation would never succeed without a land ethic on the part of individual, private landowners. Government alone could not do the job.

Leopold based his proposed land ethic on two scientific cornerstones: evolution and ecology. From Charles Darwin he borrowed an account of ethics as a necessary condition for human social organization. 'All ethics so far evolved', Leopold wrote, 'rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).'17 From Charles Elton, he borrowed the concept of a 'biotic community', a social model of the inter-relationships of plants and animals studied in ecology. Ecology, Leopold wrote, 'simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils and waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land'.18 Putting these two elements together, he formulated 'a land ethic', which 'changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members and also respect for the community as such.'19 The golden rule of the land of the land ethic is this: '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.'20 Leopold, of course, intended for the land ethic to supplement our human-to-human ethics, not replace them. And in light of subsequent developments in ecology, in which 'stability' is downplayed, the golden rule of the land ethic may have to be revised. Nevertheless, the very idea of a land or environmental ethic, and Leopold's sketch of its contours, has taken the contemporary environmental movement out of the domain of mere utility and into that of morality. If for no other reason, then for this one Leopold would deserve the frequently conferred metonym of 'prophet' and his masterpiece that of 'the bible of the contemporary environmental movement'.


1 'Wherefore Wildlife Ecology?', in The River of the Mother of God, pp. 3367, p. 337.

2 Game Management, p. v.

3 'The State of the Profession', in The River of the Mother of God, pp. 276-80, p. 280.

4 A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, p. 168.

5 'Threatened Species', in The River of the Mother of God, pp. 230-4

6 'Wilderness as a Land Laboratory', in The River of the Mother of God, pp. 287-9, p. 288.

8 J.Baird Callicott, '"The Arboretum and the University: The Speech and the Essay", Apendix A: The Speech "What Is the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and Wild Life Refuge, and Forest Experiment Preserve?" by Aldo Leopold', Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, 87: p. 15, 1999.

9 Sand County, pp. vii-viii.

11 Ibid.

12 'The Land-Health Concept and Conservation', in For the Health of the Land, pp. 218-26, p. 219.

13 'Wilderness as a Land Laboratory', p. 288; J.Baird Callicott, '"The Arboretum and the University: The Speech and the Essay", Appendix A', p. 17.

15 'The Outlook for Farm Wildlife', in The River of the Mother of God, pp. 3236, p. 326; Sand County, p. 222.

16 'The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education', in The River of the Mother of God, pp. 301-5, p. 302.

19 Ibid.

See also in this book


Leopold's major writings

Game Management, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold, ed. Luna B.Leopold, New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold, ed. Susan L.Flader and J.Baird Callicott, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

For the Health of the Land: Previously Unpublished Essays and Other Writings by Aldo Leopold, ed. J.Baird Callicott and Eric T.Freyfogle, Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999.

Further reading

Callicott, J.Baird (ed.), Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays , Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

-In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, Albany,

NY: State University of New York Press, 1989.

-Beyond the Land Ethic: More Essays in Environmental Philosophy, Albany,

NY: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Flader, Susan L., Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude Toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1974.

Meine, Curt, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

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