Aldo Leopold’s Legacy — The Pine Cone

Aldo Leopold portrait

Aldo Leopold is a man whose legacies are so numerous, so broad and far-reaching, so deep and so consequential for 20th Century America that an entire book could easily be dedicated to describing them. Unfortunately, this is not the place for a book-length treatment of the man’s legacies; therefore, it must be brief and to the point.

Entrance the The University of Wisconsin ArboretumHis legacies can be categorized into tangible and intangible — minor monuments to his life, and major influences that changed the world. To begin with, he raised five children, each of them successful in their own right: three were admitted to the National Academy of Sciences, and another directs the Aldo Leopold Foundation. “The shack,” that renovated chicken coop surrounded by restored Wisconsin prairie and forest, is now an educational facility with the mission of promoting “care of natural resources by fostering an ethical relationship between people and land.” The Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, designed and implemented by The Professor, functions today as a research and teaching facility. It boasts numerous restored ecosystems, including the Leopold Pines, a 21-acre stand of mixed hardwoods and pines typical of northern Wisconsin forests. The Arboretum also sponsors the Aldo Leopold Professor of Restoration Ecology.

Any one of these monuments would be enough for most of us to conclude we had lived a full and productive life. These, however, are among Leopold’s minor legacies, merely incidental to the real work that he did. His major contributions to advancing civilization are four in number: 1) designated wilderness areas on our National Forests; 2) the field of wilderness ecology; 3) the Ecosystems Management Approach; and 4) the foundation for environmental philosophy and the ecology movement. These legacies are so deep and far-reaching that here we can only skim the surface of their impact on America and the world, now and in the future. I encourage you to read beyond this book in order to discover the true extent of Leopold’s legacy. Nevertheless…

As a young forester and advocate of sport hunting after World War I, Leopold was very aware of the preservationist writings of John Muir and his efforts to protect natural wonders in the western United States.  Leopold copied Muir’s words into his own notebook, but he was no preservationist. Leopold was too deeply immersed in the utilitarian doctrine of Gifford Pinchot’s conservation movement — in which forests were governed by enlightened management, not sanctity — to approach the benefits of wilderness from a preservationist’s point of view. He was also, however, an avid outdoorsman who could see that all of the wilderness in America would soon be gone if action were not taken soon. The job of preserving wilderness called for somebody inside the Forest Service, with its vast tracts of forest lands, somebody who understood the rationale of wilderness in the context of the Forest Service, and, most importantly, somebody who could convince upper management of its benefits.

Leopold met with Arthur Carhart at the end of 1919 to discuss the notion of designated wilderness. Carhart was another young forester, actually a landscape architect, and the first person in the Forest Service to be called Recreational Engineer. He had been assigned to survey several hundred sites for summer homes at Trappers Lake on the White River National Forest of northwestern Colorado. His conclusion was that no summer homes should be built on such a beautiful alpine lake. In fact the area should somehow be set aside, preserved in its natural state, “in order to return the greatest total value to the people.” Both Leopold and Carhart could see how they must appeal to the utilitarian goods of wilderness if they were to succeed in protecting it. Carhart’s appeals met with success, and Trappers Lake is now part of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Carhart later transferred to the Superior National Forest, where he initiated steps to create the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Leopold reported back to his station in New Mexico, seriously moved by the notion of being able to protect forest lands from further development. He published an article in the November 1921 issue of the Journal of Forestry titled “The Wilderness and Its Place in Forest Recreation Policy,” the profession’s first formal discussion of designated wilderness on forest lands. His purpose was to “give definite form to the issue of wilderness conservation, and to suggest certain policies for meeting it, especially as applied to the Southwest.” He went on to question “whether the principle of highest use does not itself demand that representative portions of some forests be preserved as wilderness.” “Highest use,” he wrote, “demands its preservation.” This was masterful application of the Forest Service’s own policies, even fundamental utilitarian philosophies, to make the preservationist argument that no use may in fact be the highest use for certain areas. He went on to propose the headwaters of the Gila River on the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico as a prototype. The area was largely inaccessible due to its mountainous terrain, had no agricultural value except for a few grazing permits, and still held its indigenous wildlife intact.

In October of 1922, Leopold submitted a report to his boss, the District Forester. He formalized his proposal that the Gila River headwaters be designated wilderness. His arguments were not merely recreational, a form of land use that would not be legislated for another 50 years, but even cultural. Writing from his own passion for wilderness he argued “against the loss of adventure into the unknown.” He used environmental economicsat the time an undiscovered field of studyto declare that designated wilderness “would not subtract even a fraction of one percent from our economic wealth, but would preserve a fraction of what has, since first the flight of years began, been wealth to the human spirit.” His superiors in the Forest Service were impressed by the argument. On June 3, 1924, just five days after Leopold took a transfer to the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, the Gila Wilderness Area became the first national forest land to be so designated in America.

Today, the Gila National Wilderness is a very popular site for travelers desiring an outdoor experience in southern New Mexico. It celebrated its 85th anniversary the year this guide was written. The site is accessible to automobile traffic via a road that penetrates its core and ends at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Entrance to the Aldo Leopold WildernessJust east of the Gila Wilderness lies the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, also set on the Gila National Forest. This smaller wilderness area is much less popular since it has no paved road, but offers the more serious outdoor enthusiast an opportunity to mingle with multitudinous wild animals among the piñon/juniper forests 7000 feet in elevation. Do not expect to sleep at night, with mule deer snorting, coyotes yapping in the canyons below, owls hooting, and even a lone wolf (could it be a Mexican gray?) howling at the moon above your tent. The Continental Divide Trail, a national recreation trail that follows the divide from Mexico to Canada, bisects the wilderness area and offers a unique experience to wilderness hikers. I believe Leopold would have preferred his eponymous wilderness area to the Gila.

For some time, during the 1920s, Leopold had thought about, and even began working on, a textbook he felt could be useful in training those interested in game management in the southwestern United States. He was to call it Southwestern Game Fields, but the book was too narrowly focused and he quickly ran into difficulty conducting the required research from his post in Wisconsin. Besides, one of his most cherished notions — predator control — was running into severe problems on the southwestern deer ranges. The deer were reproducing without check, destroying their own range through overgrazing. He scrapped the book but the idea stayed with him, fermenting until the time was right for a broader conception.

He left the Forest Service in 1928 to conduct a large-scale game survey. After nearly three years of intense study on game populations in a half dozen states, Leopold’s Report on a Game Survey of the North Central States was published in 1931. The survey confirmed that intense agricultural practices were eliminating food and cover required by game. As habitat disappeared so did the game: quail, prairie chicken, grouse, snipe, woodcock, even rabbits and squirrels. The report was a breakthrough for the conservation movement as it now confirmed what many had long suspected and led directly to the American Game Policy of 1930.

It also led directly to a book titled Game Management. With knowledge gained from the game survey, Leopold finally had the data he needed to complete a textbook on the subject closest to his heart. The Great Depression had begun with the October 1929 crash of the stock market, but the Leopold family did not fully feel its affects until 1932. Undaunted, Leopold used his state of unemployment to write what would soon become the premier textbook of the new field of game management.

In his “Foreword” to the 1986 edition, Laurence R. Jahn places the book in the context of conservation, ecology, and environmental writing in the United States. The book came out of a time when Americans were witnessing decimation of wildlife populations, including several to the point of extinction, most notably that of the passenger pigeon. Jahn asserts that “Game Management provides the ideas, principles, techniques, and administrative alignments to encourage land to produce wildlife.” But Game Management did something more. Game Management introduced philosophy to the care of wildlife and their habitats.

That the book deals with philosophy as much as it does principle and technique is made clear at the top of Leopold’s “Preface,” in which he asks “what is the good life?” This is precisely the question put forth by Aristotle in his “Exhortation to Philosophy” some 2300 years earlier. Leopold updates the question for his own times thusly:

We of the industrial age boast of our control over nature. Plant or animal, star or atom, wind or river — there is no force in earth or sky which we will not shortly harness to build “the good life” for ourselves.

But what is the good life? Is all this glut of power to be used for only bread-and-butter ends? Man cannot live by bread, or Fords, alone. Are we too poor in purse or spirit to apply some of it to keep the land pleasant to see, and good to live in?

He decries the pollution haunting American streams and rivers and mourns the attendant loss of grouse, duck, and antelope while our domesticated herds prosper under the care of science. He asserts that [t]he central thesis of game management is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it — axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun. He ascribes to the book a three-fold function:

First, to serve as a text for those practicing game management or studying it as a profession.

Second, to interpret for the thinking sportsman or nature-lover the significance of some of the things he sees while afield with gun or glass, or does in his capacity as a voting conservationist.

Third, to explain to the naturalist, biologist, agricultural expert, and forester how his own science relates to game management, and how his practices condition its application to the land.

In short, this is an attempt to describe the art of cropping land for game and to point the way toward its integration with other ends in land-use.

Only through the writings of a philosopher could such a book succeed in its own mandates. Leopold summarized the first chapter by foreshadowing one of his later and most important philosophical statements: Every head of wild life still alive in this country is already artificialized, in that its existence is conditioned by economic forces. Game management merely proposes that their impact shall not remain wholly fortuitous. The hope of the future lies not in curbing the influence of human occupancy — it is already too late for that — but in creating a better understanding of the extent of that influence and a new ethic for its governance.

Game Management quickly became the most widely used textbook in its field. It shortly began to supplement its author’s income at a time when much of the nation was suffering greatly from the economic woes of the Depression. The book continued to support the Leopold family long after Aldo died, as Estella renewed the copyright in 1961. It is still in print, now published by the University of Wisconsin Press — a very, very long print run for a college textbook.

More importantly though, Game Management “provided fundamental concepts, philosophies, principles, and insights” for the next generation of conservationists, ecologists, game managers, and policymakers, according to Jahn. Game Management was the seed for much of the environmental policy that was implemented in the middle of the 20th Century. The book is credited with serving as a foundation for legislation such as the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act of 1934 and, especially, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. This latter legislation, according to Jahn, “incorporates an ecological dimension in public administration, building from the ground up, with more careful attention given soils, waters, plants, animals, and people in particular units of the landscape. NEPA brought the environmental impact statement as an action-forcing mechanism to induce an ecological conscience throughout the U.S. federal government’s operations.” It led to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, “the first to encompass a truly comprehensive federal wildlife conservation effort, with particular emphasis on habitat protection.” Jahn lists Game Management, NEPA, and ESA as “significant milestones in the evolution of America’s conservation history.” Since the implementation of NEPA and ESA, numerous other laws have been enacted based on Leopold’s philosophies and principles of integrated resource management.

The policy application of Leopold’s wilderness ecology is today known as the Ecosystem Management Approach. Read nearly any modern textbook on the Ecosystem Management Approach and you will find some reference, dedication, or other attribution to Aldo Leopold. In 1996, the late Mollie Beattie, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote in an essay titled “Biodiversity Policy and Ecosystem Management:”

Aldo Leopold first conceived the concept of an ecosystem approach a half century ago. In his earlier writings, […] the evolution of Leopold’s thinking can be traced from being fully in favor of predator control and vermin elimination (as well as maximum production of those species that humans find entertaining) to recognition that we cannot manage for any one piece of the system and expect to save the rest. His final work, A Sand County Almanac, embodies a resounding testament to an ecosystem approach. Wildlife managers are finally catching up to him fifty years later.

There are numerous definitions of ecosystem management, but each shares a commitment to promoting stability and diversity in the land, including its soil, waters, plants, and animals. Ecosystems may be viewed as offering a wide array of goods and services. Goods include food, construction materials, medicinal plants, and recreation. Services include the maintenance of hydrologic cycles, regulation of climates, maintenance of the gaseous content of the atmosphere, and the storage and cycling of essential nutrients, along with many other processes without which life would not exist as we know it. The Ecological Society of America, an organization in which Leopold was elected president in 1947, argues that we must manage ecosystems not with “focus on the ‘deliverables’ but rather on sustainability of ecosystem structures and processes necessary to deliver goods and services.”

By 1940, Leopold was beginning to reflect even more deeply on what today we would call environmental issues. He was a permanent member of the University of Wisconsin wildlife management faculty, had published hundreds of articles on various aspects of conservation and ecology, and continued to organize and serve with numerous organizations dedicated to preserving wilderness and wildlife. Now he turned to philosophy.

He wrote a piece called “Biotic Land Use,” in which he discussed the health of land, defining it in terms of stability and diversity. Remember, this is the end of the Depression, with the Dust Bowl still a bitter memory, just as the world is preparing to go to war again. America had seen the results of instability in its land and was quickly losing much of its biotic diversity. But Leopold used a broad stroke when he talked about land. By “land,” he meant the “soils, water systems, and wild and tame plants and animals” that indwell the land, what today we would call an ecosystem. He began to discuss ethics with his ecology students, questioning “the soundness of the assumptions on which the whole modern structure is built” as America prepared itself for war. At this time he wrote “Cheat Takes Over,” a vituperative exposé of the invasion of useless weeds due to the overgrazing of fragile grasslands in the Pacific northwest. He decries the helpless attitude of local ranchers, saying, “There is, as yet, no sense of pride in the husbandry of wild plants and animals, no sense of shame in the proprietorship of a sick landscape. We tilt at windmills in behalf of conservation in convention halls and editorial offices, but on the back forty we disclaim even owning a lance.” Leopold had found his voice.

He made contact with a publisher friendly to his ideas: Harold Strauss, an editor at Knopf. Strauss had initially approached Leopold with a book idea on wildlife observation, but Leopold was way beyond that. He had in mind “a series of ecological essays, illustrated, as a Christmas book.” Strauss was highly enthusiastic, and Leopold began writing essays in earnest.

By the end of his life, Leopold had written a number of essays sufficient for his idea, but still needed a concluding statement. The result was “The Land Ethic,” a piece of philosophy that gained its author immortality. Here he discusses an “ecological conscience” and summarized the thoughts of a lifetime at the forefront of environmental thinking with his most quoted statement:

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.

And on that statement hangs the course of environmental philosophy and the ecology movement of the ’60s and ’70s.

It is just the sort of seed from which movements are germinated. Short enough to be memorized by adherents. Broad enough to be applied to any situation. It became his final statement.

Aldo Leopold planted the seeds for the environmental movement with his words. First with Game Management, in which he defined the scientific basis for wildlife ecology and management, then with the “small cogs and wheels” that he made so real for us in the essays of Round River. Finally, he gave us words to live by in “The Land Ethic,” his final essay in A Sand County Almanac.

Leopold kept us informed of his growth through his writing. The pen is Leopold’s axe, the written word is his land. His words became seed. His signature, indelibly set in policy.


Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold

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