Aldo Leopold's Legacy

November 22, 2011, 12:03 pm
Source: USFWS

Content Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (other articles)
Article Topics: Environmental and resource management, Environmental ethics, Environmental literature, art, music, Environmental history, Ecology, Forestry and Environmental philosophy
This article has been
reviewed and approved by the following Topic Editors: Cynthia Barakatt (other articles) and Craig Maier (other articles)
Last Updated: September 2, 2008


This article is part of the Aldo Leopold Collection.

The extent of Aldo Leopold’s intellectual legacy is extremely wide and deep, touching many disciplines and influencing numerous scholars, students and citizens; it would be impossible to capture it all in a single publication or web site. The selected essays included here were written by the most prominent Leopold scholars—Nina Leopold Bradley, Curt Meine, Susan Flader and J. Baird Callicott—on different aspects of his legacy for presentation at a 1999 conference that examined and celebrated Leopold’s work on the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Sand County Almanac. The end of this section includes a list of organizations and awards that bear Leopold’s name and honor his vast legacy in a various ways.

Aldo Leopold on the Path Toward Unity of Knowledge

This essay was written by Nina Leopold Bradley, Member Board of Directors Aldo Leopold Foundation, Inc. for presentation at a 1999 conference called "Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: A Legacy for Public Land Managers" at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. It was published originally in the Proceedings, Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: A Legacy for Public Land Managers. (Wadsworth, K., H. Kirchner, and J. J. Higgins, editors. 2000. Pheasants Forever, St. Paul, MN. 155 pp).

Today, we have begun to understand that solving environmental problems necessitates connecting theory and facts across many disciplines.

We see two powerful trends occurring in science. One is a kind of evolution toward specialization. The other is an increasing focus on microscopic and submicroscopic levels. As revealing of nature as these are, there is something missing. For example, we know that to understand the processes and ramifications of climate change, we must integrate the knowledge of paleoclimatologists, wetland ecologists, geomorphologists, agronomists, atmospheric chemists and economics – all of these at the macro level.

But there still is something missing. There is a need for social historians and even humanists. If we understand climate change and humanity’s role as a causing force, we must make judgements about what we may do as well as what we understand.

In E.O. Wilson’s important 1998 book Consilience, his central focus is to draw together the sciences and the humanities. He suggests that in order to understand our planet as a unified entity and meet the challenges of international environmental issues, we must integrate knowledge from what may appear to be far-flung fields. He appeals for a powerful conservation ethic as a part of ecology and even as a part of religion. He calls for a return to the idea of unification of knowledge.

C.P. Snow wrote in 1959 that the polarization between the sciences and the humanities “is sheer loss to us all … it is at the same time practical, intellectual and creative loss.”

It is my position that Aldo Leopold integrated a remarkable range of knowledge – scientific, literary, biologic and poetic. While in Germany in 1935, he expressed his concern for the ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and the need for more interdisciplinary thinking.

Sitting in a Berlin hotel room one evening, Leopold jotted down some notes on the back of a piece of hotel stationary. He expressed his concern over the compartmental tendencies in ecology. He wrote:

One of the anomalies of modern ecology is that it is the creation of two groups, each of which seems barely aware of the existence of the other. The one studies the human community almost as if it were a separate entity and calls its findings sociology, economics, and history. The other studies the plant and animal community and comfortably relegates the hodge-podge of politics to the “liberal arts.” The inevitable fusion of these two lines of thought will, perhaps, constitute the outstanding advance of the present century.</dd>

In this paper, I will discuss some of the reasoning and experiences in Leopold’s life that contributed to his aspirations, his hopes for this fusion of disciplines which he anticipated to be the “outstanding advance of the present century.”

Throughout Aldo Leopold’s life, he persisted in his personal, intellectual struggle to understand better the land community and his own participation in it. Recording and integrating all of the strands of his own firsthand experience, he came to his final statement of the land ethic, a product of the heart as much as of the mind. With his use of the words "loved" and "respected," we can see already that he was integrating his factual science with a much broader humanism. “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land it to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.”

During the course of Leopold’s life, he worked to blend his ecological science with philosophy and even biblical history. David Orr touched me deeply when he wrote “It will take decades to fully grasp what Leopold meant by a “land ethic” and considerably longer to make it a reality.” David also reminds us that interdisciplinary, environmental education is an urgent necessity. He suggests that the separate disciplines that enabled us to industrialize the Earth may not necessarily help us heal the damage this industrialization has caused.

In tracing my father’s love of the outdoors, I have reviewed many of his letters. In those days, people did write letters, and in this case, many of them were saved. The outpouring of letters to his family in Burlington, Iowa, began at Lawrenceville prep school in New Jersey (1904 to 1905) and would not let up until long after his college days. Sent off at a rate that sometimes reached four or five letters a week, Aldo’s correspondence was his reprieve from school work, literary training ground, naturalist’s notebook and private connection to his family. From Aldo’s letters home, we feel a strong family bond which sustained him with caring and love.

Aldo’s letters allowed him to explore and express his absorbing relationship with nature. They became a regular chronological record of the natural events of the seasons. He took any opportunity to put down on paper his thoughts on natural history, blended with this thoughts on sportsmanship and man’s relation to land, including the animals and plants which grow upon it. He learned to write by writing. His sensitivity to land and biological interconnectedness increased with the volume and quality of his observations. I suspect that the blend of keeping records and his expanding skills with writing made him ready to introduce the sweeping demands of ethics as a part of his definition of how people should cherish and care for the land. In this spirit, Leopold wrote, “Keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search and the chance of finding order and meaning in these events.”

Near the end of his life in 1945, Aldo published a phenological record from 13 years on his sand county farm. The published paper expressed new dimensions to his depth of understanding:

Many of the events of the annual cycle recur year after year in a regular order. A year-to-year record of this order is a record of the rates at which solar energy flows to and through living things. They are the arteries of the land. By tracing their responses to the sun, phenology may eventually shed some light on that ultimate enigma, the land’s inner workings.</dd>

Aldo Leopold realized in 1947, and today we know even more clearly, that phenology is a powerful tool for monitoring the biotic response of plants and animals to weather and climate fluctuations, yielding a glimpse into “the land’s inner workings.”

The time at which plant species flower is determined by both genetic and environmental factors and their interactions. Flowering may be dependent on photoperiod in many species. Other species are regulated by temperature, or species may be blind to both photoperiod and temperature, and depend on other genetic signals for flowering. The responses of natural ecosystems and agricultural species will reflect interactions of genetics with climate and climate fluctuations.

As science is beginning to reveal the complexity of natural systems, the emerging field of ecology has become entwined with hormonal, metabolic and genetic components that regulate how plants, animals, soil, water, etc. operate as a community – a web of interdependencies. The renewed sense of interconnectedness with nature expands the complexity with which individuals must appraise their new environmentalism. That role is not technical alone. It involves judgements of right and wrong.

Again I quote from Leopold:

…just as important as the origin of plants, animals and soil is the question of how they operate as a community. Darwin lacked time to unravel any more than the beginnings of an answer. That task has fallen to the new science of ecology, which is daily uncovering a web of interdependencies so intricate as to amaze – were he here – Darwin himself, who of all men should have the least cause to tremble before the veil.</dd>

While in Germany in 1935, Leopold was appalled by the highly artificial system of management of the German landscape. In the slick, clean simplified forests, Aldo detected not the lack of wilderness per se but the lack of wildness and biodiversity. He wrote:

The forest landscape is deprived of a certain exuberance which arises from a rich variety of plants fighting with each other for a place in the sun. It is almost as if the geological clock had been set back to those dim ages when there were only pines and ferns. I never realized before that the melodies of nature are music only when played against the undertones of evolutionary history. In the German forest one now hears only a dismal fugue out of the timeless reaches of the carboniferous.</dd>

Leopold realized that the German forests were an example of “pure…economic determinism as applied to land use.” Germany was striving for maximum yields of both timer and game, and they got neither. The intricate ecological processes of nature had been overlooked.

In the 1930s, Aldo visited the Rio Gavilan River in northern Mexico. This river still ran clear between mossy, tree-lined banks. First burned periodically without any apparent damage, and deer thrived in the midst of their natural predators, wolves and mountain lions. “It is here,” Leopold reflected years later, “I first realized…that all my life I had seen only sick land…here was a biota still in perfect aboriginal health.”

Here, the vital new idea for Leopold was the concept of biotic health. Here was a shift from the older conservation idea of economic biology to a new biotic ecology. Here was a biota so complex by interwoven cooperations and competitions that “no man can say where utility begins or ends.” This marks a new maturity in Leopold’s thinking – “a foundation of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.” With this experience, he gained a new humility about the possibility of ever understanding how the whole system functioned. He realized that science leads to structural understanding, and with luck, this may result in a stronger basis for an ethic.

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic expresses a moral theory that begins, literally and philosophically, with what we know best – firsthand experience. Through his own participation in the land community, he came to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the land community. On his Wisconsin sand county farm, the Shack, he struggled to rebuild a diverse, healthy and aesthetically satisfying biota on his own abused land. Here again, Leopold experienced a profound humility as he became acutely aware of the complexity of factors involved in life and death, growth and decay. Ethical and aesthetic values guided his decisions.

At Leopold’s Shack, his wisdom grew from his own awareness that his science was nourished by his personal contact with the soil. Probably most important, his land ethic would similarly be nourished by loving human relationships – his wife and his family – loving and being loved, living in webs of relationships that define and sustain us. He wrote, “There are two things that interest me, the relationship of people to each other and the relationship of people to the land.”

Another strong sensitivity Leopold had was a remarkable perception, unraveling and dramatizing natural events. He articulated the concept of land health and the relationships between economics, biology and esthetics – a tangled web of relationships. “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.”

As Leopold’s voice was emerging, “Marshland Elegy” was a breakthrough essay in terms of conservation writing. It introduced a sense of drama and poetry into the image of ecology:

A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness, it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass. Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bog-meadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.”</dd>

In a splendid essay reviewing “Marshland Elegy,” Curt Meine wrote, “This was not the language of science, or policy, or pedagogy, or philosophy, although strong undertones of these hummed in, and in between, the lines. Rather, this voice carried a 'certitude' not unlike that of the cranes of which he wrote."

In my father’s essays, we hear an emotional thread of consilience. He brought together nature and culture, emotion and intellect, philosophy and science, ethics and aesthetics.

The renewed sense of interconnectedness with nature and the willingness of individuals to act on that basis may be the core of the new environmentalism. Environmental issues are no longer narrow and vague. They have reached our very backyards, be it pollution, toxins, chemical residues, climate change or human populations. We know that environmentalism is more than a problem of chemistry, biology or economics. Progress toward more integrated learning may expand our ability to recognize and act upon our moral responsibility to the future.

In 1947, Aldo Leopold defined the necessity for the integration of a wide span of knowledge, leading to a man’s ethical relation to the land. In the subsequent 50 years, others have refined such statements and helped reinforce the need for a unity of knowledge.

But we are only just beginning.

The Secret Aldo Leopold, or Who Really Wrote A Sand County Almanac?

This essay was written by Curt Meine, Research Associate, International Crane Foundation, for presentation at a 1999 conference called "Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: A Legacy for Public Land Managers" at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. It was published originally in the Proceedings, Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: A Legacy for Public Land Managers. (Wadsworth, K., H. Kirchner, and J. J. Higgins, editors. 2000. Pheasants Forever, St. Paul, MN. 155 pp).

Aldo Leopold was a forester and wildlife ecologist who wrote A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays about the natural world and conservation. The book was published posthumously in 1949. A Sand County Almanac went on to become one of the key texts of the environment movement. Leopold is closely identified with “The Land Ethic,” the final essay in the Almanac, in which he argued that people are part of the “land community,” and so bear moral responsibilities that extend beyond the realm of the human to include the non-human parts of that community.

This would be a fair and accurate answer to the question: “Who was Aldo Leopold?” But is it a sufficient answer? To conservationists and historians, at least, the question is increasingly urgent. Leopold defined challenges that remain at the core of conservation thought and practice more than a half-century after his death, even as conservation concerns increasingly overlap other issues in contemporary life. The social, philosophical, political, economic and cultural demands being made upon Leopold’s legacy are increasing. At the same time, the living memory of Leopold must inevitably fade as direct connections to Leopold slip into the all-welcoming past. Paradoxically, it will become both harder and easier to answer the question: “Who really wrote A Sand County Almanac? What we may gain in detachment and critical judgment, we shall lose by having first-hand impressions no longer available to us.

That these concerns are of more than passing importance is plain. We may turn, for example, to the January 1998 issue of the Journal of Forestry, the field’s premier professional journal. Its cover featured Aldo Leopold and beckoned with the question:”Has Leopold Supplanted Pinchot?” (i.e., as the guiding philosophical force behind American forestry). The lead article, by a professor of forestry, offered “Another Look at Leoopold’s Land Ethic” – a harsh critique of the ideas in Leopold’s famous essay. The first sentence of the article read: “Aldo Leopold’s influence is based largely on a brief essay, 20 pages long, that outlines what he calls the “land ethic.”[1] The author’s argument and a counter argument by environmental philosopher and Leopold scholar, J. Baird Callicott, in the same issue prompted intense discussion among foresters and others and led to further rounds of discussion within the journal.[2]

The point here is not to examine the play in this particular volley of critique and response, but to note that our knowledge of Leopold is, and must be, increasingly contingent not on the reality of the living human being, but on the received images and impressions of that reality. Leopold the human being belongs to the ages. Leopold the source and symbol has been and will be shaped according to the ideas, questions and requirement – and also the fears, blind spots and prejudices – of subsequent generations.

The above-quoted lead sentence from the Journal of Forestry article illustrates how time inevitably narrows the field of impressions of the rich, complex, multi-dimensional reality that is an individual human life. In the case of Aldo Leopold, attention often has focused largely on his writings in A Sand County Almanac (or even, as in the above instance, just one essay within the Almanac). This focus profoundly shaped our ways of thinking about Leopold. There is Aldo Leopold, who lived a life and wrote, toward the end of it, a memorable book. Then there is “The Author of A Sand County Almanac,” a figure who, for 50 years, has been a mirror to our relationship with the natural world and has borne the burden of our environmental hopes and fears. There is some confusion between the two.

A Legacy Entire

For readers, reviewers and scholars, Aldo Leopold displays as many facets as there are perspectives. Consider the variety of fields that can and do legitimately claim Leopold as an important figure in their development: forestry, wildlife ecology and management, outdoor recreation, range management, sustainable agriculture, wilderness protection, conservation biology, restoration ecology, environmental history, environmental ethics, environmental law, environmental policy, environmental education, literature, among others.[3] Leopold remains a compelling figure and A Sand County Almanac an irresistible focal point, in part because all these perspectives were integrated tightly in his personality and prose. There are, in a sense, many Leopolds. How, then, do we reconcile these many Leopolds with the singularity of Aldo Leopold as a human being?

We may begin with a brief review of the basic facts of Leopold’s life and the wide range of his contributions. For those who know of Leopold purely through A Sand County Almanac, the story bears retelling.[4]

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 wildlands 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.[5] 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.

When did that voice first emerge, and how did it find its full expression in the Almanac? A Sand County Almanac was the product of the last 10 years of Leopold’s life.[6] Leopold would work some earlier materials into his evolving manuscript, but he began to sound the new tone in his essay-writing only after two hunting trips, in 1936 and 1937, to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental. After the first trip, Leopold prepared an essay he called “The Thick-Billed Parrot of Chihuahua,” published in the ornithological journal The Condor in early 1937 (it would eventually appear in the Almanac as “Guacamaja”). Shortly thereafter, Leopold composed “Marshland Elegy,” his moody reflection on Wisconsin’s cranes and wetlands. American Forests published it later in 1937.

These new expressions reflected a new turn in Leopold’s work. Increasingly in the late 1930s, Leopold found himself teaching and writing toward a non-professional audience. In 1938, he published the first in an ongoing series of popular essays on wildlife conservation for the Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer, and in 19940, he wrote two more essays about Mexico and the Arizona, “Song of the Gavilan” and “Escudilla.”[7] Leopold was not yet thinking about collecting these essay into a book. However, he was encouraged by the positive response of friends and colleagues and continued to write in this new vein.

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.)[8] 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.

Changing Perspectives on Leopold

What perspectives on Aldo Leopold’s legacy do we inherit? How has public understanding and appreciation of his work changed? Because Leopold’s legacy still is being discovered by environmental professionals and the general public, and is revisited constantly by those who do know it, the answers to these questions remain dynamic. In retrospect, however, we can identify several general phases in the evolution of Leopold’s public reputation. Those phases, in turn, tell us much about what various audiences have sought out or neglected in the record of Leopold’s experience.

Leopold Among His Contemporaries

We can begin by assessing Leopold’s reputation during his own lifetime, or more precisely in the last year of his life, as he was pulling together the manuscript that became A Sand County Almanac. It is useful to distinguish between Leopold’s local and “more-than-local” reputation. Within the state of Wisconsin, and especially at the University of Wisconsin, Aldo Leopold was a recognized figure, though by no means famous. He had played a leading role in several important conservation policy initiatives at the state level in the lat 1920s. In 1933, he joined the university, assuming a new and experimental Chair of Game Management within the College of Agriculture’s Department of Agricultural Economics. Leopold was not an academic by background, and his field of expertise had not yet gained intellectual definition or professional acceptance. Securing wildlife conservation’s foothold in academe would be one of Leopold’s premier accomplishments in the remaining 15 years of his life.

For some time, Leopold remained, in the words of Arthur Hawkins, one of his early graduate students, “suspect.” Hawkins recalled that Leopold was “not part of the academic crowd” and “a real novice” in understanding the social ecology of the university campus.[9] In the words of another student of the time, Frances Hamerstrom, he was “very thoroughly respected by a rather small, select group; in general, he wasn’t even noticed.”[10] By the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Hawkins and Hamerstrom worked most closely with him, Leopold had acquired a large circle of good friends and colleagues within Madison, but continued to lead a relatively quiet academic life.

By contrast, Leopold was very well known and highly regarded among his professional colleagues in conservation around the country. His national reputation had risen steadily over the decades, especially as wildlife management staked out its own territory among the conservation professions in the 1930s. Another student, H. Albert Hochbaum, with whom Leopold collaborated during the early stages of the "Sand County Almanac" manuscript, saw that this wider reputation had to color Leopold’s writing. He wrote to Leopold in 1944: “If you will put yourself in perspective, you might realize that within your realm of influence, which is probably larger than you know, Aldo Leopold is considerably more than a person; in fact, he is probably less a person than he is a Standard… Just for fun, then, as you round out this collection of essays, take a sidewise glance at this fellow and decide just how much of him you want to put on paper…”[11]

Of those few who were reading Leopold’s draft essays, Hochbaum most deeply appreciated the task of self-reflection and self-expression Leopold had taken on. He also may have had the keenest sense of how others viewed Leopold. In 1947, after attending a conference of wildlife managers, Hochbaum wrote to Leopold, “For a long time the crowd has been more or less following (and sometimes objecting to) the rules of wildlife management that you have prescribed. Now they are beginning to follow your philosophies, by and large without realizing whence they came. That is progress!”[12] Hochbaum, a pioneer in waterfowl biology who also was a skilled illustrator and writer, saw into dimensions of Leopold’s private life and public persona that others missed, and he understood well the larger creative challenge that Leopold had assumed in the Almanac essays.

During his lifetime, Leopold’s reputation reflected many qualities: his facility with words, the effectiveness of his teaching, the breadth of his conservation philosophy and especially the degree to which he matched word and thought with deed. His professional impact was far-reading, especially within wildlife management and forestry. By the end of his life, Leopold was well aware of his professional prominence, and it is fair to say that he was quietly proud of it. At the same time, the older he grew – particularly in the last three years of his life, from the end of World War II until his death – the more he could look back on his accomplishment with a mature and self-confident modesty. He was certainly humbled by his own earlier mistakes. He communicated this most notably and famously in “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in which he recounted his role in the extirpation of the wolf from the American Southwest.[13]

Leopold, however, was far from universally admired by his own contemporaries. He often found himself caught in thickets of controversy. The most prominent instance of this derived from his role in Wisconsin’s “deer wars,” the drawn-out and vitriolic battles over the state’s deer management policy in the 1940s. Leopold’s determined advocacy of herd reduction made his name well known, and oft-blasted, among some portions of Wisconsin’s populace (including many hunters, anti-hunters and resort owners). Leopold neither welcomed nor enjoyed the notoriety. Although decades of the front-line conservation battles had thickened his skin, he now felt as viscerally as ever the difference between his view of conservation and that of “that collective person, the public.”[14] Out of such controversies came the self-awareness that Leopold expressed only rarely and guardedly, the calm sadness in his observation that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”[15]

The deer management fight was only one of many instances in which Leopold staked out unpopular or controversial positions. He continued to wage wilderness protection battles until the end of his life. He did not hesitate to use his voice directly and forcefully to protect threatened wild lands, counter indiscriminate wartime incursion into untrammeled country, slow the post-war juggernaut of dam-building or restrict what he saw as inappropriate uses of designated wilderness areas. He remained an adamantly active member of The Wilderness Society until his death. The cause of wilderness protection had not yet achieved the wider acceptance that would come with the battle of the early 1950s over the proposed Echo Park dam within Dinosaur National Monument. As American entered the era of post-war economic boom and political paranoia, Leopold occasionally found himself at odds even with old colleagues within the conservation movement over the wilderness issue.

Leopold was known among his peers as a hard-headed critic, though a fair, constructive and thoughtful one. In the last decade of his life, Leopold became increasingly blunt in his view of the direction taken by universities and government agencies. He was notably critical of the trend toward increasing specialization and toward what he called “power science” within the academy. He wrote in 1946, “Science, as now decanted for public consumption, is mainly a face for power. Science has no respect for the land as a community of organisms, no concept of man as a fellow passenger in the odyssey of evolution.”[16] Some of Leopold’s most forceful prose (published and unpublished) addressed this theme. In many ways, “The Land Ethic” itself was the ultimate expression of his concern.

At the end of Leopold’s life, then, his conservation work was well known, widely appreciated and occasionally contentious, but he himself was little known outside of the professional conservation world. He was one of several voices from within the movement (including especially William Vogt and Fairfield Osborn) that in the immediate post-war years sought to communicate the importance of the science of ecology to a broader public. As the manuscript of A Sand County Almanac went to press, however, its author remained “very thoroughly respected by a rather small, select group.”

Leopold Reaches a Broader Audience

A second phase in public awareness of Leopold began with the publication of A Sand County Almanac and extended roughly to the mid-1960s. This spans the time from the first appearance of A Sand County Almanac to its later republication as a mass paperback. During these years, two essentially opposing trends played out: on the one hand, the level of popular environmental awareness rose dramatically; on the other hand, the traditional conservation fields found themselves internally divided over the fundamental principles that Leopold and others had sought to define.

A Sand County Almanac helped to stimulate environmental literacy among the American public; conversely, readership of A Sand County Almanac and recognition of Leopold’s contributions grew along with that increasing awareness. This mutually reinforcing process can be traced back to the earliest reviews of the book. The book was widely reviewed both locally and nationally, both by readers familiar with Leopold and those learning of him for the first time. Because of he confluence of events, many reviews served in essence as obituaries for Leopold, as reviewers used the occasion to reflect upon Leopold’s legacy. The reviews of the day thus provide a fair portrait of the state of his public persona.

August Derleth, perhaps Wisconsin’s best known regional writer, reviewed A Sand County Almanac for Madison’s Wisconsin State Journal. Derleth knew of Leopold’s work and was well familiar with the Wisconsin landscapes described in the Almanac. Although he and Leopold were not themselves intimates, they shared many acquaintances. Derleth wrote in his review, “All genuine conservationists throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest generally realize that in the death of Aldo Leopold, Wisconsin lost one of its most able men in the field of conservation. Posthumous publication of his book offers ample evidence that his death deprived us also of an author of no mean merit [emphasis added]. His book is one of those rare volumes to which sensitive and intelligent readers will turn again and again.”[17] Derleth’s phrasing is instructive. For most readers, Aldo Leopold would be known first and foremost, and often only, as an author. For Leopold’s contemporaries, and especially local contemporaries, Leopold was known primarily as a conservationist.

Many of the national reviews of Sand County were marked by a similar tone of surprise, delight and deep respect, although the reviewers knew little if anything of Leopold’s professional accomplishments. Lewis Gannett, in the New York Herald-Tribune, wrote:

"Aldo Leopold died fighting a neighbor’s fire in the spring of 1948. I am sorry, for I should like to have known him. I do not recall ever hearing his name until I stumbled on this book; to read it is a deeply satisfying adventure. This was a man who wrote sparsely, out of intense feeling and long experience. You will find here no statistics about erosion, no creaming warning to “do something about the soil.” Aldo Leopold was primarily concerned with the importance of feeling something. He himself felt deeply, and his feeling give a rich texture to this too-short book."[18]

Gannett did not know, of course, about Leopold’s years of devoted statistic-taking on erosion, his many forceful pleas for action, his constant emphasis on the vital role of scientific research in conservation. Yet, all that was beside the point. Gannett was quite correct; in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold was “primarily concerned with the importance of feeling something.”

It is an important point. New readers from beyond Leopold’s personal or professional circles found here something unusual. The tone and style of A Sand County Almanac were quite different from that of other prominent conservation books of the time, in particular Vogt’s Road to Survival and Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet, both of which were published in 1948. These two prescient books on the state of the global environment were chock full of statistics and warnings. Their authors read the future, and it was not pretty. Both books gained an immediate, sizable and influential audience. Leopold shared their profound concern – he, in fact, knew both Vogt and Osborn, and had read Vogt’s book in manuscript – but he spoke in subtler tones. Leopold’s book sold more modestly, but, as it turned out, more steadily. A Sand County Almanac continued to gain readers through the 1950s and into the 1960s. By the mid-1960s, some 20,000 copies had been sold, but mostly among dedicated conservationists and readers of natural history.

The significance of the Almanac becomes clearer when viewed in relation to the second general trend in this period: the ambivalence with which many conservation professionals regarded the path that Leopold and his like-minded colleagues had blazed (if they regarded it at all). Through the 1950s, the professions in a sense left behind Leopold and those who shared his more integrated outlook on conservation challenges and solutions. In “The Land Ethic,” Leopold had expressed concern over the growing division between conservationists who “[regard] the land as soil, and its function as commodity production,’ and those who “[regard] the land as a biota, and its functions as something broader.”[19] The former were gaining a firm upper hand.

Through the post-war era, the professions and disciplines became increasingly segregated. Engineering solutions replaced more agronomic or naturalistic approaches. “We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel,” Leopold lamented in “The Land Ethic,” “and we are proud of our yardage.” Soil conservation, agriculture, forestry, recreational planning, and range, fisheries and wildlife management bent increasingly toward utilitarian ends, while ecology turned increasingly experimental, quantitative and model-oriented. As the professions “modernized,” Leopold and his generation came to be seen as important albeit old-fashioned predecessors. The kernel of their legacy – the integration of the natural sciences and humanities in the service of conservation – fell under the heavy tread of the steam-shovels.[20]

Leopold and the Environmental Awakening

That seed, however, would prove hardy. A third phase in public appreciation of Leopold began in the mid-1960s and would last roughly into the mid-1980s. Paperback editions of A Sand County Almanac, published in 1966 and 1970, brought Leopold to the very forefront of the incipient environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Steward Udall’s The Quiet Crisis (1963) and other books of the period created a growing critical mass of readers as A Sand County Almanac reappeared in its more accessible and affordable form.

As the paperback worked its way into the backpacks and reading lists of the baby boomers, a generation gap began to emerge in perceptions of Leopold and the application of his ideas. On one side were the more senior conservationists, many of whom knew and worked with Leopold or his contemporaries personally. On the other side stood the growing corps of younger environmentalists who knew of Leopold only through the Almanac essays. These younger devotees came into their environmental awareness as the landmark legislation of the era – the Wilderness Act (1964), National Environmental Protection Act (1970), Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972) and Endangered Species Act (1973) – redefined the context of the older conservation movement.

Older and younger readers alike would invoke Leopold in support of their causes and adapt him in their approaches, but those causes and approaches did not always jibe. Underlying differences – in, to cite just a few examples, the aims of resource management, attitudes toward hunting, appreciation of wilderness and the role of political activism in solving environmental problems – divided these audiences. Importantly, however, Leopold also served as a bridge across the generations. All were reading from the same book, a fact that would prove highly significant in the long run..

Leopold and the Reintegration of Conservation

By the 1980s, another demographic shift began to play out. Within the conservation professions, elders from the post-World War II generation began to approach their retirement years, older baby boomers rose through the professional ranks, and younger baby boomers, trained in the post-Earth Day era, entered those ranks. Meanwhile, non-professional readers of A Sand County Almanac went about their lives in their communities, the paperbacks still residing on their bookshelves, the words still working their quite influence.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, changes in society, in politics and in the environment itself cast Leopold’s words in new light. Systemic environmental problems – increasingly vitriolic disputes over national forest management policy, groundwater pollution problems due to intensified agricultural practices, climate change, global-scale threat to biological diversity, incessant suburban sprawl and on down the list of modern conservation dilemmas – demanded more systemic solutions. Such solutions came to be explored under many names, including ecosystem management, conservation biology, ecological economics, community-based conservation and sustainable agriculture. New terms – biodiversity and sustainability prominent among them – were invoked to broaden the conceptual ground on which conservation stood.[21] These responses, while novel in name, often returned to the fundamentals of integrated conservation, as outlined by Leopold and his contemporaries, for grounding. As a result, Leopold’s intellectual stock continued to rise through the 1980s and 1990s.

As we still are working within this most recently phase, we are unable to read it with clarity. But as the waves of passion in the conservation and environmental movements have swelled and subsided, Leopold’s legacy has ridden through them all and remained robust. Why and how? It has to do in part, of course, with the historic record of his accomplishment and the quality of his writing and thinking. But it also has to do with the welter of forces that keep Leopold relevant, that bring us invariably back to him, more sober but perhaps more ready to consider the subtleties of his work. These forces might include the following:

  • The fact of continuing environmental degradation and the need for more integrated responses that are informed by ethics. For those who see our fragmented approach to landscapes, their biota and their human communities as a primary cause of environmental degradation, the search for solutions leads back to the integrated view that Leopold articulated finally in “The Land Ethic.” Leopold’s declaration of the ethical underpinnings of conservation has continued to gain attention and have substantial impacts on national policy (through, for example, the shift toward ecosystem management in the land management agencies and in many conservation organizations.)[22] Leopold regarded the lack of attention from philosophy and religion as “proof that conservation [had] not yet touched [the] foundations of conduct”; the consolidation of environmental ethics and the greening of religion now may be regarded as proof that it has at last begun to touch those foundations.[23]
  • The anti-environmental “wise use” movement. As forces of opposition to conservation and environmentalism assumed greater power in the 1980s and 1990s, many younger environmentalists were compelled to revisit their roots and learn (often for the first time) their connections to the older conservation movement. Likewise, more conservative conservationists also were led to examine their political loyalties. Even staunch conservatives began to rethink their priorities when Ronald Reagan named James Watt his Secretary of the Interior. For many in this period, Aldo Leopold stood out as one who did not place his politics before his conservation commitments. The relationships between political conviction and conservation action always had been complex. In his writing, Leopold does not come across as an ideologue, and in life he was not. He has remained a relevant and flexible voice during a period of intense politicization of conservation.
  • The erosion of community. During these same years, many have sensed and tried to define the changes that are transforming our human communities.[24] Somewhere between the shoals of unwarranted nostalgia and uncritical economic optimism lies (we may hope) safe passage, but the route is difficult to discern. Renewed attention to communitarian values is an important part of contemporary social criticism. A parallel expression has emerged from within conservation, emphasizing the need to re-place communities, to see them in terms of the biophysical environments in which they are embedded. “Community” was a key word in Leopold’s lexicon, and the “extension” of community that Leopold advocated in “The Land Ethic” accordingly has assumed increased importance.
  • The interdisciplinary imperative. This pertains particularly to academia, where hyper-specialization and reductionism move on apace, opportunities for “thinking time” shrink and the selective pressure on success continue to intensify. Such trends tend to overwhelm efforts to maintain connections among the sciences, arts and letters. Leopold’s characteristic interdisciplinary approach carries authority here. He stands as an example and reminder of a time before the need to specialize was ratcheted up several additional notches, and a greater share of rewards still accrued to those whose training, teaching and work were broad and diverse. These forces – and no doubt many others – have allowed Leopold’s readers to see him in a new light, as one who identified tendencies that increasingly would characterize American society and the American landscape through the 20th century. The implicit messages in Leopold’s essays, spoken amid the bugling cranes and the songs of wild rivers, have become more explicitly. Yet, new readers still can respond to the faith Leopold felt down to his very marrow; that the future of the human enterprise on this (and any other) continent is tied fundamentally, if not always clearly, to the future of our wild-co-inhabitants and landscapes.

A Taxonomy of Responses

Since A Sand County Almanac was published, most of its readers have remained unaware of the life that gave it shape, responding not so much to Aldo Leopold the historical personage as to “The Author of A Sand County Almanac.” For the general reader, this may be of small consequence; a good book stands on its own, and its quality endures regardless. (Does it matter that we know so little of the author of the Book of Job? That Shakespeare’s life remains opaque to us? We know the author through the words and the story.)

It is the duty, however, of the historian and literary biographer to fill in the facts, to weigh the test against the life and provide the book with a sort of narrative habitat. Such scrutiny enriches our understanding of the creature itself – robbing it perhaps of some of its immediate mystery, but providing a richer appreciation of its existence. With such perspective, we may see in our prior responses and images a little less of Leopold and little more of ourselves. What do we see when we reexamine “The Author of A Sand County Almanac?”

Leopold the Prophet

We encounter first, of course, Leopold the environmental “prophet.” Leopold’s daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley, when asked to speak of her father’s conservation philosophy, sometimes has referred to “that poor old land ethic.” It is a great deal to ask one essay, or book or person to bear the weight of society’s need to transform its relationship with the natural world. Over the decades, a disproportionate amount of that weight has fallen upon Aldo Leopold.

Among Leopold’s contemporaries were several who recognized the full depth of Leopold’s conservationist critique and first employed the all-but-inevitable tag of prophet. Roberts Mann, a Leopold friend and superintendent of the Cook County (Illinois) Forest Preserve District, published an article in 1954 titled, “Aldo Leopold, Priest and Prophet.”[25] Ernie Swift, another friend and colleague who led Wisconsin’s Conservation Department, followed in 1961 with “Aldo Leopold, Wisconsin’s Conservation Prophet.”[26] Historian Roderick Nash, in his classic 1967 book, Wilderness and the American Mind, called his chapter on Leopold simply, “Aldo Leopold, Prophet.”[27] The trope had endured. Wallace Stegner, not one give to hyperbole, regarded A Sand County Almanac as “the utterance of an American Isaiah…almost a holy book in conservation circles.”[28] A Sand County Almanac continues to be referred to regularly as the “Bible” or “scripture” of the environmental movement.

This “prophet” tradition, whether one regards it as appropriate invocation or unnecessary overstatement, is instructive. Aldo Leopold has reflected a strong social need. Any social movement (especially it in its emergent phase) requires a prophetic voice to give itself coherence and direction. Martin Luther King was the preeminent prophetic voice of the modern civil rights movement. For complex reasons, there was no equivalent iconic figure in the environmental movement. But environmental reformers could and did look back to find not only Leopold, but John Muir, Henry David Thoreau and, among contemporaries, Rachel Carson and David Brower, Sigurd Olson and Barry Commoner, Edward Abbey and Gary Snyder. They became the movement’s prophets. As conservation itself continued to evolve at the turn of the 21st century, Leopold (among these others) continued to fulfill the prophet function.

Leopold the All-Purpose Hero

One key factor set Leopold apart even within the pantheon of environmental prophets: he coupled the inspiration of his prose, thought and activism with the authority of his experience. Leopold, unlike the others, wrote from a varied professional background in on-the-ground forestry, range management, wildlife management, wilderness protection and restoration work. He was a respected figure in each of the fields and could speak to all his professional colleagues in their own languages. And so, Leopold served another posthumous function: as an all-around, acceptable and accessible “conservation hero,” able to appeal to a broad range of conservation factions – at least as long as the deeper tensions within conservation lay dormant.

One of the more interesting variations on this image of Leopold involved an unlikely source. The February 18, 1956, edition of the Saturday Evening Post featured a realistic sketch of Leopold in a full-page advertisement for the Weyerhauser company. The ad depicted Leopold, on bended knee with a fawn under his protective watch, against a clear-cut mountainside in the background. Aldo Leopold by this time apparently was seen as a reasonable conservationist who could support, as the text of the ad put it, “true conservation through the wise use and perpetuation of industrial forest uses” [emphasis in original.][29]

This Leopold-as-conservation-hero motif reflected conservation’s growing mainstream constituency. By 1956, conservation, however vague, fuzzy and pliable its definition, had become acceptable across a broad demographic spectrum. As long as Leopold represented the kindly and constructive school of reasonable conservation, even a major industrial force such as Weyrhauser could present his image in one of their prominent advertisements. It could, for the time being, ignore the fact that Leopold was a dedicated activist, a critical scientist, politically involved and often courageous, and not one to shrink from unseemly controversies over conservation policy.

Leopold the Radical Environmentalist

If Leopold’s work and words had helped to build a broader, more popular, better funded, more respectable, more mainstream environmental movement, it also inspired the counter response. As environmentalism became more acceptable, it became, in the view of others, more diluted. And so we find another reading of Leopold’s legacy in ascendance: Leopold as radical environmentalist and deep ecologist.

The most prominent example of this “redeployment” of Leopold came through the actions of the 1980s Earth First! movement. When Dave Foreman, Edward Abbey and their compatriots launched the movement, they drew heavily upon Leopold in raising high the bar of compromise in conservation politics. Leopold’s powerful image of the faltering “green fire” in the eyes of the dying wolf of “Thinking Like a Mountain” came to symbolize for this new generation of wilderness activists the loss of the North American wilds. “A militant minority of wilderness-minded citizens,” they read in Leopold’s essay “Wilderness,” “must be on watch throughout the nation and available for action in a pinch.”[30] At the same time, their philosophical standard-bearers in the deep ecology movement could point to “The Land Ethic” as a foundational document.[31]

Of course, counter responses ensued. Hence, the disgruntled forester, who groused in the Journal of Forestry that Leopold was merely a “starry eyed…pipe-smoking academician.” Another suggested that the pipe held more sinister substances, noting that he [the reader] had “seen nothing that Aldo Leopold had to say that does not make me think that he was anything but the original pot-head.”[32]

What do we learn from Leopold the deep and radical ecologist? He reflected the increasing polarity within the environmental movement as its influence rose through the 1970s and 1980s. During these years, the ranks of environmental professionals and bureaucrats burgeoned. Prior to that, if one were engaged in environmental work, one was likely an amateur – poorly paid (if paid at all) and engaged primarily out of a sense of public duty. By the mid-1970s, the scene was changing. Membership in the major environmental organizations was on the rise. As paid staffs expanded, professional expertise began to overshadow grassroots activism. Passion was nice, but a master’s degree got you the job and respect. As the environmental professional class grew, however, the grassroots activists, driven by powerful social, political and spiritual motives, hardly went away. The result, in a sense, was a splitting of the Leopold legacy. Suited professionals could see Leopold as a sort of master diplomat and spokesman, able to speak to all sides on environmental issues. Activists could see Leopold as a committed and deeply honest radical, who message provided intellectual armor.

Leopold the Naïve Interloper

This category encompasses an entire suite of images. It refers to the response evoked as Leopold’s interdisciplinary influence has come to be felt in fields not his own. This response may be traced in any number of fields; it will suffice here to examine it in philosophy, politics and conservation itself.

As J. Baird Callicott and Michael Nelson have pointed out, that Leopold in fact made any contribution to philosophy is not a view that all philosophers have shared.[33] Consider the following statements. H.J. McCloskey, an Australian philosopher, suggested that “there is a real problems in attributing a coherent meaning to Leopold’s statements, one that exhibits his “Land Ethic” as representing a major advance in ethics rather than a retrogression to a morality of a kind held by various primitive peoples.” Far from an advance in ethics, then, Leopold offered only retrogression. Another regarded Leopold the philosopher as “something of a disaster, and I dread the thought of the student whose concept of philosopher is modeled principally on these extracts from Leopold’s writings.” Another reviewer saw “The Land Ethic” as “dangerous nonsense.”[34] In short, for a few of the more formally trained philosophers, Aldo Leopold’s forays in this field are hardly worthy of serious consideration.

How does Leopold fare among politicians and political theorists? Somewhat better, actually, especially in recent years. Because Leopold’s conservation politics defied conventional ideological pigeonholing, those searching for deeper political lessons have found his work in this arena especially instructive.[35] The same maverick quality, however, also has left Leopold open to easy criticism. Such criticism has come, on the one hand, from those who have preferred a more direct political approach to environmental issues. Thus, in 1974, still in the wake of the high wave of the environmental movement, we find an article entitled “The Inadequate Politics of Aldo Leopold.” The author found Leopold’s politics to be:

“wholly conventional, some would say naïve. From one point of view the wonder is not that he accomplished so much as a political operator, but that he accomplished so little… One reason for Leopold’s frustration was his one inability to face the likelihood that so fundamental a change in people attitudes as he advocated would involve concomitant changes in the economic system and probably in the political superstructure. Again and again in his writing he seemed on the verge of some sort of ideological breakthrough, but appeared to draw back from the brink of discovery. In the political and administrative sector… this inexperienced administrator had little to offer for implementation of his ‘land ethic’ beyond a very traditional reliance on high-minded moral persuasion.”[36]

If some saw Leopold’s politics as naïve and inadequate in the highly politicized context of 1970s environmental activism, others would see his approach in a new light as that context continued to change. A decade later, Leopold’s biographer (i.e., this author) could receive inquiries from a conservative journal interested in an article on Aldo Leopold, because they felt he was “an environmentalist they could live with.” This is not as surprising as it may seem. Conservatives and libertarians can find much to agree with in “The Land Ethic.” A core component of “The Land Ethic” is, in fact, Leopold’s belief that individuals had to assume greater responsibility for the health of the land; that absent such responsibility, governments would need to step in, and governments simply could not assume or carry out all necessary conservation functions. The editors evidently saw here an opportunity to explore these “conservative” elements of “The Land Ethic.”[37]

Aldo Leopold’s politics were not naïve. As Susan Flader has shown, Leopold’s sense of citizenship and civic responsibility was keen and evolved along with the changing currents in the conservation movement.[38] That we can read his politics as conservation and progressive, naïve and sophisticated, personal and public, again tells us as much about ourselves as it does about Leopold. It says, perhaps, that we have yet to evolve a politics that can respond in a healthy and democratic fashion to complex conservation dilemmas; that we still are struggling to find ways to protect, in Leopold’s words, “the public interest in private land”[39]; that we continue to paw among our traditional political ideologies in search of solutions and find it very difficult to imagine where constructive alternatives may lie. For those deeply involved in the struggle to forge new relationships on and with the land and among the people who inhabit it, Leopold’s politics, far from being naïve, remain instructive and encouraging.

The Leopold-as-naïve-interloper view occasionally has found currency within the conservation world as well. Many of Leopold’s precepts of conservation were beyond the pale in his own day, and many remain so. More specifically, the breadth of perspective he brought to conservation was highly unusual, so that those who inhabited one portion of the conservation spectrum could not always appreciate his comprehensive view. (The story is told, for example, of the joke that went around the hallways of Wisconsin’s state Conservation Department, about how to spell this word “aesthetic” that the Professor was always using.)

Leopold was both a specialist (in several fields) and a generalist. But as the conservation professions specialized further in the years following his death, it became very easy for some to look back and regard Leopold as a dilettante in their increasingly insular fields. Hence, for example, latter day foresters could ignore Leopold’s credentials in the field and claim in effect that he wasn’t much of a forester after all.

Another sub-heading in this particular category involves the problematic (for some) fact that Aldo Leopold also was a life-long hunter. For this, Leopold has received his share of criticism from at least some anti-hunters, activists and environmental ethicists. Conversely, he has been held high by conscientious hunters as a premier example of the ethically sophisticated and environmentally committed sportsman.

Leopold confronted the chasm in attitudes toward hunting directly and regularly in his own lifetime. The chasm would grow only deeper in the years since. No less a figure than Rachel Carson, for example, had an outright disdain for the only Leopold, apparently, that she knew: the one of “Round River,” the collection of Leopold’s hunting journal entries first published in 1953.[40] Carson’s conservation ethic, of course, was more closely aligned with Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life” philosophy than with a Leopoldian land ethic. “Round River’s” portrait of Leopold the hunter was more than she could tolerate. The same response can be found, again, in the recent Journal of Forestry critique, where we find the following lambaste: “Leopold preached the extension of ethics to all fellow members of the land community, and he practiced killing them until the end of his life.”[41] Suffice it to say that this critic chose the bluntest of rhetoric to address one of the most sensitive issues in conservation and one of the most complex of human behaviors – one, it is safe to say, that Leopold pondered carefully and consciously on a daily basis for decades.

These dismissals of Leopold by selected philosophers, political activities and even conservationists again track broad trends in society. In them, we can read the impact of increased specialization and politicization in conservation. Divided into areas of special knowledge and special interest, conservation, like other fields, struggles to find coherent connection between the present and the past, the abstract and the actual, the sciences and the arts, philosophy and practice. By contract, Leopold’s written record reveals a mind at ease with complexity, open to mystery as well as to new data, and resistant to reductive tendencies in both science and politics.

He was, by all but unanimous consent of historical sources, a decent and delightful person to know and work with, an inspiration to those working in conservation, tolerant of human foibles and lacking in hidden demons. Ironically, such qualities may account for the challenge some have in “handling” Leopold. Modern readers, accustomed to irony and alienation and sensitive to political subtexts, may find Leopold’s personality an increasingly difficult kind to get a hold on. In our contemporary attempts to resolve postmodern dilemmas, we may project them onto Leopold.

Several illustration may serve to make the point. For years, a portrait of Leopold has hung on the walls of the Department of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The artist chose to depict Leopold with cigarette in hand (an intermittent smoker, he however preferred his pipe to cigarettes). Graduate students – if not the genuflectors – have appreciated the humanity in that particular icon. Then there was the survey question in Sierra magazine. The editors asked readers to respond to the query, “Can you eat meat and consider yourself an environmentalist?” Among the responses: “Remember: Aldo Leopold ate meat, Adolph Hitler did not.”[42] The past calls out to us… from the far side of the post-modern minefield.

Leopold the Eco-Fascist

More extreme examples of the above may be found on the far fringes. Because Aldo Leopold is a focal point for discussion of environmental ideas and strategies, he occasionally is criticized as an advocate of oppressive social and governmental actions to safeguard the environment. The reasoning is this: Leopold in “The Land Ethic,” places the good of the collective, the community, the whole, the ecosystem, above the good of the constituent parts; he, therefore, would have the whole impose its will on the constituent members of that whole. (The irony, of course, is easily lost on many such critics, i.e., that Leopold saw individual responsibility, as articulated in “The Land Ethic,” as the only sure antidote to such eventualities.)

Many of these criticisms arise out of reasoned consideration of the difficult questions that Leopold’s work – indeed, that conservation, generally poses. These arguments, well developed and thoughtful, appear in our academic journals and conference proceedings; so do effective counter arguments.[43] Not all such exchanges, however, are so rational. One of the strangest, a 1993 letter to the editor of Iowa State Daily, criticized the mission of Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Not content to question the institution, the letter-writer attacked Leopold as “racist,” stating that “He believed in the superiority of the Nordic race. He believed that population growth has to be stopped; he rejected the sanctity of life and he scorned human being so much that he believed the population of a country could be managed link an animal reservation.”[44] However bizarre such rantings may seem, they are not to be dismissed lightly. We read into Leopold (however undeserving) not only our hopes and concerns, but our uneasiness and our fears.

There are, no doubt, other “Leopolds” that bear consideration. As the taxonomy fills out, we can being to identify several basic tendencies that mark much Leopold commentary and criticism. The most common, noted above, is to assume that Aldo Leopold existed only as “The Author of A Sand County Almanac”; that it is unnecessary to take into account other aspects of his conservation career; that the historical and personal context of the “Almanac,”, however interesting, is of incidental importance. One may find this view among Leopold’s devotees as well as his detractors.

A second common tendency is to divorce Leopold’s publications from his practice. Leopold was a man of action as well as words, and the dynamic between these two spheres of his life may be the most significant of his many contributions. He tried to define a workable standard for conservation to follow and work toward. But he also worked toward it himself and thereby humanized it.

A third common tendency is to read only that part of Leopold with which one feels most comfortable or conversant and avoid confronting the entirety of the person, his expertise and his record. Hence, we have the critic who attends only to one of the several disciplines Leopold worked in, or one of the professions he practiced. Evidence of this tendency can be found in many of the fields to which Leopold contributed, from wildlife ecology and agriculture to economics and philosophy.

Finally, another common tendency is to consider Leopold’s work only up to a certain point in time. Hence, for example, the occasional wildlife manager will read “Game Management” and appreciate it as the profession’s founding volume, while ignoring and slighting the epic progression from “Game Management” (1933) to A Sand County Almanac (1949). Again, evidence of this tendency is widely distributed.

Leopold, in short, has been a mirror to our environmental responses. We see in him a succession of reflections over the decades since his death. In the years immediately following World War II, awareness of widespread environmental problems increased, and our fears grew apace. Leopold offered a way of understanding the human dimensions of these problems and imagining possible solutions. He cast warnings, as did others of the time but tempered the warnings with wonder and wry humor, humility and poetry. In one essay after another, he leavened his conservation message not only through his expressions of love “things natural, wild, and free,” but also through his understanding of the human condition and of human shortcomings (including, of course, his own).

As the environmental movement coalesced in the 1960s and early 1970s, many found inspiration in Leopold’s words. Leopold recognized clearly the harsh realities of environmental degradation, but provided a positive response to those realities. In the academic and policy arenas, he showed how the sciences, literature, history and philosophy not only could be, but had to be, brought together to address problems and suggest solutions. He contributed to the foundations upon which new, more integrated environmental policies and programs could be built.

Into the 1970s and 1980s, Leopold’s words provided guidance not only for far-reaching policy changes but, in a sense, for their complement: a well tempered understanding that conservation problems could not merely be legislated or administered away, but had to be addressed from within—within ourselves, our communities, cultures, agencies, businesses, organizations and institutions. A sense of the limits of purely technical or political solutions gained ground. Stated another way, Leopold’s land ethic now was read not just as a rationale for short-term technical fixes or policy initiatives, but as a guide to necessary longer-term social and cultural changes.

Finally, it seems of late that readers are responding increasingly to the degree of personal commitment that they find in Leopold. Leopold, although profoundly aware of harsh conservation realities, avoided the mire of despair. One of his most notable character traits was his capacity to face squarely and honestly a difficult conservation dilemma and address it in a constructive manner despite overwhelming odds. This trait marked his literacy endeavors as well, and never more so than in completing “The Land Ethic.” Despite serious health problems and other difficult personal circumstances, he found the internal resources to pull together “The Land Ethic” as he completed his collection of essays in the summer of 1947. That strength of character rests between every line of A Sand County Almanac.

Whither Leopold’s Legacy?

How will future generations respond to the Leopold legacy? What will they look for there, and what will they find? How will Leopold’s work and thought reflect back upon them? Those questions are, of course, unanswerable, buy we may speculate around the fringes.

The various disciplines and professions to which Leopold contributed still are struggling to gain historical self-awareness. Few foresters are taught the history of forestry. Few wildlife managers are taught the history of wildlife management. Ecologists sometimes are taught the history of ecology. Most professionals have a strong curiosity about their professional past and seek it out, but only recently have more formal opportunities to understand this past arisen. Many still find Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac a better history text than anything they receive through their formal training. Environmental history has emerged to fill in some of these gaps, but we still lack comprehensive treatments of the development of conservation through the 19th and 20th centuries. This situation, in nothing else, will ensure that attention will continue to focus on Leopold, for the simple reason that his life provides a unique medium through which to address recurring issues, debates, developments and trends in conservation. His life story will continue to offer critical insights into not only the past, but the future.

An inescapable dilemma will need to be taken into account. As noted above, Leopold’s legacy is likely to become even more important with time, even as the immediate connections to that legacy inexorably fade. Conservationists will continue to examine that legacy, but Leopold’s insights cannot serve if they are regarded as inert museum specimens. Leopold’s legacy, if it is to remain vital, must be able to grow and evolve, to tolerate dissent, resist dogma and welcome criticism.

Leopold’s legacy already comes with built-in defenses. He was in many way his own sharpest critic and anticipated many of the forces that might have led to the fossilization of his ideas. Many a critic will yet discover that Leopold often was there first and already had taken his own weakest points into account. He was, to borrow his world from “The Land Ethic,” part of a “thinking community” that struggled to meet the conservation challenges of its day. We build upon the work, not simply of Leopold, but of a generation whose achievements and frustrations he articulated.

Students of Leopold’s work are fortunate to have the testimony of primary sources, many of whom, in the year 2000, are still with us. They have as well a generous inheritance of recorded impressions of Aldo Leopold upon which to draw. Alfred Etter, who studied with Leopold, penned in 1948 one of the more sensitive accounts. It appeared as an obituary and described a day afield with Leopold. Etter’s account captured well the enduring personal qualities of Leopold. At the family’s shack, wrote Etter:

“[Leopold] tried to piece together answers to the questions which Nature so often tempted him to solve. From pads of moss or patches of quack grass he learned a piece of history. From a tangle of ash logs a suggestion of some principle dawned upon him. From a broken pine a brief diagram of the balance of forces in the environment was devised. Above all, this farm was a place where his children could learn the meaning of life and gain confidence in their ability to investigate small problems and discover things which no one knew.”[45]

For those who consult the historic record, this understanding of Leopold’s way of thinking and observing and conducting himself offers resistance to distortion. Paul Errington, another contemporary, also spoke to this, again in a 1948 obituary:

“Let no one do [Leopold] the disservice of fostering Leopoldian legends or Leopoldian dogmas. Knowing him as I have, I can say that he would not wish these to arise from his having lived. I can imagine his gentle scorn at the thought of anything like elaborate statuary in his memory, while despoliation and wastage of the land and its biota continue as usual.”[46]

Readers returned to Leopold no doubt will continue to find their own growth reflected in his words. Not uncommonly, readers who first encountered Leopold in their idealistic youth through A Sand County Almanac return years later to its pages to find the earlier inspiration now enriched by more subtle wisdom. Leopold for many has become the proverbial parent who has “grown so much wiser since I was young.”

A fine example of this can be found in a 1988 essay published in the North Dakota Quarterly. The author, Patrick Nunnally, recalled that he has first read A Sand County Almanac in the politically charged 1970s, when he was involved in wilderness protection battles in the southern Appalachians. He later moved to Iowa, where he found himself interacting more regularly with farmers. He also found himself asking what Leopold had to offer under those different circumstances. Nunnally recalls returning to the Almanac, only to find a broader appreciation of its value:

“[Leopold] establishes a grounding, a framework for conservation, without foreclosing much in the way of intelligent reflection of inquiry. It seems to me that I formerly used Leopold to end conversations: “This is what Leopold says, and that is the final word.” Instead, I look to him now to keep me focused and to keep me reminded of the larger conversation and stakes of which individual land protection discussions are a part. His principles provide a steady foundation that guides my discussions with individual farmers about the possibilities for conservation tillage and that grounds abstract philosophizing about the need to overthrow the Western world view for an ecologically-just society. He still has value as a source for quotations—he writes better on this subject than nearly anyone else who has tried, and his particular phrases ring better than any of my own. But it is more important to me now that he provides exemplary inquiry to complicated problems, with more than one viable position but only one best position. What formerly I cited as received dogma, now, I hope, I can use as wisdom of a thinker who has preceded me in the land conservation debate.”[47]

This is the more measured and better-balanced view of Leopold that we can anticipate and work toward. Finally, five decades after Leopold’s death, we may appreciate this continuing influence, without having to make him over into a deity or a devil, a hero or a threat, without having to regard him as naïve, radical, old-fashioned or prophetic. This is the kind of critical attitude that pays due honor to Leopold by reflecting not merely our desires or our fears, but our growth.


1. ^ Boris, Zeide, “Another Look at Leopold’s ‘Land Ethic’,” Journal of Forestry 96,1 (January 1998), 13-19.
2. ^ J. Baird Callicott, “A Critical Examination of ‘Another Look at Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” Journal of Forestry 96, 1 (January 1998), 20-26. The April 1998 issues of the Journal of Forestry featured eight further commentaries. These articles were reprinted by the Society for American Foresters in a Forestry Forum publication, “The Land Ethic: Meeting Human Needs for the Land and Its Resources” (Bethesda, MD.: SAF, 1998). ISBN: 0939970767.
3. ^ For a compilation of Leopold’s writings, with commentary, in these diverse fields, see Curt Meine and Richard L. Knight, “The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries” (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999). ISBN: 029916554X.
4. ^ For biographical treatments of Leopold, see Susan L. Flader, “Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude Toward Deer, Mountains, and Forests” (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1974; reprinted by the University of Wisconsin Press, 1994); ISBN: 0299145042. Curt Meine, “Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work” (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988); ISBN: 0299114945. Marybeth Lorbiecki, “Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire” (Helena and Billings, MT: Falcon Publishing Co., 1996). ISBN: 0762736631.
5. ^ Aldo Leopold, “Game Management” (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933; reprinted by the University of Wisconsin Press, 1986). ISBN: 0299107744.
6. ^ See Dennis Ribbens, “The Making of “A Sand County Almanac’,” pp. 91-109 in J. Baird Callicott, ed., “Companion to “A Sand County Almanac’: Interpretive & Critical Essays” (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987); Curt Meine, “Moving Mountains: Aldo Leopold & ‘A Sand County Almanac’,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 26:4 (1998), 697-706.
7. ^ Aldo Leopold, “The Thick-billed Parrot in Chihuahua,” The Condor 39:1 (January-February 1937), 9-10; Leopold, “Marshland Elegy,” American Forests 43:10 (October 1937), 472-474; Leopold, “Song of the Gavilan,” Journal of Wildlife Management 4:3 (July 1940), 329-332; Leopold, “Escudilla,” American Forests 46:12 (December 1940), 539-540. The Wisconsin Agriculturist and Farmer can be found in J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle, eds., “For the Health of the Land: Previously Unpublished Essays and Other Writings” (Washington, D.C. and Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1999). ISBN: 1559637641.
8. ^ Aldo Leopold, “A Biotic View of Land.,” Journal of Forestry 37:9 (September 1939), 727-730; pp. 266-273 in Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott, eds. “The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold” (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991). ISBN: 0299127648.
9. ^ Arthur Hawkins, interview with author, 4 December 1999.
10. ^ Frances Hamerstrom, quoted in Meine, “Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work,” 378. ISBN: 0299114945. The most extensive first-person account of Aldo Leopold’s activities and interests during his later Wisconsin years is Robert E. McCabe, “Aldo Leopold: The Professor” (Madison, WI: Rusty Rock Press: 1987). ISBN: 0910122989.
11. ^ H. Albert Hochbaum, quoted in Meine, “Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work,“ 456-457. ISBN: 0299114945.
12. ^ H. Albert Hochbaum, quoted in Meine, “Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work,“ 511. ISBN: 0299114945.
13. ^ Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 129-133.
14. ^ Aldo Leopold, “Adventures of a Conservation Commissioner,” pp. 149-154 in Flader and Callicott.
15. ^ Aldo Leopold, “Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), 165. ISBN: 1559710845.
16. ^ Leopold, “On a Monument to the Passenger Pigeon,” pp. 3-5 in Silent Wings (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, 11 May 1947).
17. ^ August Derleth, “Of Aldo Leopold,” Capital Times (WI), 5 November 1949.
18. ^ Lewis Gannett, “Books and Things,” New York Herald Tribune, 27 October 1949.
19. ^ Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac,” 221.
20. ^ Curt Meine, “The Oldest Task in Human History,” pp. 7-35 in Richard L. Knight and Sarah F. Bates, eds., “A New Century for Natural Resources Management” (Washington, D.C. and Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1995). ISBN: 1559632623. Leopold’s reference to the Alhambra may be found in “A Sand County Almanac,” 225.
21. ^ Curt Meine, “Conservation Biology and Sustainable Societies: A Historical Perspective,” pp. 35-61 in Max Oelschlaeger, ed., “After Earth Day: Continuing the Conservation Effort” (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1992). ISBN: 0929398408.
22. ^ See Richard L. Knight and Peter B. Landres, “Stewardship Across Boundaries” (Washington, D.C. and Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1998). ISBN: 1559635169; Eric T. Freyfogle, “Bounded People, Boundless Lands: Envisioning a New Land Ethic” (Washington, D.C. and Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1998). ISBN: 1559634189.
23. ^ Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac,” 210.
24. ^ See Daniel Kemmis, “Community and the Politics of Place” (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990). ISBN: 0806124776; Wes Jackson, “Becoming Native to This Place” (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1994); Ted Bernard and Jora Young, “The Ecology of Hope: Communities Collaborate for Sustainability” (Gabriola Island, BC and East Haven, CT: new Society Publishers, 1997). ISBN: 1887178112; William Vitek and Wes Jackson, eds., “Rooted in the Land: Essays on Community and Place” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996) ISBN: 0300069618.
25. ^ Roberts, Mann, “Aldo Leopold: Priest and Prophet,” American Forests 74, 2 (February 1954), 23, 42-43.
26. ^ Ernest Swift, “Aldo Leopold: Wisconsin’s Conservation Prophet,” Wisconsin Tales and Trails 2, 3 (Fall 1961), 2-5.
27. ^ Roderick Nash, “Wilderness and the American Mind,” 3rd ed. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982; original edition 1967), 182-199.
28. ^ Wallace Stegner, “Living on Our Principal,” Wilderness 48, 168 (Spring 1985), 5-21. Reprinted as “The Legacy of Aldo Leopold,” pp. 233-245 in Callicott, “Companion to A Sand County Almanac.” ISBN: 0299112349.
29. ^ “Making Forestlands Serve America Better Through Good Management,” Saturday Evening Post, 18 February 1956.
30. ^ Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac,” 200.
31. ^ In the extensive literature of deep ecology, see, for example, Bill Devall and George Sessions, “Deep Ecology: Living as if nature Mattered” (Salt Lake City, UT: Peregrine Smith Books, 1985). ISBN: 0879052473; Dave Foreman, “Confessions of an Eco-warrior” (New York: Harmony Books, 1991). ISBN: 051788058X; and Max Oelschlaeger, “The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991) ISBN: 0300053703. See also Susan Zakin, “Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! And the Environmental Movement” (New York: Viking Press, 1993). ISBN: 0816521859.
32. ^ Letters to the editor in the Journal of Forestry 88, 2 (February 1990), 4; and Journal of Forestry 89, 9 (September 1991), 5.
33. ^ J. Baird Callicott, “The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic,” pp. 75-99 in “In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy” (Albany, NY: Sate University of New York Press, 1989). ISBN: 0887069002; Michael Nelson, “Leopold, Land, and Leopards: Aldo Leopold’s Contribution to Philosophy,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, in prep.
34. ^ Quoted in Callicott, in “In Defense of the Land Ethic,” 75-76, 279 n. 4.
35. ^ See, for example, Robert Paehlke, “Environmentalism and the Future of Progressive Politics” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989). ISBN: 0300048262; C. Brant Short, “Ronald Reagan and the Public Lands: America’s Conservation Debate, 1979-1984” (College Station, TX: Texas A&M Press, 1989). ISBN: 0890964114; Bryan G. Norton, “Toward Unity Among Environmentalists” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). ISBN: 0195093976; and H. Lewis Ulman, “Thinking Like a Mountain’: Persona, Ethos, and Judgment in American Nature Writing,” pp. 46-81 in Carl G. Herndl and Stuart C. Brown, eds., “Green Culture: Environmental Rhetoric in Contemporary America” (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996). ISBN: 0299149943.
36. ^ Norris Yates, “the Inadequate Politics of Aldo Leopold,” pp. 219-221 in Proceedings of the Fifth Midwest Prairie Conference (Ames, IA: Iowa State University, 1978).
37. ^ At the time, I was a busy graduate student, and had no time to take on the article. As I remember, my response at the time was: “I’ll tell you what. I’ll write the article, and if you can get The Progressive to publish it simultaneously, I’ll do it.” Nothing came of the suggestion.
38. ^ Susan Flader, “Aldo Leopold and Environmental Citizenship,” Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters v. 87 (1999), 23-35.
39. ^ Flader and Callicott, 215.
40. ^ Meine, “Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work,” 525.
41. ^ Zeide, “Another Look as Leopold’s ‘Land Ethic.’”
42. ^ “Can You Eat Meat and Consider Yourself an Environmentalist?” Sierra 76, 6 (November-December 1991), 122.
43. ^ J. Baird Callicott, “The Conceptual Foundations of the Land Ethic”; Michael Nelson, “Holists and Fascists and Paper Tigers…Oh My!,” Ethics and the Environment 1(2):103-117.
44. ^ Francis Lepine, “Shut Down Leopold,” Iowa State Daily, 26 February 1993.
45. ^ Alfred G. Etter, “A Day with Aldo Leopold,” The Land 7, 3 (Fall 1948); reprinted, pp. 384-389 in Nancy P. Pittman, ed., “From The Land” (Washington, D.C. and Covelo, CA: Island Press, 1988). ISBN: 0933280661.
46. ^ Paul Errington, “In Appreciation of Aldo Leopold,” Journal of Wildlife Management 12, 4 (October 1948), 341-350.
47. ^ Patrick Nunnally, “A Mind at Work: Aldo Leopold’s ‘A Sand County Almanac’,” North Dakota Quarterly 56, 3 (Summer 1988), 79-86.

Aldo Leopold and Environmental Citizenship

This essay was written by Susan Flader, Professor of History, University of Missouri-Columbia, for presentation at a 1999 conference called "Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: A Legacy for Public Land Managers" at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. It was published originally in the Proceedings, Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: A Legacy for Public Land Managers. (Wadsworth, K., H. Kirchner, and J. J. Higgins, editors. 2000. Pheasants Forever, St. Paul, MN. 155 pp).

In the outpouring of books and articles in recent years on the meaning of citizenship, many lamenting the weakening of civic bonds in America, there has been scant attention paid to the role of citizenship with respect to the environment[48]. Even among environmentalists, who realize that citizen action has been a hallmark of the “new environmental movement” from the time of the first Earth Day (1970), there is little appreciation for the extent to which our citizenry has played a vital role in shaping American environmental policy ever since the nation’s origin[49].

As we seek the historical roots of our quest for environmental quality and the means for sustaining it, it is worth pondering the roles and responsibilities of citizens and the relationship between the citizenry and the state—in short, how American democracy works. In this exploration, we may seek insights from Aldo Leopold, who was profoundly conscious of the American democratic tradition within which he was working and who thought hard throughout his career about the meanings and implications of environmental citizenship.

I am acutely conscious of addressing an audience comprised mostly of public land managers, who probably identify most strongly with their roles as professionals, about the meanings of citizenship. Many public land managers have had their professional judgments challenged by citizen activists from right, left or center, with their own ideas about land management and environmental ethics. But professionals are citizens, too. No one knew this better than Aldo Leopold, or better appreciated the extent to which some reflection on the meanings of citizenship may be a healthy antidote for an excess of professionalism. Let us look, then, at the American tradition of citizenship.

In the United States, we have had a tradition of a limited or weak state. It may not seem that way today when people complain of a bloated federal bureaucracy, but relative to the strong central states in the democracies of Western Europe and certainly to authoritarian regimes, our government is decidedly limited, and our citizens always have had a healthy skepticism about most everything that government tries to do. In this weak state, we traditionally have had rather low legal expectations of our citizens. Citizens are expected to obey the law and pay taxes; even voting is optional. Yet, we have had in America a concomitantly vibrant tradition of voluntary citizen action.

The foremost interpreter of the era of the America Revolution, Gordon Wood, has termed the phenomenon of revolutionary citizen action “the people out of doors.” He likely was not thinking environmentally, but rather portraying “people out of doors”[50] as citizens acting voluntarily outside the formal channels of government to shape the kind of community they wanted. When we look back at the controversies of the era, however, we see citizens acting often on environmental issues. Local groups organized, with some success, to prevent new dams from blocking the passage of salmon upstream, for example, seeking to protect their community’s customary right to fish against interference by new industrial mills.[51]

When we think of the origins of the nation, we tend to think of citizens struggling for liberty, for the right of the individual to pursue his own self-interest. This is a concept of American history that became cemented in our imaginations especially during the Cold War, when we were fighting the menace of international communism and trying to picture America as everything that the Soviet Union was not. Yet, historians returning to the original documents of the revolutionary era several decades ago began to see some ideas that were startling at first, because they were so at odds with the usual interpretation. What they found were people who thought of themselves as citizens of a republic in which the greatest virtue was civic consciousness, a willingness to subordinate one’s own self-interest to the good of the community. “Civic virtue,” they called it, or “civic republicanism,” referring to the participatory civic values of a republic similar to ancient Athens.[52] We tend to celebrate America as a country grounded in individual rights, such as the freedoms of speech and of the press and of assembly enshrined in the first article of the Bill of Rights. But a case can be made that these rights pertain to communities as well as to individuals; they protect the opportunity for ordinary citizens to organize and communicate with each other outside of the formal channels of government to the shape of the environment of their communities or the policies of their governments.[53]

The complex republican values so pervasive in revolutionary America was largely overwhelmed, scholars agree, by democratic egalitarianism, liberal individualism and capitalist development in the early 19th century, ushering in the liberal democratic state we celebrate today. But the tradition of civic organizing has persisted in American history. It has not been mandated by law; it has been voluntary. The tendency of Americans to form voluntary groups—“associations,” Alexis de Tocqueville called them[54]—could be used to sustain traditional community values; it could also be used to protect economic self-interest. This tradition of citizen action, especially in its “civic republican” strain, is the tradition out of which much of our American conservation movement grew. It also may be the tradition from which several strands of what we may think of today as anti-environmentalism emerged—groups devoted to “wise use”, property rights and county supremacy.[55] Citizens organize for a variety of purposes.

It must be noted that not everyone regards voluntary citizen action as key to the shaping of society or environmental policy. Many would argue that ours is a representative democracy, and that the shaping and administration of policy is the responsibility of elected representatives and executive agencies. Indeed, much of the administrative capacity of the modern American state was developed in the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, in large part in response to environmental concerns. The USDA Forest Service, in which Aldo Leopold began his career, has been regarded by scholars as the quintessential example of a progressive agency.[56] The National Park Service was cast in the same mold. Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, sought to place technically trained experts—professional foresters such as Leopold—in government, and let them establish specific policies and manage the resources. This was a model of governance that elevated the values of order, efficient and control, values that may be quite incompatible with democratic participation. Pinchot once said, “The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon,” and I think Leopold himself once may have believed that.[57] From the perspective of a later day, however, we may note that the progressive model, in elevating the virtues of professionalism and technical expertise, tended to crowd out the citizenry and also their elected representatives, the politicians.

Inasmuch as Aldo Leopold began his career as a professional in the employ of the modern administrative state and is today regarded as something of a prophet of the new environmental consciousness, which elevates the responsibilities of citizenship, we may look to him for insights into the meanings of environmental citizenship—into the role of citizens in the modern state, the tension between the rights of individuals and the claims of the community, and the tension also between professional resource managers and citizen activists. We look first at what Leopold had to say about citizenship in “A Sand County Almanac,” the slender volume of nature sketches and philosophical essays that represents the distillation of this mature thought, and then explore the evolution of this thinking during the course of his career.

As we page through “A Sand County Almanac,” we meet our first citizen in the very first essay, “January Thaw”: “The mouse is a sober citizen who knows that grass grows in order that mice may store it as underground haystacks, and that snow falls in order that mice may build subways from stack to stack: supply, demand, and transport all neatly organized.”[58] The mouse is what kind of citizen?—an ordinary citizen who goes about his own business and pursues his own interests. We have many such in our communities.

Skipping perhaps a few citizens, we come to “Pines Above the Snow.” “Each species of pine,” Leopold tells us, “has its own constitution, which prescribes a term of office for needles appropriate to its way of life.” He continues with his analogy between human constitutions and the regimen of various pine trees, the white pin retaining its needles for a year and a half, red and jackpines for two and a half years. “Incoming needles take office in June, and outgoing needles write farewell addresses in October.”[59]. These pines are going about their own business, but they also are meeting the legal requirements of citizenship, acting according to their constitutions, even taking office in the perfunctory way.

Next, we meet the thick-billed parrots of Chihuahua, who “wheel and spiral, loudly debating with each other the question…whether this new day which creeps slowly over the canyons is bluer and golder than its predecessors, or less so.”[60] They are debating the criteria of the good life, which in Aristotelian thought is an activity of citizenship more fundamental even than that of developing legal constitutions. The vote being a draw, Leopold observes, they head to the mesas for breakfast.

In “Clandeboye,” the great prairie marsh of Manitoba, we find the grebe, a species of ancient evolutionary lineage impelled, Leopold believes, by “pride of continuity.” His is the call that dominates and unifies the marshland-chorus, “Perhaps, by some immemorial authority, he wields the baton for the whole biota.”[61] Here is the grebe as ethical citizen, as a leader directing the chorus of the marsh for the long-term betterment of the whole community.

Not until the more philosophical essays in the last section of the book do we meet human citizens. In “Conservation Esthetic,” Leopold discusses the various components of the recreational process, beginning with the most basic motivation of trophy seeking, common to the hunters with both shotgun an field glass as well as to most conservationists and even professionals. He goes on to discuss other more highly evolved components of the recreational process, such as a feeling of isolation in nature or the perception of natural processes, and then reaches what to him is the ultimate component, a sense of husbandry. This component, he tells us, “is unknown to the outdoorsman who works for conservation with his vote rather than with his hands. It is realized only when some art of management is applied to land by some person of perception. This is to say, its enjoyment is reserved for landholders too poor to buy their sport, and land administrators with a sharp eye and an ecological mind.” So, to Leopold, husbandry is the highest form of citizenship—actually working with one’s hands, participating actively to build or maintain the land community. Yet the government, in substituting public for private management of recreational lands, he observes, “is unwittingly giving away to its field officers a large share of what it seeks to offer its citizens. We foresters and game managers might logically pay for, instead of being paid for, our job as husbandmen of wild crops.”[62]

Leopold expresses his concept of environmental citizenship most memorably in “The Land Ethic”: “In short, a land ethic 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.”[63] Here, Leopold offers us a concept of citizenship in a community larger even than humankind; we are plain members and citizens of a community that embraces the land and all the plants and animals that are a part of it. The usual formula for conservation—“Obey the law, vote right, join some organizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on your own land; the government will do the rest,”—he tells us is too easy. “It defines no right and wrong, assigns no obligation.”[64] Leopold’s formula implies personal responsibility to participate actively as an ordinary citizen in maintaining or restoring the health of the biotic community.

This review of “A Sand County Almanac” suggests that Leopold’s mature concept of environmental citizenship, with its emphasis on obligation to the community, is similar in some respects to the concept of civic virtue in the republican ideology of the American Revolution, though he conceives the community much more broadly. One would not necessarily expect to find these ideas early in this career, when he was working for the U.S. Forest Service, modeled on a different conception of the relationship between citizens and the state.

Throughout his career, Aldo Leopold was a consummate professional, extremely efficiency-oriented during his years in the Forest Service and fascinated by the intricacies of administrative procedures and standards.[65] And yes, we get a sense from one of his earliest publications that he was not wholly satisfied with the Forest Service model of governmental administration. Shortly after he had become supervisor of the Carson National Forest in New Mexico at age 25, he was stricken with an illness that nearly led to his death and required more than a year of recuperation. During this time, he addressed a letter “to the forest officers of the Carson” reflecting on their responsibilities. The problem that concerned him was how to measure success in forest administration. Was success simply a matter of efficiently following prescribed policies and procedures, or was there something else? My measure,” Leopold wrote, “is the effect on the forest.” Even at the start of his career he was concerned about the ends of administration, what was happening to the land, not only the procedures or means.[66]

It was a preoccupation he would continue to pursue into the early 1920x, when he was chief of operations in charge of roads, trails, fire control, personnel and finance on 20 million acres of national forests in the Southwest. In order to improve the efficiency of administration while focusing attention on “the effect on the forest,” he developed an intricate system of tally sheets for a new system of forest inspection that would enable foresters to diagnose local problems and monitor the effectiveness of management solutions. Leopold regarded this elaborate system of inspection as one of his points of greatest pride during his career in the Southwest. Indeed, his lifelong fascination with tracing the dynamics of change and the efficiency of management for the total biotic system, begun during his inspection forays in the Southwest, would lead him to be acknowledged in our day as the exemplar of the new philosophy of ecosystem management recently adopted by the Forest Service, Park Service and other land management agencies.[67]

Clearly, Leopold was enlarging the responsibilities of professional land managers by extending the boundaries of the community of concern to include the entire biota—soils, waters, plants and animals—as well as trees and scenery and the interest of the people who used them. But there was scant room for ordinary citizens in Leopold’s model of public land management. Though he recognized the difficulty of determining the objectives of management—a problem that bedevils ecosystem management today—he concluded that these decisions should be made by “only the highest authority.”[68] Yet, the essay in which he dealt most directly with what he called “standards of conservation” tails off in mid-sentence and remained unpublished, suggesting that Leopold may have realized he was caught in an unresolved problem of authority: who decides the objectives and on what basis? A kind of “super-inspector” would crop up in his writing from time to time over the years, but I am not sure he was ever really comfortable with this type of authority.[69]

Despite Leopold’s commitment to professional expertise in resource management, he saw roles for citizens in related endeavors. Indeed, when his illness prevented him from resuming his post as a forest supervisor, he began developing a new line of activity in the Forest Service, game management, and in conjunction with this he traveled all across Arizona and New Mexico organizing game protective associations—citizen conservation organizations—in local communities and statewide. These associations of sportsmen, ranchers and townspeople would work for non-political game wardens, predator control and refuges. They were grassroots citizen-action groups in a longstanding American tradition.

Leopold addressed the subject of citizenship in a number of lectures early in his career, including one on “Home Gardens and Citizenship” to students at the University of New Mexico in 1917, just after the American entry into World War I. A home garden, he said, was on mark of useful citizen. Nobility is won by soiling your hands with useful labor, by building something. Leopold was always one for building something. If your job doesn’t allow enough play for creativity, he told the students, you can be creative by working the ground, whereupon he went into a soliloquy about how to raise spectacular tomatoes in your Albuquerque backyard. In a world threatened with food shortage, what right have we to hold idle some of the best agricultural lands in our backyards, he asked. Better to turn them into gardens and learn to be good citizens.[70]

A year later, he spoke to the women’s club on “The Civic Life of Albuquerque,” Having left the Forest Service to become secretary of the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, Leopold was now asking “What has the 20th-century American city contributed to human progress?” His answer was public spirit He defined it as “year-round patriotism in action; …intelligent unselfishness in practice.” He tried to trace the idea historically, contrasting Confucius, whom he saw as more interested in personal virtues and family ties than in obligations to others, with Socrates, who knew that citizens had a moral obligation to support and improve their government. But then he lost the thread, explaining that “it would require a better scholar than I am to even attempt to trace the idea of public spirit through the era of individualism and the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.”[71]

From this we realize that the concept of civic virtue, the republican ideology of the American Revolution, had been lost to consciousness by 1918. Leopold was assuming a revolutionary American dedicated to individualism; he had lost the thread of public spirit, though he sensed it must have been there somewhere. In fact, historians would not rediscover it until the late 1960s, 20 years after his death. He went on to define the “modern idea”—modern as of 1918—of public spirit: “It means that a democratic community and its citizens have certain reciprocal rights and obligations.” Not only rights, but obligations as well. “The man who cheerfully and habitually tries to meet this responsibility,” he says, “we call public-spirited.”

Leopold went on to offer a critical assessment of the public spirit of Albuquerque, confiding his dream that his own Chamber of Commerce might serve as the “common center” to organize the “democratic welter” of professional societies, women’s groups, religious, political, labor and other voluntary associations of citizens toward accomplishment of a common goals for the betterment of Albuquerque. He also admitted to some frustration—businessmen unwilling to welcome representation in the chamber by labor and craft organizations, for example.

After little more than a year, Leopold left the Chamber of Commerce to rejoin the Forest Service. A few years later, still feeling the effects of his experience in the chamber, he delivered a scathing “Criticism of the Booster Spirit” to an Albuquerque civic society in which he excoriated “the philosophy of boost.” Boost was premised on growth by unearned increment rather than investment in basic resources, he charged, using as an example the recent demand for a national park for New Mexico by boosters concerned solely with attracting tourists.[72] In his quest for fundamental improvement in the resource base, he began looking to enforced responsibility of landowners. In “Pioneers and Gullies,” for example, he described numerous valleys of the Southwest torn out by erosion, and he predicted, for the first time in print, that one day proper land use would be a responsibility of citizens: “The day will come when the ownership of land will carry with it the obligation to so use and protect it with respect to erosion that it is not a menace to other landowners and the public.”[73]

Leopold left the Southwest in 1924 to accept a job in Madison, Wisconsin, as director of the Forest Products Laboratory. Though the laboratory’s focus on industrial products after the tree was cut proved ultimately frustrating for one so committed to the growing forest and he would leave after only four years, he did manage to extract from the experience a lesson for citizens. In an article, “The Home Builder Conserves,” he admonished people, before they castigated the “wasteful lumberman,” to think about how their own arbitrary demands as consumers and home builders cause waste. The thinking citizen has power not only in his vote but in his daily thoughts and actions, and especially in his habits as a buyer and user of wood. “Good citizenship is the only effective patriotism,” he concluded, “and patriotism requires less and less of making the eagle scream, but more and more of making him think.” This theme of the responsibility of the citizen as intelligent consumer is one Leopold would return to from time to time, most notably during World War II in “Land Use and Democracy.”[74]

Shortly after his move to Wisconsin, Leopold became involved with the state chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, which was the most vibrant citizen conservation organization in the 1920s. He worked with the league to promote a nonpartisan conservation commission and a forestry policy for Wisconsin. Still hewing to his professional orientation as a forester, however, he wanted members to eschew the tendency to actually write policy: “It is a pretty safe rule to remember that while groups of men can insist on and criticize plans, only individuals can create them.”[75] Leopold himself was a professional writer of policies, as he demonstrated both in the Forest Service and after he left in 1928 to conduct game surveys and recommend conservation policies in the midwestern states, when he drafted an “American Game Policy” adopted by the American Game Conference in 1930, and when he helped write a “Twenty-Five Year Conservation Plan” for his home state of Iowa in 1931.

Leopold was tremendously impressed by the citizen commitment to conservation in Iowa, and genuinely proud of the plan for integration of all aspects of conservation—parks, forests, wildlife, fish, water quality, soil conservation—that the team of nationally recognized experts wrote. Iowa was clearly a leader among the states in conservation thought and practice in these years. But buried in Leopold’s correspondence are intimations of foreboding. He warned his colleagues in Iowa that they needed to make a special effort to educate the public about what was in the plan, lest people buy into it without personally engaging with it. He was concerned especially about the protection-minded women so active in the parks movement who might become upset if they were suddenly to discover that the plan aimed to produce game to shoot. “There is grave danger,” he said, “that the conservationists will blow it up before they even understand what it is.”[76].

In 1933, shortly after he accepted a newly created chair of game management at the University of Wisconsin, Leopold proposed to the dean of agriculture the development of a conservation plan for Wisconsin farms similar to the Iowa plan. The purpose, as in Iowa, would be to get all the government agencies working together to encourage farmers and other landowners to care for their lands in a more conservative way—or, as he put it, to “integrate economic with esthetic land use.” But the means would differ. In Iowa, the plan was produced by imported experts who did not participate in its execution, an arrangement that clearly left Leopold uneasy, whereas in Wisconsin he proposed to evolve a plan “rather than to write one out-of-hand.”[77]

Leopold’s emphasis on evolving a plan from the grassroots was prophetic not only of the emerging emphasis on public involvement in resource planning in our own day but of the situation in Iowa at the time. By 1935, the Iowa conservation plan disintegrated, at least in Leopold’s view. After Iowa merged all relevant agencies into a single department, as recommended in the 25-year plan, the new Iowa Conservation Commission bypassed the man whom to Leopold was the obvious director, and most of Leopold’s friends in fish and game resigned or were fired. The issue apparently had to do with the Iowa commission’s insistence on an immediate showing of quick results by government through public works rather than, as Leopold and his colleagues preferred, a long-term emphasis on building a new conservation consciousness in the citizenry, especially among landowners.”[78]

In the wake of the Iowa debacle, Leopold commented to a friend that the only state conservation effort to survive was in Michigan, “strength enough, by a process of internal disharmony. I am tempted to draw the conclusion that complete unanimity within a state [such as in Iowa] is a symptom of approaching dissolution.”[79] In other correspondence and articles in the 1930s, he addressed the problem of factions within the conservation community, especially the shotgunners versus the field glass hunters, arguing for tolerance, a capacity for self criticism, and an institutional structure within which factions could argue out their conflicts. “It is a question of applying the democratic process to conservation,” he concluded.[80]

Leopold’s thoughts on democracy and conservation were further stimulated by travel in Germany in 1935, where he observed an elaborate system of law, public administration, ethics and customs that was “incredibly complete and internally harmonious.” Though he could observe no real distinction between the government, acting hierarchically from the top down, and popular acceptance from below, he recognized that the German system, with its strong central governmental authority, was “manifestly a surrender of individualism to the community.”[81] While he could admire it in Germany (before he understood the connection with the Nazi movement), he knew that it wouldn’t work in America.

Leopold addressed the tension between the claims of the community and the rights of the individual in America in a number of essays in the 1930s in which he dealt with the role of government. He often asked: how can we get conservation? His answer was we can legislate it, buy it or build it. Government’s initial efforts at conservation had been through laws prohibiting hunting, fishing or cutting, a first step but inadequate. The second step, augmented by the open money bags of the New Deal, was to buy land for conservation, but that could be carried only “as far as the tax-string on our leg will reach.” The solution had to be found on private land.[82]

By the time he wrote “Land Pathology,” under the menacing clouds of the Dust Bowl in 1935, Leopold saw only two possible forces that would effect change in private land use. One was the development of institutional mechanisms for protecting the public interest in private land—a quest he had been on for more than a decade, especially after his new chair of game management was lodged in the University of Wisconsin’s famed Department of Agricultural Economics with its institutional bent. The other was his new preoccupation with “the revival of land esthetics in rural culture.” Out of these forces he hoped might eventually emerge what he was even then beginning to term a “land ethic.”[83] After his friend and fellow conservationist Jay “Ding” Darling cautioned him that his search for institutional controls could lead to socialization of property,[84] Leopold seemed increasingly to emphasize development of a personal sense of obligation to the land community, a sense of husbandry.

During the 1930s, Leopold searched for and experimented with various forms of citizen organization to encourage the practice of husbandry on private lands. One venture, the Coon Valley Erosion Project near LaCrosse, Wisconsin, involved cooperation of local landowners with government agencies in a pathbreaking demonstration of erosion control and integrated land use on a watershed scale. Other efforts functioned entirely outside the formal channels of government, including farmer/sportsman cooperatives he was instrumental in establishing at Riley and Faville Grove, Wisconsin, to encourage conservation of wildlife habitat and landscape beauty. He described these experiments in community conservation as vertical rather than horizontal planning, focusing a battery of minds simultaneously on one spot. “It may take a long time to cover the country spot by spot,” he admitted, “but that is preferable to a smear.”[85] He even proposed public/private cooperation in the inventorying and planning for conservation of threatened species, with local conservationists or associations entrusted with custodianship of particular remnants.[86]

As war clouds darkened the horizon and called into question his earlier administration for Germany’s tightly regimented system of resource administration, Leopold lectured to his wildlife ecology student about “Ecology and Politics,” presenting the case for an evolutionary mandate for individualism. Individual deviations from societal norms in land management, like individual evolutionary variations, he suggested, might enable certain individuals to survive catastrophe even when most members of a species were eliminated.[87] This was an individualism not of economic self-interest but of creative experimentation, in the sense of solutions generated from the bottom up by individual citizens or communities rather than mandated by government on all alike. It was in this spirit that Leopold looked to the evolution of a "land ethic".

American entry into World War II further defined the issue. “We must prove that democracy can use its land decently,” Leopold argued in a seminal essay, “Land Use and Democracy.” Here he called for conservation from the bottom up instead of from the top down. Vicarious conservation through government simply count not do the job alone, as he illustrated through the inability of national parks and other sanctuaries to protect wildlife: “It seems to me that sanctuaries are akin to monasticism in the dark ages. The world was so wicked it was better to have islands of decency than none at all. Hence decent citizens retired to monasteries and convents. Once established, these islands became an alibi for lack of private reform.” True conservation had to begin with “that combination of solicitude, foresight, and skill which we call husbandry,” practiced by landowners on their own land. But non-landowning citizens had responsibilities in their roles as consumers as well. They could refuse to buy “exploitation milk” from cows pastured on steep slopes and insist on “honest boards” from properly managed forests. There was an indispensable role for government as “test of fact vs. fiction” or guardian of standards, Leopld acknowledged, but farmers could scrutinize their own practices through courageous use of self-governing Soil Conservation Districts, and there were opportunities also for self-scrutiny by industrial or citizen groups.[88] More than half a century later, the Forest Stewardship Council’s independent third-party certification of forest products and other examples of the movement for green production and consumption standards would attest to the validity of Leopold’s visionary argument.

Aldo Leopold’s ideas about the roles of government and citizen in the shaping of environmental policy were tested in the last decade of his life as never before by his involvement in the traumatic deer debates of the 1940s in Wisconsin. After being nearly hunted to extirpation in the early decades of the century, the state’s deer herd had increased to such an extent that by the early 1940s it needed to be reduced for the good of both deer and forest, and Leopold sought to work with the Conservation Department to build a case for any-deer season, for killing does as well as bucks. The call for reduction stirred disbelief and resentment among both hunters and the general public, to whom conservation of deer was a good thing. In response, the Conservation Commission organized a Citizens’ Deer Committee, appointing Aldo Leopold as chairman.[89]

Leopold’s committee had a cross-section of citizens, most from northern Wisconsin, most of them distrustful of the policy he was urging on the department. For the first meeting he prepared maps and charts to provide a historical review of deer irruptions nationwide. But he was upstaged by another member of the committee, Joyce Larkin, editor of the Vilas County New Review. She didn’t think there were too many deer, and she arrived at the meeting armed with a printed booklet of history and local opinion about the deer situation in Vilas County. We don’t’ know how Leopold reacted to Larkin that day, but we do know that he decided to take the committee and several newspaper reporters on a three-day tour of deer yards, to let them discuss what they were actually seeing on the ground. Joyce Larkin, among others, was impressed. She went back to Vilas, got the country board to accept Leopold’s challenge to bring clashing interests together to look at the problems locally, and came to a subsequent meeting of the committee with a new report in favor of an any-deer season.[90]

However successful Leopold proved at the changing attitudes among the members of his Citizens’ Deer Committee by letting them argue out their views with respect to conditions in particular locales, the deer problem proved too widespread and public attitudes too entrenched for him to make much headway in the state as a whole. A new newspaper, Save Wisconsin’s Deer, ridiculed and castigated him in virtually every issue and offered fuel to those who opposed his reasoning. Yet he never gave up on his effort to educate the citizenry, individually and collectively. It is likely that the unremitting stress of dealing with the deer issue in the public arena during the 1940s helped send Leopold to an early grave. Still,, he had been appointed to a six-year term on the Wisconsin Conservation Commission and he believed it was his responsibility as a citizen to serve.[91]

During those years, he took solace in the exercise of another type of citizenship that he had advocated since the days of his backyard garden in Albuquerque: he practiced husbandry as plain member and citizen of the land community at the sand farm his family called the Shack. He expressed this form of citizenship—citizenship as creative individualism—perhaps most poignantly in his essay, “Axe-in-Hand,” which includes a definition of a conservationist that could as easily be read as his definition of a citizen:

“I have read many definitions of what is conservationist [citizen], and written not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist [citizen] is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.”[92]


48. ^ See “A Nation of Spectators: How Civic Disengagement Weakens America and What We Can Do About It” (Final Report of the National Commission on Civic Renewal, 1998); and Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6:1 (January 1995), 65-78. Much of the recent attention to citizenship in the United States has been stimulated by scholarly writing concerning the forging of civil society in new democracies around the world, especially since the fall of the Iron Curtain. See, for example, Andrew Arato, “Interpreting 1989,” Social Research 6:30 (Fall 1993), 609-46; Michael Bernhard, “Civil Society after the First Transition: Dilemmas of Post-Communist Democratization in Poland and Beyond,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 29 (1994); James Bohman, “Complexity, Pluralism, and the Constitutional State: On Habermas’s Faktizitat und Geltung,” Law & Society Review, 28:4 (1994), 897-930; and Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in “Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the ‘Postsocialist’ Condition” (New York: Routledge, 1997), 69-98. ISBN: 0415917948.
49. ^ Susan L. Flader, “Citizenry and the State in the Shaping of Environmental Policy,” Environmental Review 3:1 (January 1998) 8-24.
50. ^ Gordon S. Wood, “The Creation of the American Republic,” 1776-1787 (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1972), 319-28. ISBN: 0807847232.
51. ^ See, for example, Gary Kulik, “Dams, Fish, and Farmers: Defence of Public Rights in Eighteenth-Century Rhode Island,” in “The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation,” ed. Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985), 25-50. ISBN: 0807841390.
52. ^ See Robert E. Shalhope, “Republicanism and Early American Historiography,” William and Mary Quaterly 39 (1982):334-56; Joyce Appleby, ed., “Special Issue: Republicanism in the History and Historiography of the United States,” American Quarterly 37 (1985); Gordon S. Wood, “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992). ISBN: 0679736883.
53. ^ See Jack N. Rakove, “Parchment Barriers and the Politics of Rights,” in “A Culture of Rights: The Bill of Rights in Philosophy, Politics, and Law—1791 and 1991,” ed. Michael J. Lacey and Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 103. ISBN: 0521446538; and William A. Galston, “Practical Philosophy and the Bill of Rights: Perspectives on Some Contemporary Issues,” ibid., 234.
54. ^ Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America,” ed. Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage, 1945), I:ch. 12, II:ch. 5. ISBN: 0394421868.
55. ^ See Philip D. Brick and R. McGreggor Cawley, eds., “A Wolf in the Garden: The Land Rights Movement and the New Environmental Debate” (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996). ISBN: 0847681858.
56. ^ See Stephen Skowronek, “Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982). ISBN: 0521288657; and Samuel P. Hays, “Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890-1920” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950). ISBN: 0822957027.
57. ^ Gifford Pinchot, “The Fight for Conservation” (Garden City, NY, 1910), IV:6. ISBN: 1406865893. Compare Leopold: “It is no prediction, but merely an assertion that the idea of controlled environment contains colors and brushes wherewith society may some day paint a new and possible a better picture of itself;” in “The Conservation Ethic,” Journal of Forestry 31:6 (October 1933), 634-643.
58. ^ Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), 4.
59. ^ Ibid., 87.
60. ^ Ibid., 138.
61. ^ Ibid., 161.
62. ^ Ibid., 166-67, 175.
63. ^ Ibid., 204.
64. ^ Ibid., 207-8.
65. ^ For details of Leopold’s biography see Curt Meine, “Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work” (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), ISBN: 0299114945, and Susan L. Flader, “Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests” (1974; Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994). ISBN: 0299145042.
66. ^ “To the Forest Officers of the Carson,” The Carson Pine Cone (July 1913), reprinted in “The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold,” ed. Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 41-46 [hereafter cited as “River”]. ISBN: 0299127648.
67. ^ See Susan Flader, “Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of Ecosystem Management,” in “Sustainable Ecological Systems: Implementing and Ecological Approach to Land Management,” ed. W. Wallace Covington and Leonard F. DeBano (USDA Forest Service General Technical Report RM-247, 1994), 15-19.
68. ^ “Standards of Conservation” (handwritten ms., c. 1922), General Files—Aldo Leopold, Series 9/25/10-6, Box 16, University of Wisconsin Division of Archives [hereafter cited as LP 6B6 (Leopold Papers, Series 6, Box 16)], reprinted in “River,” 82-85. ISBN: 0299127648.
69. ^ See, for example, “Conservation Economics,” Journal of Forestry 32:5 (May 1934), 537-544, reprinted in “River,” 201. ISBN: 0299127648. For discussion of the problem of authority as related to the relationship between professionals and citizens see Terry L. Cooper, “Citizenship and Professionalism in Public Administration,” Public Administration Review 44 (March 1984), 143-149; and J. Douglas Wellman and Terence J. Tipple, “Public Forestry and Direct Democracy,” The Environmental Professional 12 (1990), 77-86.
70. ^ “Home Gardens and Citizenship,” 23 April 1917, 7pp. tps., LP 8B8.
71. ^ “The Civic Life of Albuquerque,” 27 September 1918, 9pp tps., LP 8B8.
72. ^ “A Criticism of the Booster Spirit,” 6 November 1923, 10pp tps speech to Ten Dons, LP 6B16, reprinted in “River,” 98-105. ISBN: 0299127648. The national park reference may have been to a proposal by Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall for establishment of a park from a series of discontinuous segments of land near his home in south central New Mexico, part of which is now White Sands National Monument.
73. ^ “Pioneers and Gullies,” Sunset Magazine 52:5 (May 1924), 15-16 and 91-95, reprinted in “River,” 106-113. ISBN: 0299127648. Leopold’s language on the obligation of landowners was similar to that in a speech he had written in December 1922 for the New Mexico Association for Science, “Erosion as a Menace to the Social and Economic Future of the Southwest.” The speech was published many years later in Journal of Forestry 44:9 (Sept 1946), 627-33.
74. ^ “The Homebuilder Conserves,” American Forests and Forest Life 34:413 (May 1928), 276-78 and 297, reprinted in “River,” 143-147. ISBN: 0299127648; “Land-Use and Democracy,” Audubon Magazine 44:5 (Sept-Oct 1942), 259-265, reprinted in “River,” 295-300. ISBN: 0299127648.
75. ^ “Izaac Walton League and Its Relation to Forestry in Wisconsin,” [n.d., c. 1925], 10pp tps, LP 6B16.
76. ^ Leopold to Claude v. Campbell, 15 October 1932, LP 3B5, and associated correspondence. See also Jacob L. Crane, Jr. and George Wheeler Olcott, “Report on the Iowa Twenty-five Year Conservation Plan” (Des Moines: Meredith, 1933).
77. ^ “A Conservation Plan for Wisconsin Farms,” 23 October 1933, 6pp tps., LP 6B16.
78. ^ See Leopold to William Schuenke, 10 July 1935; I.T. Bode to Leopold, n.d. [c. July 1935]; and Leopold to I.T. Bode, 19 July 1935, all in LP 3B5. See also Rebecca Conard, “Places of Quiet Beauty: Parks, Preserves, and Environmentalism” (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997), 120-136. ISBN: 0877455589.
79. ^ Leopold to P.S. Lovejoy, 18 July 1935, P.S. Lovejoy Papers, Michigan Historical Commission Archives, Lansing, RG63-12 B12F6.
80. ^ “A House Divided,” Wisconsin Sportsman (October 1940), 5. See also “Game and Wild Life Conservation,” The Condor 34:2 (Mar-Apr 1932), 103-106, reprinted in “River,” 164-68. ISBN: 0299127648. For recent examples of local democratic participation in decisionmaking see Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991). ISBN: 0806124776; and Mark Sagoff, “The View from Quincy Library: Civic Engagement in Environmental Problem-Solving” (Working Paper #16, The National Commission on Civic Renewal).
81. ^ “Notes on Game Administration in Germany,” American Wildlife 25:6 (Nov-Dec 1936), 85, 92-93.
82. ^ See, for example, “The Conservation Ethic,” Journal of Forestry 31”6 (Oct 1933), 634-43 [“River,” 181-92]; “Conservation Economics,” Journal of Forestry 32:5 (May 1934), 537-44 [“River,” 193-2020; “Conservation in the World of Tomorrow,” lecture notes 29 March 1937, 5pp tps, LP 6B14; and “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” American Forests 45:6 (June 1939), 294-99, 316, 323 [“River,” 255-265].
83. ^ “Land Pathology,” 15 April 1935, 8pp tps LP 6B16, reprinted in “River,” 212-217. ISBN: 0299127648. Leopold observed that mechanism, economic and moral, to encourage conservation of landscape beauty on private lands might also help prevent the otherwise inevitable degradation of public parks: “Parks are over-crowded hospitals trying to cope with an epidemic of esthetic rickets; the remedy lies not in hospitals, but in daily dietaries.”
84. ^ J.N. Darling to Leopold, 20 November 1935, LP 6B16.
85. ^ “Farmer-Sportman Set-ups in the North Central Region,” “Proceedings of the North American Wildlife Conference,” February 3-7, 1936 (Senate Committee Print, 74th Cong., 2d sess., 1936), 279-285. See also “Coon Valley: An Adventure in Cooperative Conservation,” American Forests 41:5 (May 1935), 205-208 [“River,” 218-223]; “Helping Ourselves” (with Reuben Paulson), Field and Stream 39:4 (August 1934), 32-33, 56 [“River,” 203-208]; and “History of the Riley Game Cooperative, 1931-1939,” Journal of Wildlife Management 4:3 (July 1940), 291-302. For recent examples of the burgeoning movement in community conservation, see the special issue of the Journal of Forestry 96:3 (March 1998) on community forestry.
86. ^ “Threatened Species: A Proposal to the Wildlife Conference for an Inventory of the Needs of Near-Extinct Birds and Animals,” American Forests 42:3 (March 1936), 116-119 [“River,” 230-234].
87. ^ “Ecology and Politics,” WLE 118 Introductory Lecture, n.d. [c. 1941], 7pp tps, lp 6B16 [“River,” 281-89].
88. ^ “Land-Use and Democracy,” Audubon Magazine 44:5 (Sept-Oct 1942), 259-265 [“River,” 295-300].
89. ^ See Flader, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” 168-260. ISBN: 0299145042.
90. ^ Ibid., 183-193.
91. ^ Ibid., 194.
92. ^ “A Sand County Almanac,” 68.

Aldo Leopold and the Foundations of Ecosystem Management

This essay was written by J. Baird Callicott, Professor of Philosophy and Religion Studies, University of North Texas, for presentation at a 1999 conference called "Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: A Legacy for Public Land Managers" at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. It was published originally in the Proceedings, Aldo Leopold's Land Ethic: A Legacy for Public Land Managers. (Wadsworth, K., H. Kirchner, and J. J. Higgins, editors. 2000. Pheasants Forever, St. Paul, MN. 155 pp).

In 1924, Aldo Leopold packed up his family and moved from the Southwest back to the Midwest. He was 37 years old, had a wife and four children, and worked for the USDA Forest Service. Born in Burlington, Iowa, Leopold relocated for the last time to Madison, Wisconsin, transferring to the Forest Products Laboratory.

Among Leopold’s enduring farewell bequests to the Southwest was the first federal wilderness reserve surrounding the headwaters of the Gila River. Leopold campaigned hard to protect these lands, and the new reserve was dedicated only days after his departure. The idea of wilderness and wildlands preservation was among his greatest concern in the waning years of his southwestern sojourn. This is indicated by the fact that, in the year after his departure, no fewer than five articles advocating wilderness protection by Leopold appeared in print. They all made much the same argument—the needs for an unconfined, virile type of recreation, especially big game hunting and motorless travel—but each was addressed to a different audience. In addition, a sixth essay, “The River of the Mother of God,” was rejected by his alma mater’s literary magazine, the Yale Review. By the time the fruits of his wilderness thinking were published, he was settled into Madison and learning a new, more sedentary side of Forest Service work.

Ten years later, Robert Marshall and a small cadre of other likeminded men formed The Wilderness Society. Marshall beseeched Leopold to accept the presidency. By then, however, Leopold’s interest in conservation had taken on a different focus, and he declined the offer. He had become the owner of a worn-out, 80-acre farm north of Madison along the Wisconsin River. He was giving his mind to “the more important and complex task,” as he wrote in 1935, the same year the society was founded, “of mixing a degree of wildness with utility” in the middle, rural landscape between the poles of urban civilization and areas untrammeled by man, where man is a visitor who does not remain.

In 1928, Leopold grew tired of his job at the Forest Products Lab, and quit the Forest Service for good. He supported his growing family—a fifth child had been born in Wisconsin—as a “consulting forester,” funded mainly by the Spring Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute to conduct game surveys in the northcentral region of the country. As the Great Depression deepened, that work dried up. In 1933, after months without income, Leopold secured a position at the University of Wisconsin in the Department of Agricultural Economics as the nation’s first professor of game management.

In both his careers as forester and professor, Leopold situated himself at the margin of his main field. In response to his wilderness work, John D. Gutherie, supervisor of the Apache National Forest, to which Leopold was first posted, commented, “Forestry is not aesthetics, is not ‘natural areas,’ nor wilderness per se, but the putting to use, and commercial use at that, of all the resources in the country. We are getting away from the forestry ideas in this country, and more and more making the national forests into half-baked national parks.” Most agronomists would also say that agriculture is not aesthetics either, is not wild animals and plants per se, but the cultivation of land for the purpose of producing domesticated crops. Leopold’s notion of agriculture, however, was just as unorthodox as his notion of forestry. “The term ‘farmer,’” he commented, “means one who determines the plants and animals with which he lives.” Further, Leopold declared, “…bread and beauty grow best together. Their harmonious integration can make farming not only a business but an art; the land not only a food factory but an instrument of self-expression, on which each can play music of his own choosing.” Providing farmers with extension services as professor of game management in a college of agriculture at a land grant university in the upper Midwest was a large part of the task to which Leopold devoted himself for the rest of his life. This was the task that inspired and informed, “A Sand County Almanac,” his masterpiece. This was the task that led him to formulate a land ethic. It also stimulated him to think up a new philosophy of conservation.

Around the last turn of the century Gifford Pinchot had articulated a philosophy of conservation and molded the USDA Forest Service in its image. As a student at the Yale Forest School, founded with Pinchot family funds, and a young ranger in the Forest Service, the first chief of which was Gifford Pinchot himself, Leopold was thoroughly steeped in Pinchot’s utilitarian philosophy of resource conservation. Its motto is “wise use” (now, unfortunately, a phrase appropriated and perverted by the self-styled Wise Use Movement). Its maxim is “the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.” According to Pinchot, “there has been a fundamental misconception that conservation means nothing but the husbanding of resources for future generation. There could be no more serious mistake. The first great fact about conservation is that it stands for development.” What distinguishes conservation from resource rapine, in Pinchot’s view, is efficiency and equity. Informed by science, foresters and other resources stewards could ensure that renewable natural resources in their care were not exploited wastefully or over exploited and rendered incapable of regeneration. As federal officers with police powers, they also could ensure that the nation’s publicly owned natural bounty was not commandeered by “robber barons.”

Pinchot doubtless meant to head off any tendency to conflate resource conservation with nature preservation, then the only alternative philosophy of conservation. Nature preservation was championed vigorously by Pinchot’s older contemporary, John Muir. Preservationists thought—and the bolder among them, such as Muir, actually said—that Nature (with a capital “N”) is sacred. To conserve it was to protect it from human despoliation. While resource conservation implied “wise use” or efficient and equitable exploitation of natural resources, nature preservation implied setting aside—Pinchot called it “locking up”—especially inspiring natural areas and prohibiting all extractive or consumptive uses of them. Just as the national forests are the legacy of the resource conservation paradigm, the national parks and monuments are a legacy of the nature preservation paradigm of conservation. One might enter them as one enters a magnificent cathedral, not to set up house or shop, but to see, pay homage and leave.

Leopold’s well-known advocacy of a system of wilderness areas in the national forests tends to make us view him—just as he was viewed by his former boss, John D. Gutherie—as a conservationist who began his career in the Pinchot camp and gradually came over to the Muir camp. But that would not tell the whole story. In the Southwest, the internecine conservation battle lines were drawn between efficient and equitable resource exploitation and wilderness preservation. But the Midwest lacked extensive back country, let alone national park grandeur. Except for the Quetico-Superior Boundary Waters, little wilderness was left to preserve. Conventional agronomy was devoted to making the exploitation of the land as efficient as possible, but the consequences disturbed Leopold’s conservationist sensibilities. Something was missing. Big wilderness to offset resource exploitation was out of the question. Short of wilderness, a professional conservationist would hope perhaps to integrate a degree of wildness into the working landscape of cultivated fields, pasture, woodlots and wetlands. But how to define this third conservation paradigm? Leopold struggled during his professor years to formulate it variously as: “a universal symbiosis with land, economic and aesthetic, public and private;” “a protest against destructive land use [that] seeks to preserve both the utility and beauty of the landscape;” “a positive exercise of abstinence and caution;” and “self-expression in [the] landscape, rather than blind compliance with economic dogma.” Finally, and most simply, Leopold settled on the definition of conservation that we find in “A Sand County Almanac”—“a state of harmony between men and the land.”

Central to this third, human-harmony-with-land paradigm of conservation, Leopold also articulated a new conservation concept that he called “land health.” Once again, he anticipated by half a century recent development in conservation philosophy. For only in this decade has the “new” concept of ecosystem health become broadly current. There is a new International Society for Ecosystem Health, a journal named Ecosystem Health and several international congresses on ecosystem health were convened in the 1990s. As now more fully developed, land or ecosystem health refers to the functionality of ecosystem processes. It is different from and complementary to another concept with which it is often conflated, biological integrity. A biotic community has integrity if all of its native species are present in their characteristic numbers interacting in their natural ways. An ecosystem is healthy if it produces biomass, recruits, retains, and cycles nutrients, holds the soil, modulates water flow, and maintains other ecosystem processes—whether these processes are carried out by native or exotic, or wild or domestic species.

Leopold introduced the concept of land health for the first time, it seems, in an essay titled, “The Farmer as Conservationist”—“The field and pastures of this [his imagined ideal] farm, like its sons and daughters, are a mixture of wild and tame attributes, all built on a foundation of good health. The health of the fields is their fertility.” Note especially that the presence of the tame does not compromise land or ecosystem health, provided that it is appropriately mixed with the wild.

Leopold more fully developed the concept of land health in a 1941 essay titled, “Wilderness as a Land Laboratory.” There, the primary argument for wilderness preservation is not recreation, not sublime, awe-inspiring scenery, nor even habitat for threatened species, although all of these rationales for wilderness set-asides, especially the last one, remained important to him. By 1941, Leopold had become so focused on private-lands conservation in the middle, rural, humanly inhabited and economically exploited landscape that, to him then, the most important reason for wilderness preservation was to provide “a base-datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism.”

The basic idea here is that untrammeled areas provide the benchmark of healthy ecosystems—normal rates of primary production, normal ratios of nutrient gains and losses, normal disturbance regimes, normal population cycles of component species, and so on and so forth. With these control areas, we can compare similar areas that we exploit in various ways—on which we practice forestry, agriculture and other land uses, large and small—and to which we introduce, intentionally or inadvertently, non-native species. From this perspective, the areas targeted for wilderness designation should not be confined to scenic hinterlands, but also should include unspoiled examples of every type of ecosystem—grasslands as well as montane meadows and wetlands as well as painted deserts.

When Leopold began campaigning for wilderness set-asides in the 1920s, he argued that every state should have a designated wilderness area for the convenience of its citizens who wanted a primitive and unconfined recreation experience. By the 1940s, he was arguing that every ecosystem should contain a designated wilderness area as a base datum of normality for that biome. As he put it in his own inimitable prose, “One cannot study the physiology of Montana in the Amazon; each biotic province needs its own wilderness for comparative studies of use and unused land.”

“Wilderness as a Land Laboratory” most fully characterizes not land health but land sickness. “When soil loses fertility or washes away faster than it forms, when water systems exhibit abnormal floods and shortages, the land is sick.” In addition to these symptoms of land sickness, Leopold adds “the disappearance of plant and animal species without visible causes, despite efforts to protect them, and the irruption of others as pests, despite efforts to control them.” In “Conservation: In Whole or in Part?” written in 1944 but unpublished until recently, Leopold more positively and generally characterized land health as follows, “”The land consists of soil, water, plants, and animals, but health is more than a sufficiency of these components. It is a state of vigorous self-renewal in each of them, and in all collectively.” He also added qualitative as well as quantitative “deteriorations in land crops,” and the outbreak of exotic diseases, parasites and pests to the catalog of land-sickness symptoms. Further, in this essay, Leopold hypothesizes a casual relationship between the diversity and complexity of the biotic sectors of ecosystems and their healthy functioning.

Leopold’s most sustained treatment of this topic is found in two essays written in themed-1940s and published for the first time in 1999—“Biotic Land-Use” and “The Land-health Concept and Conservation.” In the latter, he defines land health as “the capacity for self-renewal in the biota,’ and adds, “a general tendency towards the shortening of species lists and of foods chains, and a worldwide dominance of plants and animal weeds” to the catalog of land-sickness symptoms. Perhaps most important, Leopold manages to united the two goals of conservation toward which he seemed alternatively inclined: (1) biological integrity, the preservation of the full complement of the native components of biotic communities in their characteristic numbers; and (2) ecosystem health, the preservation of the normal functioning of ecological processes. “It is necessary to suppose,” he wrote, “that a high degree of interdependence exists between the capacity for self-renewal [or land health] and the integrity of the native communities.” But how is the preservation of biological integrity possible anywhere except in wilderness areas where man is a visitor who does not remain, where the community of life is untrammeled by man and his works? Leopold acknowledged “that we must alter the distribution of species before we understand the consequences of doing so.” His suggested solution in “The Land-health Concept and Conservation” was four-fold.

First, though reductions in numbers are inevitable, extirpate no native species. Reductions are reversible; extinction is forever.

Second, eschew violence in the form of large-scale earth moving, such as dams and drainage ditches, and in the form of synthetic chemicals. Here, as in the ‘The Land Pyramid’ section of “The Land Ethic” from “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold recommended a kinder, gentler approach to land use and modification. That implied a preference for biotic as opposed to mechanical techniques—preventing streambank erosion, for example by using revegetation rather than concrete revetments, or controlling pests by fostering their natural enemies rather than using pesticides.

Third, inculcate a sense of responsibility in landowners for the integrity of the biota on which the health of the land depends.

Finally, try to limit the population of human members of the biotic community no less than that of other members.

The following quotation from this as-yet little-known gem from the master’s hand summarizes its general tenor:

“No land unnecessarily mutilated is useful (if indeed it is still there). The true problem of agriculture and all other land use, is to achieve both utility and beauty, and thus permanence. A farmer [or any other landowner] has the same obligation to help, within reason, to preserve the biotic integrity of his community as he has, with reason, to preserve the culture which rests on it. As a member of the community he is the ultimate beneficiary of both.”

Beginning with a memorandum to regional foresters and station directors from Dale F. Robertson, then chief, the USDA Forest Service has been reorienting its management philosophy from the Pinchot paradigm of maximum sustained yield to something called ecosystem management. Supplanting Giffort Pinchot, Chief Robertson named only one person as a philosophical guide for the new Forest Service land management policy, Aldo Leopold. This course change in management policy, from Pinchot’s philosophy of conservation to Leopold’s, has been held steady by Robertson’s two successors, Jack Ward Thomas and Mike Dombeck. Increasingly, the concept of ecosystem management has been linked closely with that of ecosystem health, especially by Chief Dombeck. The Service, as the most venerable federal lands management agency, historically has been a trendsetter for others. Thus, the emphasis on ecosystem management and ecosystem health in federal forest biome management policy suggest to me that a sea of change is occurring in federal public lands management generally. Clearly, the philosophy of conservation that Aldo Leopold developed half a century ago, primarily in the context of private lands management, now strongly influences public lands management.

In “Biotic Land-Use,” Leopold most clearly anticipated the current paradigm shift underway in public lands management. There he notes that, “Until the technologies”—which he specifies as “agronomy, forestry, and wildlife management”—“accept as their common purpose the health of the land as a whole, coordination [among them] is mere window dressing, and each will continue in part to cancel the other.” Ecosystem management for land health does not preclude commodity extraction; rather, it makes commodity extraction an ancillary or subordinate goal, to the extent that such is consistent with land health. As Leopold put it, “The acceptance of this common purpose”—ecosystem management for land health—“does not call for the surrender of their separate purposes (soil, timber, game, etc.) except as these conflict with the common one.”

Since Leopold’s day, ecology has undergone some developments that beat on our contemporary decoupling of ecosystem health and community integrity that (though defined differently, the former in functional terms, the latter in compositional terms) were linked strongly in Leopold’s mind.

The first significant development would be a schism in ecology, dividing the science into two distinct approaches, evolutionary ecology and ecosystem ecology. The evolutionary ecologist sees the living world as composed of organisms, aggregated into gene-exchanging species populations which interact with one another in biotic communities. The ecosystem ecologist sees the world as a “fountain of energy” which is captured through photosynthesis by primary producers and passed up the food chain first to grazers and browsers, then to omnivores, then to middle-size predators and scavengers, and finally to large-bodied, long-lived top carnivores. Decomposers, i.e., fungi and bacteria, reduce the material components of organisms to their elemental forms, making them available once again to primary producers. In short, the evolutionary ecologist sees the living world as composed primarily of entities; the ecosystem ecologist sees the world as composed primarily of processes. The basic entities for the one are organisms of various kinds; for the other, the basic processes are energy flows and nutrient cycles.

Both evolutionary ecology and ecosystem ecology once posited a balance of nature, each in its own terms. For evolutionary ecologists, biotic communities were maintained in a state of equilibrium, mainly by predator/prey relationships. predators held prey in check which prevented their overeating the vegetation. For ecosystem ecologists, the balance of nature was expressed in terms of a unit ratio of production to respiration, and of a unit ratio or better of nutrient recruitment from the parent material to nutrient loss through erosion. Also, gas exchanges between the biota, oceans and atmosphere were represented as in dynamic equilibrium.

Leopold’s careful distinction between community integrity and land health indicates that he was incipiently aware of the distinction that later would emerge more clearly between ecosystem and evolutionary ecology. Once again, a biotic community has integrity if all its component species populations, i.e., its native species, are present in their characteristic numbers and interacting in their characteristic ways, and if they continue indefinitely to do so, within certain parameters of gains and losses or normal population cycles. A community lack integrity if it is dominated by exotic species populations, or has lost an appreciable number of its native species populations, or the natives have appreciably increased or decreased in number. Leopold defined land health primarily in terms of ecosystem processes—normal rates of erosion and normal hydrology, fertility (another word for primary production), length of food chains, complexity of food webs, absence of disease epidemics, and so on.

As I pointed out, in “The Land-health Concept and Conservation,” Leopold suggested that community integrity is a necessary condition for land health. In light of the sharp distinction between ecosystems and biotic communities and, especially in light of the abandonment of belief in a balance of nature in ecology, it would be more accurate to say that community integrity is a sufficient but not necessary biotic community has integrity we can be sure that an ecosystem is healthy. But an ecosystem may be healthy even when its associated biotic community lacks integrity.

In “Biotic Land-Use,” Leopold offered a less rigorous necessary condition for land health that is more consistent with contemporary thinking. There, he first equated land health with land stability:

“Soil, the repository of food between its successive trips through the chains, tends to wash downhill, but this downhill movement is slow, and in healthy land, is offset by the decomposition of rocks. Some animals likewise accomplish an uphill movement of food.

“Stability is the continuity of this organized circulatory system. Land is stable when its food chains are so organized as to be able to circulate the same food [i.e., what a contemporary ecologist would call nutrients] an indefinite number of times.”

Next, Leopold postulated the classic connection—since impugned, in ecology, but now being revived—between stability and diversity. He wrote, “What in the evolutionary history of this flowering earth, is most closely associated with stability? The answer to my mind is clear: diversity of fauna and flora.” But a diverse fauna and flora are not necessarily native fauna and flora:

“We have now modified both the species-composition of the food chain and the characteristic number of the constituent species. Chains now begin with corn and alfalfa instead of oaks and bluestem. The food instead of flowing into elk, deer, and Indians, flows into cows, hogs, and poultry; farmers, flappers, and freshmen. The remaining wildlife eats tame as well as wild plants.”

Between the mid- and endpoints of the 20th century, the flux of nature paradigm, as some ecologists call it, has replaced the balance of nature paradigm in ecology. Species are not so tightly integrated in biotic communities as they were portrayed to be in Leopold’s day. They come and go, and mix and match, as the pollen record proves. Indeed, a biotic community is more like an aggregate of populations of species adapted to similar gradients of temperature, moisture, pH and the like, interacting catch as catch can, than a unit composed of coevolved symbionts. Moreover, biotic communities are disturbed by forces such as winid, fire and flood—not infrequently and abnormally, but routinely and regularly. For these reasons and others, it is possible, cautiously, to substitute economically more desirable for less desirable species in biotic communities, provided they are adapted to similar gradients and fill similar niches, without compromising ecosystem health. Ecosystem health, the normal functioning of ecosystem processes, can be, therefore, maintained in the absence of biological integrity.

Amazingly, in “Biotic Land-Use,” Leopold anticipated even this recent turn in contemporary ecology. He wrote:

“At this point I digress to refute the notion, unhappily cultivated by ecologists, that the land mechanism has a kind of Dresden china delicacy, and falls to pieces at a loud noise. The whole history of civilization shows land to be tough. Lands differ in toughness, but even the most sensitive took several generations of violence to spoil.”

Finally, in “Biotic Land-Use,” Leopold crafted yet another definition of conservation, “The term land includes soils, water systems, and wild and tame plants and animals. Conservation is the attempt to understand the interactions of these components of land and to guide their collective behavior under human dominance.”

How can we update and apply Leopold’s integrated philosophy of conservation, which was forged in the crucible of mid-20th century Midwestern America, to 21st century public lands management?

Leopold’s vision of a healthy, rural Midwest landscape, stripped of his rapturous poetic expression, comes to something like this. The landscape scale is the quarter-section (160 acres) Midwestern farmstead. Leopold never put a figure on it, but let’s say that, judging from his description, 25 percent (40 acres) would be devoted to habitat for native species; the rest would be domestic crops. That uncultivated 25 percent would not be one square 40-acre polygon, but a 20-acre cow- and pig-proof woodlot, a 10-acre undrained wetland, a cow- and pig-proof stream gallery adding up to 5 acres, and an odd 5 acres of fencerows, draws, roadside prairie and the like. In addition, the conservation-minded farmer would cultivate his croplands and graze his pastures using conservation methods—no-till (or at least no autumn plowing), manure fertilizers, paddock grazing and so on. So even at this middle scale, the acres devoted to community integrity and those to land health are not the same. At the farmstead scale of resolution, they are integrated, at the acre-by-acre scale of resolution, they are not.

Let’s scale up to the much larger national mosaic of public and private lands. What would Leopold’s human-harmony-with-nature philosophy of conservation look like at this scale? Let’s start with 25 percent of the total dedicated to the preservation of biological integrity—that, again, would be native species populations, in their characteristic numbers, interacting in their characteristic ways. Such lands we would preserve for their own sake, that is, for the sake of their integrity, as habitat for native species populations. They also would serve a less exalted, more pragmatic purpose, as benchmarks of normal ecosystem function—norms of ecosystem health—for the 75 percent of land we deliberately modify for economic reasons such as timber extraction, livestock grazing and crop production. These “bio-integrity reserves,” therefore, would have to be scattered across the continent to fully represent every biotic province, and also be connected.

Under the aegis of the old Muir-Pinchot one-two conservation combination, if we managed to devote 25 percent of the country to what would amount to wilderness set-asides, the only criterion for the working 75 percent would be maximum sustained yield. Under the aegis of the scaled-up Leopold human-harmony-with-nature paradigm, that criterion would be replaced by the criterion of ecosystem health. How can we harvest trees and replant forests, not necessarily only with native species, but in such a way that we do not increase soil erosion, adversely affect stream flow and water quality, diminish fertility, short food chains, eliminate niches for large-bodied long-lived top carnivores, encourage disease epidemics, or threaten neighboring bio-integrity reserves (i.e., wilderness areas) with being overrun by exotic species? How can be graze livestock without increasing soil erosion, reducing soil fertility, adversely affecting stream flow and water quality, all the while tolerating large-bodied, long-lived, wide-ranging predators? How can we grow crops with increasing soil erosion, reducing soil fertility, and adversely affecting stream flow and water quality? Based on his understanding of community integrity and land health developed over the last decade of his life and updated to account for changes in ecology over the subsequent 50 years, these are the challenges of ecosystem management that Leopold laid down for today’s public lands managers. I’ll end with a final quotation from the master himself:

“In this…list of unanswered problems and dilemmas there lies concealed, but I hope not undiscovered, a story of almost romantic expansion in professional responsibilities.

“Our profession began with the job of producing something to shoot. However important this may seem to us, it is not very important to the emancipated moderns who no longer feel soil between their toes.

“We find that we cannot produce much to shoot until the [typical American] changes his ways of using land, and he in turn cannot change his ways until his teachers, bankers, customers, editors, governors, and trespassers change their ideas about what land is for. To change ideas about what land is for is to change ideas about what anything is for.

“Thus we started to move a straw and end up with the job of moving a moving a mountain.


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Organizations and Awards

During his lifetime, Aldo Leopold took leadership roles and built formal relationships with numerous government agencies and conservation groups, such as the Soil Conservation Service (forerunner to the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the US Department of Agriculture), the Arboretum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Wilderness Society, the Ecological Society of America, the Society of American Foresters, and the National Audubon Society. Today, a number of agencies and organizations build on the Leopold legacy through historic connections and relationships with Leopold's children, former students, colleagues, and places where he lived and worked. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of agencies and nonprofits around the world draw inspiration through Leopold's life and work, his call for a land ethic, and A Sand County Almanac.

Aldo Leopold Memorial Award

Created by The Wildlife Society in 1950, the Aldo Leopold Memorial Award is made "for distinguished service to wildlife conservation," and is the highest honor bestowed by The Wildlife Society.

Aldo Leopold Legacy Trail System

In honor of Aldo Leopold, the Wisconsin Trail System is known as the Aldo Leopold Legacy Trail System. The Trail System includes 42 trails and totals more than 1,700 miles.

Aldo Leopold Wilderness

The Aldo Leopold Wilderness is a U.S. Congress-designated (1980) Wilderness Area located in the state of New Mexico. The Wilderness Area covers 202,016 acres, stretching across the crest of the Black Range. The Wilderness Area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Based at Iowa State University, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture explores and cultivates alternatives that secure healthier people and landscapes in Iowa and the nation.

Leopold Education Project

The Leopold Education Project is an interdisciplinary, critical thinking, conservation and environmental education curriculum based on the classic writings of the renowned conservationist. The Leopold Education Project teaches the public about humanity's ties to the natural environment in the effort to conserve and protect the earth's natural resources.

Leopold Heritage Group

The Leopold Heritage Group aims to promote Aldo Leopold's connection to his birthplace: Burlington, Iowa.

Aldo Leopold Leadership Program

Based at Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment, the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program is a training fellowship program for mid-career academic environmental scientists that helps scientists learn to communicate more effectively with non-scientific audiences.

Aldo Leopold Nature Center

The mission of the Aldo Leopold Nature Center is to "...teach the student to see the land, understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands." The center, located in in Monona, Wisconsin, offers hands-on, guided experiences of the outdoors.

Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute

The Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute is the only Federal research group entirely focused on wilderness. The Institute is dedicated to the development of scientific knowledge to preserve wilderness and the ecological value of the wilderness and to the dissemination this knowledge to wilderness management agencies and other user groups. Located on the University of Montana campus in Missoula, the Institute provides a venue for scientists from different disciplines to undertake wilderness research.

Sand County Foundation

The Sand County Foundation was originally created to enlist land owners in preserving open space and wildlife habitat neighboring the Leopold "shack" and farm, and to conduct land stewardship on the Leopold farm itself. Today, the Leopold Memorial Reserve encompasses 1,500 acres, and the foundation participates in the cooperative management of the reserve, which includes five separate landowners. Following Leopold's land ethic, the foundation works with private landowners to improve the quality of their land by using science, ethics, and incentives.

Leopold Conservation Award

The Leopold Conservation Award, presented by the Sand County Foundation, recognizes landowners who are actively committed to living Aldo Leopold's legacy. The Award honors extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation while also inspiring other landowners through example and educating the general public about the role of private landowners in conservation.



(2011). Aldo Leopold's Legacy. Retrieved from


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