Excerpts from Aldo Leopold's Writings


This article is part of the Aldo Leopold Collection.

Aldo Leopold was a prolific writer, authoring more than 500 reports, articles, essays on a wide variety of topics ranging from agriculture and private-land ownership to economics and ethics, all of which he related ultimately to his vision of how everything is connected through "the land community." As a writer, Leopold remains widely admired for his ability to convey complicated relationships and ideas using succinct and vivid language. Many of his thoughts, written 60 or more years ago, resonate with contemporary readers and are notable for their foresight. Following is a small sample of his writing from various points in his career as it appears in the 1999 book The Essential Aldo Leopold.


The following passages are from chapter 6 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.

I insist that many farmers, once shown how to modify their agriculture to provide food and cover for game, would do so voluntarily. If all farmers were actuated solely by the profit-motive, few would continue to be farmers.

Game Cropping in Southern Wisconsin (1927)



The farmer takes pride in his gadgets, that is, his radio, car, icebox, tractor, milker, etc. This is as it should be. He takes pride in his tame crops, and this is as it should be.

But how often do we find a farmer who takes pride in his wild crops, his woodlot, his stand of quail, his coon dens, the fish in his creek or pond? Until a majority of farmers are as proud of having a flock of prairie chickens as of owning a new car, we shall not have the chickens…

Farmers do not yet have this attitude, neither do we who are not farmers.

Whither Missouri? (1938)



The fertile productive farm is regarded as a success, even though it has lost most of its native plants and animals. Conservation protests such a biased accounting.

The Farmer as a Conservationist (1939); RMG 255



Can a farmer afford to devote land to woods, marsh, pond, windbreaks? These are semi-economic land uses -- that is, they have utility but they also yield non-economic benefits.

Can a farmer afford to devote land to fencerows for the birds, to snag-trees for the coons and flying squirrels? Here the utility shrinks to what the chemist calls a "trace."

Can a farmer afford to devote land to fencerows for a patch of ladyslippers, a remnant of prairie, or just scenery? Here the utility shrinks to zero.

Yet conservation is any or all of these things.

The Farmer as a Conservationist (1939); RMG 258



Behind [contemporary] trends in the physical status of the landscape lies an unresolved contest between two opposing philosophies of farm life. I suppose these have to be labeled for handy reference, although I distrust labels:

1. The farm is a food-factory, and the criterion of its success is salable products.

2. The farm is a place to live. The criterion of success is a harmonious balance between plants, animals, and people; between the domestic and the wild; between utility and beauty.

Wildlife has no place in the food-factory farm, except as the accidental relic of pioneer days. The trend of the landscape is toward a monotype, in which only the least exacting wildlife species can exist.

On the other hand, wildlife is an integral part of the farm-as-a-place-to-live. While it must be subordinated to economic needs, there is a deliberate effort to keep as rich a flora and fauna as possible, because it is "nice to have around."

The Outlook for Farm Wildlife (1945); RMG 326

Biodiversity and Conservation Biology

The following passages are from chapter 9 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


The objective of a conservation program for non-game wild life should be exactly parallel [to that of game management]: to retain for the average citizen the opportunity to see, admire, and enjoy, and the challenge to understand, the varied forms of birds and mammals indigenous to his state. It implies not only that these forms be kept in existence, but that the greatest possible variety of them exist in each community.

Game Management (1933), 403



Songbird and wildflower [management] techniques do not yet have names. No bureau, school, chair, or fellowship is dedicated to their study; no technician avows their care as his profession. Is it any less important to find out the specifications of a favorable environment for the prairie flowers than for the prairie game birds which ride with them on the toboggan?

The Research Program (1937)



The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.

Conservation (c. 1938); RR 146-47



Each species, including ourselves, is a link in many chains. The deer eats a hundred plants other than oak, and the cow a hundred plants other than corn. Both, then, are links in a hundred chains. The pyramid is a tangle of chains so complex as to seem disorderly, yet the stability of the system proves it to be a highly organized structure. Its function depends on the co-operation and competition of its diverse parts.

In the beginning, the pyramid of life was low and squat; the food chains short and simple. Evolution has added layer after layer, link after link. Man is one of thousands of accretions to the height and complexity of the pyramid. Science has given us many doubts, but it has given us at least one certainty: the trend of evolution is to elaborate and diversify the biota.

A Biotic View of Land (1939); ASCA 215-16; cf. RMG 268



A good wildlife program reduces itself, in essence, to the deliberate perpetuation of a diverse landscape, and to its integration with economic and cultural land-use.

Improving the Wildlife Program of the Soil Conservation Service ms. (1940)



The impending industrialization of the world, now foreseen by everyone, means that many conservation problems heretofore local will shortly become global.

No one has yet asked whether the industrial communities which we intend to plant in the new and naked lands are more valuable, or less valuable, than the indigenous fauna and flora which they, to a large extent, displace and disrupt. Such a question requires a degree of objectivity not yet achieved, either by mice or by men.

We have, though, gone half way. The conservation movement is asking whether the impact of industry on the biota cannot be made more gentle, more intelligent, less wasteful.

One defect in conservation is that it is so far an ex post facto effort. When we have nearly finished disrupting a fauna and flora, we develop a nostalgic regret about it, and a wish to save the remnants. Why not do the regretting and saving in advance?

Post-war Prospects (1944)



I myself have cooperated in the extermination of the wolf from the greater part of two states, because I then believed it was a benefit. I do not propose to repeat my error.

Deer, Wolves, Foxes, and Pheasants (1945)

Ecological Restoration

The following passages are from chapter 8 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


Too much emphasis is placed on replanting game, and not enough on creating environments where constant replanting is unnecessary. We have still to learn the fundamental fact that in a favorable environment any wild species raises itself.

Report of the Committee on America Wild Life Policy (1929)



If civilization consists of cooperation with plants, animals, soil, and men, then a university which attempts to define that cooperation must have, for the use of its faculty and students, places that show what the land was, what it is, and what it ought to be… It is with this dim vision of its future destiny that we have dedicated the greater part of the [University of Wisconsin] Arboretum to a reconstruction of original Wisconsin, rather than to a "collection" of imported trees.

The Arboretum and the University (1934); RMG 210



… The sense of husbandry… 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.

Conservation Esthetic (1938); ASCA 175



Conservation... is keeping the resource in working order, as well as preventing over-use. Resources may get out of order before they are exhausted, sometimes while they are still abundant. Conservation, therefore, is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence or caution.

The Farmer as a Conservationist (1939); RMG 257



Many conservation treatments are obviously superficial. Flood-control dams have no relation to the cause of floods. Check dams and terraces do not touch the cause of erosion. Refuges and hatcheries to maintain the supply of game and fish do not explain why the supply fails to maintain itself.

In general, the trend of the evidence indicates that in land, just as in the human body, the symptoms may lie in one organ and the cause in another. The practices we now call conservation are, to a large extent, local alleviations of biotic pain. They are necessary, but they must not be confused with cures. The art of land doctoring is being practiced with vigor, but the science of land health is yet to be born.

Wilderness as a Land Laboratory (1941); ASCA 195-96; cf. RMG 288



There is, as yet, no sense of pride in the husbandry of wild plants and animals, no sense of shame in the proprietorship of a sick landscape. We tilt windmills in behalf of conservation in convention halls and editorial offices, but on the back forty we disclaim even owning a lance.

Cheat Takes Over (1941); ASCA 158



On this sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society, we try to rebuild, with shovel and axe, what we are losing elsewhere. It is here that we seek -- and still find -- our meat from God.

Foreword to A Sand County Almanac (1949); ASCA viii


The following passages are from chapter 13 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


The conservation movement is, at the very least, an assertion that [ecological] interactions between man and land are too important to be left to chance, even that sacred variety of chance known as economic law.

The Conservation Ethic (1933); RMG 185



The wholesale public expenditures for 1933 indicate that from now on, whenever a private landowner so uses his land as to injure the public interest, the public will eventually pay the bill, either by buying him out, or by donating the repairs, or both. Hence the prevention of damage to the soil, or to the living things upon it, has become a first principle of public finance. Abuse is no longer merely a question of depleting a capital asset, but of actually creating a cash liability against the taxpayer.

Conservation Economics (1934); RMG 200



The thing to be prevented is destructive private land-use of any and all kinds. The thing to be encouraged is the use of private land in such a way as to combine the public and the private interest to the greatest possible degree. If we are going to spend large sums of public money anyhow, why not use it to subsidize desirable combinations in land use, instead of to cure, by purchase, prohibition, or repair, the headache arising from bad ones?

I realize fully that such a question qualifies me for the asylum for political and economic dreamers. Yet I submit that the proposal is actually less radical politically, and possibly cheaper in economic cost, than the stampede for public ownership in which our most respectable conservatives have now joined.

Conservation Economics (1934); RMG 200



Is it sound economics to regard any plant as a separate entity, to proscribe or encourage it on the grounds of its individual performance? What will be the effect on animal life, on the soil, and on the health of the forest as an organism? Is there not an aesthetic as well as an economic issue? Is there, at bottom, any real distinction between aesthetics and economics?

Conservation (c. 1938); RR 152



What we call economic laws are merely the impact of our changing wants on the land which supplies them. When that impact becomes destructive of our own tenure in the land, as is so conspicuously the case today, then the thing to examine is the validity of the wants themselves.

The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education (1942); RMG 303



…There is value in any experience that reminds us of our dependency on the soil-plant-animal-man food chain, and of the fundamental organization of the biota. Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.

Wildlife in American Culture (1943); ASCA 178



Sometimes in June, when I see unearned dividends of dew hung on every lupine, I have doubts about the real poverty of the sands. On solvent farmlands lupines do not even grow, much less collect a daily rainbow of jewels. If they did, the weed-control officer, who seldom sees a dewy dawn, would doubtless insist that they be cut. Do economists know about lupines?

The Sand Counties (1949); ASCA 102



To sum up: a system of conservation based solely on economic self-interest is hopelessly lopsided. It tends to ignore, and thus eventually to eliminate, many elements in the land community that lack commercial value, but that are (as far as we know) essential to its healthy functioning. It assumes, falsely, I think, that the economic parts of the biotic clock will function without the uneconomic parts. It tends to relegate to government many functions eventually too large, too complex, or too widely dispersed to be performed by government.

The Land Ethic (1949); ASCA 214


The following passages are from chapter 17 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive. It is only in mechanical enterprises that we can expect that early or complete fruition of effort which we call "success."

The problem, then, is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land, among whom education and culture have become almost synonymous with landlessness. This is the problem of "conservation education."

When we say “striving,” we admit at the outset that the thing we need must grow from within. No striving for an idea was ever injected wholly from without.

Conservation (c. 1938); RR 155-56



Liberal education in wildlife is not merely a dilute dosage of technical education. It calls for somewhat different teaching materials and sometimes even different teachers. The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, and enjoy what he understands. I say land rather than wildlife, because wildlife cannot be understood without understanding the landscape as a whole. Such teaching could well be called land ecology rather than wildlife, and could serve very broad educational purposes.

Perhaps the most important of these purposes is to teach the student how to put the sciences together in order to use them. All the sciences and arts are taught as if they were separate. They are separate only in the classroom. Step out on the campus and they are immediately fused. Land ecology is putting the sciences and arts together for the purpose of understanding our environment…

With such a synthesis as a starting point, the tenets of conservation formulate themselves almost before the teacher can suggest them.

The Role of Wildlife in a Liberal Education (1942); RMG 302-3



I am trying to teach you that this alphabet of "natural objects" (soils and rivers, birds and beasts) spells out a story, which he who runs may read -- if he knows how. Once you learn to read the land, I have no fear of what you will do to it, or with it. And I know many pleasant things it will do to you.

Wherefore Wildlife Ecology? (1947); RMG 337



The ecological conscience... is an affair of the mind as well as the heart. It implies a capacity to study and learn, as well as to emote about the problems of conservation.

The Ecological Conscience (1947); RMG 343

Environmental Policy

The following passages are from chapter 14 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


We will accomplish conservation when we, as a nation, scorn waste, pollution, and unproductiveness as something damaging, not only to the individual reputation of the waster, but to the self-respect of the craft and the society of which he is a member.

Wild Followers of the Forest (1923)



Foresters complain of periodic damage from too many rabbits. Why, then, continue the public policy of wolf-extermination? We debate such questions in terms of economics and biology. The mammalogists assert the wolf is a natural check on too many deer. The sportsmen reply they will take care of excess deer. Another decade of argument and there will be no wolves to argue about. One conservation inkpot cancels another until the resource is gone.

Conservation (c. 1938); RR 149-50



If cash profit be the only valid motive for decent land-use, then conservation is headed for catastrophic failure. Good land-use is a balance between utility and esthetics. It yields a highly variable mixture of individual and community profits, of cash and unponderable profits, and all accrue from investments which vary from borrowed cash on the one hand to mere loving care on the other. He is a brave man who can say in each case whether it pays, or it doesn't pay.

This being the case, conservation education should rest its argument on decency and social behavior, rather than on profits alone. There should be no ambiguity on this point.

The distinction between private cash and community benefit is being used to promote subsidy, or even compulsion, on the ground that the government is the community, and is thus asserting its own interest. There is a degree of validity in this, but when we assert that the private landowner has an obligation to the community, the necessity for such governmental intervention decreases to a considerable degree.

Conservation and Politics ms. (c.1941)



To analyze the problem of [conservation] action, the first thing to grasp is that government, no matter how good, can only do certain things. Government can't raise crops, maintain small scattered structures, administer small scattered areas, or bring to bear on small local matters that combination of solicitude, foresight, and skill which we call husbandry. Husbandry watches no clock, knows no season of cessation, and for the most part is paid for in love, not dollars. Husbandry of somebody else's land is a contradiction in terms. Husbandry is the heart of conservation.

Land-Use and Democracy (1942); RMG 298



This brings us to the real and indispensable functions of government in conservation. Government is the tester of fact vs. fiction, the umpire of bogus vs. genuine, the sponsor of research, the guardian of technical standards, and, I hasten to add, the proper custodian of land which, for one reason or another, is not suited to private husbandry. These functions will become real and important as soon as conservation begins to grow from the bottom up, instead of from the top down, as is now the case.

Land-Use and Democracy (1942); RMG 300



If we grant the premise that an ecological conscience is possible and needed, then its first tenet must be this: economic provocation is no longer a satisfactory excuse for unsocial land-use, (or, to use somewhat stronger words, for ecological atrocities). This, however, is a negative statement. I would rather assert positively that decent land-use should be accorded social rewards proportionate to its social importance.

The Ecological Conscience (1947); RMG 345

Forest Ecology and Management

The following passages are from chapter 1 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


When the pioneer hewed a path for progress through the American wilderness, there was bred into the American people the idea that civilization and forests were two mutually exclusive propositions. Development and forest destruction went hand in hand; we therefore adopted the fallacy that they were synonymous. A stump was our symbol of progress.

We have since learned, with some pains, that extensive forests are not only compatible with civilization, but absolutely essential to its highest development.

The Popular Wilderness Fallacy: An Idea That Is Fast Exploding (1918); RMG 49



The long and short of the matter is that forest conservation depends in part on intelligent consumption, as well as intelligent production of lumber.

The Home Builder Conserves (1928); RMG 145



Sometime in 1943 or 1944 an axe will bite into the snow sapwood of a giant maple. On the other side of the same tree a crosscut saw will talk softly, spewing sweet sawdust into the snow with each repetitious syllable. Then the giant will lean, groan, and crash to earth: the last merchantable tree of the last merchantable forty of the last virgin hardwood forest of any size in the Lake States.

With this tree will fall the end of an epoch.

There will be an end of cheap, abundant, high-quality sugar maple and yellow birch for floors and furniture. We shall make shift with inferior stuff, or with synthetic substitutes.

There will be an end of cathedral aisles to echo the hermit thrush, or to awe the intruder. There will be an end of hardwood wilderness large enough for a few days' skiing or hiking without crossing a road. The forest primeval, in this region, will henceforward be a figure of speech.

There will be an end of the pious hope that America has learned from her mistakes in private forest exploitation. Each error, it appears, must continue to its bitter end; conservation must wait until there is little or nothing to conserve.

Finally, there will be an end of the best schoolroom for foresters to learn what remains to be learned about hardwood forestry: the mature hardwood forest. We know little, and we understand only part of what we know.

The Last Stand (1942); RMG 290-92



I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, 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 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.

Axe-in-Hand (1949); ASCA 68-69



In my own field, forestry, group A is quite content to grow trees like cabbages, with cellulose as the basic forest commodity. It feels no inhibition against violence; its ideology is agronomic. Group B, on the other hand, sees forestry as fundamentally different from agronomy because it employs natural species, and manages a natural environment rather than creating an artificial one. Group B prefers natural reproduction on principle. It worries on biotic as well as economic grounds about the loss of species like chestnut, and the threatened loss of the white pines. It worries about a whole series of secondary forest functions: wildlife, recreation, watersheds, wilderness areas. To my mind, Group B feels the stirrings of an ecological conscience.

The Land Ethic (1949); ASCA 221

Land Ethics

The following passages are from chapter 20 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


Some scientists will dismiss this matter [of conservation ethics] forthwith, on the ground that ecology has no relation to right and wrong. To such I reply that science, if not philosophy, should by now have made us cautious about dismissals. An ethic may be regarded as a mode of guidance for meeting ecological situations so new or intricate, or involving such deferred reactions, that the path of social expediency is not discernible to the average individual. Animal instincts are just this. Ethics are possibly a kind of advanced social instinct in-the-making.

Whatever the merits of this analogy, no ecologist can deny that our land-relation involves penalties and rewards which the individual does not see, and needs modes of guidance which do not yet exist. Call these what you will, science cannot escape its part in forming them.

The Conservation Ethic (1933); RMG 182



There must be born in the public mind a certain fundamental respect for living things, and for the epic grandeur of the processes which created them. Society must see itself not as the terrestrial end-result of a completed evolution, but as the custodian of an incomplete one. In its ultimate analysis, the conservation movement may prove to be a denial of anthropocentric philosophies.

The real threat to the future of "Outdoor America" lies not in the agencies which destroy it, but in the multiplication of people who think they can live without it.

The Social Consequences of Conservation ms (c. 1933)



Conservation, viewed in its entirety, is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and land.

Wisconsin Wildlife Chronology (1940)



There must be some force behind conservation, more universal than profit, less awkward than government, less ephemeral than sport, something that reaches into all times and places where men live on land, something that brackets everything from rivers to raindrops, from whales to hummingbirds, from land-estates to window boxes.

I can see only one such force: a respect for land as an organism; a voluntary decency in land-use exercised by every citizen and every land-owner out of a sense of love for and obligation to that great biota we call America.

This is the meaning of conservation, and this is the task of conservation education.

The Meaning of Conservation ms. (c. 1946)



I need a short name for what is lacking; I call it the ecological conscience. Ecology is the science of communities, and the ecological conscience is therefore the ethics of community life.

The Ecological Conscience (1947); RMG 340



All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

The Land Ethic (1949); ASCA 203-4



Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.

No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.

The Land Ethic (1949); ASCA 209-10; cf. The Ecological Conscience (1947); RMG 341, 338

Private Land & Public Land

The following passages are from chapters 10 and 11 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


The crux of the problem is that every landowner is the custodian of two interests, not always identical, the public interest and his own. What we need is a positive inducement or reward for the landowner who respects both interests in his actual land-practice. All conservation problems -- erosion, forestry, game, wild flowers, landscapes, or what not -- ultimately boil down to this. What should this reward or inducement be? What is a practical vehicle for it? These are the two basic questions in American conservation. An answer seems to require the collaboration of economists, jurists, regional planners, ecologists and esthetes.

Some Thoughts on Recreational Planning (1934)



…The greater part of the present public conservation program is a public palliative for the doctrine that the private landowner has no community responsibilities over and above taxes and personal conduct. I now raise the question: Is land-abuse anything but a tax on the neighbors? Is there any form of personal conduct more vital to society than land-conduct?

The Farm Wildlife Program: A Self-Scrutiny ms. (c. 1937)



Conservation means harmony between men and land.

When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not.

The Farmer as a Conservationist (1939); RMG 255



The aspirations to better land-use, collectively called conservation, have had little effect on actual private land-practice. They have succeeded only when bolstered by public subsidies, or by public ownership and operation. The reasons for this partial failure are of the utmost national importance, for it is clear that public subsidies or ownership can cover only a fraction of what needs to be done, and this only awkwardly, expensively, and with frequent clashes of interest. Conservation can accomplish its objectives only when it springs from an impelling conviction on the part of private land owners.

Notes on Proposed Centennial Symposium on Ecological Conservation ms. (c. 1947)

I... maintain (1) that... extensions of our road systems into the wilderness are seldom yielding a return sufficient to amortize the public investment; (2) that even where they do yield such a return, their construction is not necessarily in the public interest, any more than obtaining an economic return from the last vacant lot in a parkless city would be in the public interest.

Wilderness as a Form of Land Use (1925); RMG 139-40



...I do not challenge the purchase of public lands for conservation. For the first time in history we are buying on a scale commensurate with the size of the problem. I do challenge the growing assumption that bigger buying is a substitute for private conservation practice. Bigger buying, I fear, is serving as an escape-mechanism -- it masks our failure to solve the harder problem. The geographic cards are stacked against its ultimate success. In the long run it is exactly as effective as buying half an umbrella.

Conservation Economics (1934); RMG 196-97

Soil and Water Conservation

The following passages are from chapter 5 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


All civilization is basically dependent upon natural resources. All natural resources, except only subterranean minerals, are soil or derivatives of soil. Farms, ranges, crops and livestock, forests, irrigation water, and even water power resolve themselves into questions of soil. Soil is therefore the basic natural resource.

It follows that the destruction of soil is the most fundamental kind of economic loss which the human race can suffer. With enough time and money, a neglected farm can be put back on its feet -- if the soil is still there. With enough patience and scientific knowledge, an overgrazed range can be restored -- if the soil is still there. By expensive replanting and with a generation or two of waiting, a ruined forest can again be made productive -- if the soil is still there. With infinitely expensive works, a ruined watershed may again fill our ditches or turn our mills -- if the soil is still there. But if the soil is gone, the loss is absolute and irrevocable.

Erosion and Prosperity ms. (1921)



Land... is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil. The circuit is not closed; some energy is dissipated in decay, some is added by absorption from the air, some is stored in soils, peats, and long-lived forests; but it is a sustained circuit, like a slowly augmented revolving fund of life.

A Biotic View of Land (1939); ASCA 216; cf. RMG 268-69



Recent discoveries in mineral and vitamin nutrition reveal unsuspected dependencies in the [energy] up-circuit; incredibly minute quantities of certain substances determine the value of soils to plants, of plants to animals. What of the down-circuit? What of the vanishing species, the preservation of which we now regard as an esthetic luxury? They helped build the soil; in what unsuspected ways may they be essential to its maintenance?

A Biotic View of Land (1939); ASCA 220, RMG 271



Mechanized man, having rebuilt the landscape, is now rebuilding the waters. The sober citizen who would never submit his watch or his motor to amateur tamperings freely submits his lakes to drainings, fillings, dredgings, pollutions, stabilizations, mosquito control, algae control, swimmer's itch control, and the planting of any fish able to swim. So also with rivers. We constrict them with levees and dams, and then flush them with dredgings, channelizations, and the floods and silt of bad farming..

Thus men too wise to tolerate hasty tinkerings with our political constitution accept without a qualm the most radical amendments to our biotic constitution.

Lakes in Relation to Terrestrial Life Patterns (1941)



Conservation is usually thought of as dealing with the supply of resources. This "famine concept" is inadequate, for a deficit in the supply of any given resource does not necessarily denote lack of health, while a failure of function always does, no matter how ample the supply. Thus erosion, a malfunction of soil and water, is more serious than "timber famine," because it deteriorates the entire land community permanently, rather than one resource temporarily.

Conservation: In Whole or in Part? (1944); RMG 311



A veritable epidemic of violence prevails at the present moment in the field of water management. Flood control dams, hydroelectric dams, channelization and dyking of rivers, watershed authorities, drainages, lake outlet controls, and impoundments are running riot, all in the name of development and conservation. I am not wise enough to know which of these conversions are ecologically sound, but the most superficial observer can see that:

(1) Most of them deal with symptoms, not with organic causes.

(2) Their promoters are innocent of (or oblivious to) the principle that violence is risky.

(3) Many of them involve irreversible changes in the organization of the biota.

(4) Collectively, their use of economic arguments is naive. In one case, economic advantage is held to supercede all opposing considerations; in the next, "intangible" benefit is held to supercede all economics.

(5) In all of them, control of nature by concrete and steel is held to be inherently superior to natural or biotic controls.

(6) In all of them, the economic products of violence are held to be more valuable than natural products.

The Land-Health Concept and Conservation ms. (1946)


The following passages are from chapter 7 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


If the wilderness is to be perpetuated at all, it must be in areas exclusively dedicated to that purpose…

Like parks and playgrounds and other "useless" things, any system of wilderness areas would have to be owned and held for public use by the Government. The fortunate thing is that the Government already owns enough of them, scattered here and there in the poorer and rougher parts of the National Forests and National Parks, to make a very good start. The one thing needful is for the Government to draw a line around each one and say: "This is wilderness, and wilderness it shall remain."…

Such a policy would not subtract even a fraction of one per cent from our economic wealth, but would preserve a fraction of what has, since first the flight of years began, been wealth to the human spirit.

The River of the Mother of God (1924); RMG 125



[In Arizona and New Mexico] our six big wilderness areas of a decade ago have been, for good and sufficient reasons, reduced to one. Are those reasons good and sufficient enough to "develop" that one also? I say no reason is good enough to justify opening up the Gila. I say that to open up the Gila wilderness is not development, but blindness. The very fact that it is the last wilderness is in itself proof that its highest use is to remain so.

What I am trying to make clear is that if in a city we had six vacant lots available to the youngsters of a certain neighborhood for playing ball, it might be "development" to build houses on the first, and the second, and the third, and the fourth, and even the fifth, but when we build houses on the last one, we forget what houses are for. The sixth house would not be development at all, but rather it would be mere short?sighted stupidity.

A Plea for Wilderness Hunting Grounds (1925); ALS 158-59



...It is often assumed that only mountain lands are suitable for wilderness areas. Why not swamps, lakelands, river routes, and deserts also? Surely our sons are entitled to see a few such samples of primeval America, and surely the few nickels which exploitation would put into their pockets are less important than the fundamental human experience which would be taken out of their lives.

Untitled address on wilderness conservation (1926)



Perhaps it is a truth, one day to be recognized, that no idea is significant except in the presence of its opposite.

This country has been swinging the hammer of development so long and so hard that it has forgotten the anvil of wilderness which gave value and significance to its labors. The momentum of our blows is so unprecedented that the remaining remnant of wilderness will be pounded into road-dust long before we find out is values.

Why the Wilderness Society? (1935)



To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.

Conservation Esthetic (1938); ASCA 176



Completely wild lands have one function which is important, but as yet ill-understood. Every region should retain samples of its original or wilderness condition, to serve science as a sample of normality. Just as doctors must study healthy people to understand disease, so must the land sciences study the wilderness to understand disorders of the land-mechanism.

Planning for Wildlife ms, (1941)

Wildlife Ecology and Management

The following passages are from chapter 4 of Meine, Curt and Knight, Richard L. The Essential Aldo Leopold © 1999 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

For a list of abbreviations used in the references, click here.


No wilderness seems vast enough to protect wild life, no countryside thickly populated enough to exclude it.

It seems safe to call a fallacy the idea that civilization excludes wild life. It is time for the American public to realize this. Progress is no longer an excuse for the destruction of our native animals and birds, but on the contrary implies not only an obligation, but an opportunity for their perpetuation.

The Popular Wilderness Fallacy: An Idea That Is Fast Exploding (1918); RMG 52



To try and raise game in a refuge infested with mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, and bobcats, would, of course, be even more futile than to try and run a profitable stock ranch under similar conditions.

Wanted -- National Forest Game Refuges (1920)



It is important... to start out with the conception that the status of any species of game is not a static condition nor a uniform trend, but rather the constantly changing result of the interplay of many forces, some of which are visible and others invisible, but all dynamic. Nothing is more fatal to straight thinking in conservation than to assume that we see everything that happens, or that causes are simple, separate, or constant.

Report on a Game Survey of the North Central States (1931), 24



The era of geographical exploration of the earth is about over, but the era of ecological exploration of our own dooryards has just begun. Wild life research is one of many virgin fields of inquiry in which any persistent investigator may contribute not only to science, but to the permanence of the organic resources on which civilization is dependent.

Wild Life Research in Wisconsin (1935)



The basic skill of the wildlife manager is to diagnose the landscape, to discern and predict trends in its biotic community, and to modify them where necessary in the interest of conservation...

To appraise the landscape the student must know its component parts and something of their interrelationships. That is to say, he must know its plants and animals, its soils and waters, and something of their interdependence, successions, and competitions. He must know the industries dependent on that landscape, their effect on it, and its effect upon them. He must know and habitually use visible “indicators” of those slow landscape changes that are invisible but nonetheless real….

In viewing the landscape, he should habitually infer its past and foresee its future; that is to say, he should think in terms, not of plant and animal species alone, but of communities; not of types alone, but of successions. In this lies the difference between the static natural history of yesterday and the dynamic ecology of tomorrow…

Last and most important, he should have developed in some degree that imponderable combination of curiosity, skepticism, and objectivity known as the "scientific attitude."

Academic and Professional Training in Wildlife Work (1939)



. . . I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then

to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the highlined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

Thinking Like a Mountain (1949); ASCA 130-32


ASCA = A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949)

RR = Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold (1953)

RMG = The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold (1991)

ALS = Aldo Leopold’s Southwest (1995)

“cf.” indicates the versions of the quotation differ slightly in the publications referenced



Press, U. (2008). Excerpts from Aldo Leopold's Writings. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/152704


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