This article is part of the Aldo Leopold Collection.
Aldo Leopold's life and legacy defy easy categorization. He was trained as a forester, but Leopold’s work as an educator, philosopher, ecologist, and wilderness advocate is well-documented and his influence remains widely felt. A key figure in the conservation movement of the 20th century, he is best-known as the author of A Sand County Almanac, a slim volume of essays of his observations, experiences and thoughts about the relationship between humans and nature. The book was informed and inspired by his professional and personal experiences as a conservationist, including his family’s work to restore the health of a “worn-out” Wisconsin farm. Published posthumously in 1949, A Sand County Almanac has become an environmental classic and is a standard reading assignment in conservation, ecology and environmental science courses at universities and colleges across the U.S. and around the world.
Born in 1887 and raised in Burlington, Iowa, Leopold was greatly influenced by his many boyhood hunting and fishing excursions with his father, who was an avid sportsman with a strong commitment to ethical sportsmanship and a deep appreciation for nature. With these experiences, Leopold developed an interest in the natural world at an early age, spending hours observing, writing about, and sketching his surroundings.
He attended Lawrenceville Preparatory School in New Jersey, and subsequently graduated from the Yale Forest School in 1909. Among the first formally trained foresters in his generation, Leopold eagerly pursued a career with the newly established U.S. Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico. There he met Estella Bergere, daughter of a successful New Mexico ranching family, and they were married in Sante Fe in 1912. By the age of 24, he had been promoted to the post of Supervisor for the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. During the next several years, he developed a strong interest in the landscape of the Southwest and in the issues of game (wildlife) protection, soil erosion, rangeland management and wilderness protection. During this time he also became well-known among foresters for his innovative thinking and writing on these subjects. Especially concerned about the loss of wilderness, Leopold began to call for the creation of “wilderness areas” within national forests. In 1922, he was instrumental in developing the proposal to manage portions of the Gila National Forest as a wilderness area, which became the first such official designation in 1924. His interest in and commitment to wilderness protection remained strong and 11 years later he became a founding member of The Wilderness Society.
Leopold and his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin in 1924, when he was appointed assistant director of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory there. Four years later, he gave up his position with the U.S. Forest Service to focus full-time on what he saw as a growing need: to create wildlife management as a viable field of study. In 1933, he published Game Management , the first textbook in this new discipline. Later that year, the University of Wisconsin appointed him as the nation's first professor in the new field, which would later come to be known as wildlife ecology and management.
In 1935, Leopold purchased a “worn out and abandoned farm” located along the Wisconsin River, about an hour’s drive north of the family’s home in Madison. There, the family began working on weekends and breaks from school to conserve the eroding soil and establish wildlife habitat. The experience of planting thousands of pine trees, wildflowers, prairie grasses and other plants, and observing the ensuing changes in the landscape, himself, and his family further informed and inspired Leopold. He continued to pursue difficult questions about how people change land and how people might be encouraged to practice conservation rather than exploiting the wealth of the land. Over the next decade, his work on the Wisconsin farm--combined with travel to Germany to study European forestry and game management methods and travel to Mexico‘s Sierra Madre Occidental unspoiled wilderness--influenced his shift from a focus on wilderness and wildlife to a still broader concern with “land health.” This shift was important not only for Leopold personally, but also for the philosophy of conservation generally; it changed the utilitarian-versus-preservation debate personified by Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, respectively, by synthesizing their perspectives through an expanded understanding of ecological processes, natural history, and the impact of human activity on the land.
Already a prolific writer of articles for professional journals and popular magazines, in the early-1940s Leopold conceived of a book geared for general audiences that would use his family’s experiences restoring the sand county farm to examine humanity's relationship to the natural world and lay out his philosophical development of “a land ethic.” Just one week after receiving word that his manuscript would be published by Oxford University Press, Leopold suffered a heart attack and died on April 21, 1948 while fighting a neighbor's grass fire that escaped and threatened the Leopold “shack” and farm.
After his death, Leopold’s second son, Luna, oversaw the final editing and publication in 1949 of A Sand County Almanac. Sixty years later, with more than two million copies sold and translations in 10 languages, the book has reached citizens around the world and inspired leaders from the grassroots to global levels.
Leopold's legacy continues to inform and inspire new generations of students and citizens to see the natural world "as a community to which we belong."
- The Aldo Leopold Foundation website.
- Meine, Curt. 1988. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison., 638 p. ISBN: 0299114945.
- Meine, Curt. 1995. Aldo Leopold . In: R. Paehlke (Ed.) Conservation and Environmentalism: An Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing Inc., New York and London, 771 p. ISBN: 0824061012.