Leopold, Aldo (1886 – 1978) American Conservationist, Ecologist, and Writer
Aldo Leopold (1886 – 1978)
American conservationist, ecologist, and writer
Leopold was a noted forester, game manager, conservationist, college professor, and ecologist. Yet he is known worldwide for A Sand County Almanac, a little book considered an important, influential work to conservation movement of the twentieth century. In it, Leopold established the land ethic , guidelines for respecting the land and preserving its integrity. Leopold grew up in Iowa, in a house overlooking the Mississippi River, where he learned hunting from his father and an appreciation of nature from his mother. He received a master's degree in forestry from Yale and spent his formative professional years working for the United States Forest Service in the American Southwest.
In the Southwest, Leopold began slowly to consider preservation as a supplement to Gifford Pinchot's "conservation as wise use—greatest good for the greatest number" land management philosophy that he learned at Yale and in the Forest Service. He began to formulate arguments for the preservation of wilderness and the sustainable development of wild game. Formerly a hunter who encouraged the elimination of predators to save the "good" animals for hunters, Leopold became a conservationist who remembered with sadness the "dying fire" in the eyes of a wolf he had killed. In the Journal of Forestry, he began to speculate that perhaps Pinchot's principle of highest use itself demanded "that representative portions of some forests be preserved as wilderness."
Leopold must be recognized as one of a handful of originators of the wilderness idea in American conservation history. He was instrumental in the founding of the Wilderness Society in 1935, which he described in the first issue of Living Wilderness as "one of the focal points of a new attitude—an intelligent humility toward man's place in nature." In a 1941 issue of that same journal, he asserted that wilderness also has critical practical uses "as a base-datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself," and that wilderness was needed as a living "land laboratory."
This thinking led to the first large area designated as wilderness in the United States. In 1924, some 574,000 acres (232,000 ha) of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico was officially named a wilderness area. Four years before, the much smaller Trappers Lake valley in Colorado was the first area designated "to be kept roadless and undeveloped."
Aldo Leopold is also widely acknowledged as the founder of wildlife management in the United States. His classic text on the subject, Game Management (1933), is still in print and widely read. Leopold tried to write a general management framework, drawing upon and synthesizing species monographs and local manuals. "Details apply to game alone, but the principles are of general import to all fields of conservation," he wrote. He wanted to coordinate "science and use" in his book and felt strongly that land managers could either try to apply such principles, or be reduced to "hunting rabbits." Here can be found early uses of concepts still central to conservation and management, such as limiting factor, niche , saturation point, and carrying capacity . Leopold later became the first professor of game management in the United States at the University of Wisconsin.
Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, a year after his death, is often described as "the bible of the environmental movement" of the second half of the twentieth century. The Almanac is a beautifully written source of solid ecological concepts such as trophic linkages and biological community . The book extends basic ecological concepts, forming radical ideas to reformulate human thinking and behavior. It exhibits an ecological conscience, a conservation aesthetic, and a land ethic. He advocated his concept of ecological conscience to fill in a perceived gap in conservation education: "Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land." Lesser known is his attention to the aesthetics of land: according to the Almanac, an acceptable land aesthetic emerges only from learned and sensitive perception of the connections and needs of natural communities. The last words in the Almanac are that a true conservation aesthetic is developed "not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind."
Leopold derived his now famous land ethic from an ecological conception of community. All ethics, he maintained, "rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts." He argued that "the land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land." Perhaps the most widely quoted statement from the book argues that "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability , and beauty of the biotic community .Itis wrong when it tends otherwise."
Leopold's land ethic was first proposed in the Journal of Forestry article in 1933 and later expanded in the Almanac. It is a plea to care for land and its biological complex, instead of considering it a commodity. As Wallace Tegner noted, Leopold's ideas were heretical in 1949, and to some people still are. "They smack of socialism and the public good," he wrote. "They impose limits and restraints. They are anti-Progress. They dampen American initiative. They fly in the face of the faith that land is a commodity, the very foundation stone of American opportunity." As a result, Stegner and others do not think Leopold's ethic had much influence on public thought, though the book has been widely read. Leopold recognized this. "The case for a land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against these 'modern' trends," he commented. Nevertheless, the land ethic is alive and still flourishing, in an ever-growing minority. Even Stegner argued that "Leopold's land ethic is not a fact but [an on-going] task." Leopold did not shrink from that task, being actively involved in many conservation associations, teaching management principles and the land ethic to his classes, bringing up all five of his children to become conservationists, and applying his beliefs directly to his own land, a parcel of "logged, fire-swept, overgrazed, barren" land in Sauk County, Wisconsin. As his work has become more recognized and more influential, many labels have been applied to Leopold by contemporary writers. He is a "prophet" and "intellectual touchstone" to Roderick Nash a "founding genius" to J. Baird Callicott "an American Isaiah" to Stegner the "Moses of the new conservation impulse" to Donald Fleming. In a sense, he may have been all of these, but more than anything else, Leopold was an applied ecologist who tried to put into practice the principles he learned from the land.
[Gerald R. Young Ph.D. ]
Callicott, J. B., ed. Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Flader, S. L., and J. B. Callicott, eds. The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Fritzell, P. A. "A Sand County Almanac and The Conflicts of Ecological Conscience." In Nature Writing and America: Essays Upon a Cultural Type. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.
Leopold, A. Game Management. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.
Meine, C. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Strong, D. H. "Aldo Leopold." In Dreamers and Defenders: American Conservationists. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.