Leopold, Aldo

views updated May 18 2018

8: Aldo Leopold

Excerpt from A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There Published in 1949.

Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) promoted a view of nature based on respecting the land and preserving its integrity, or its healthy, natural form. He called this view a "land ethic." Ethics is the study of morality, and ethical behavior is defined as that which is "good" or "right." Extending ethics to include the interactions between humans and the natural environment, Leopold maintained in his classic work A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949), that all ethics "rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts." The land ethic, Leopold continued, "simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land."

"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."

In addition to his Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, which presents his concept of the land ethic, Leopold also wrote Game Management (1933), which defines techniques for managing and restoring wildlife populations. Game Management helped influence the U.S. Congress to pass the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act. This 1934 law combined federal and state agencies in order to protect, breed, stock, and increase the supply of game and fur-bearing animals, as well as to study the effects of domestic sewage, trade wastes, and other polluting substances on wildlife. In other words, the 1934 law was passed to protect wildlife from the pollution caused by people and businesses. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There celebrates nature and argues for land preservation. It is one of the most significant works of the environmental movement—a movement that consists of people who advocate preservation, restoration, or enhancement of the natural environment.

Leopold is a link between early conservation efforts that arose in the 1890s and modern-day environmentalists. After graduating from Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School in 1908, Leopold studied for a year at Yale's then newly established school of forestry, which used the conservation philosophy of American forester Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946). In 1898 Pinchot had become the chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Division of Forestry (an early version of the U.S. Forest Service). During his twelve-year appointment as chief, Pinchot promoted what is known as the utilitarian, or most useful and beneficial, approach to natural resources. This view states that people have the right to use natural resources as long as they use the environment wisely. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State is named in his honor—an area that includes the active volcano Mount St. Helens.

Leopold differed from Pinchot by promoting wilderness reserves, or land protected from use and development. As noted in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, he believed that wilderness has practical uses, as "a picture of how healthy land maintains itself" and as a living "land laboratory." In the book, he suggested that people should look at the environment as a community for all life and not as an economic good to be exploited. The Almanac was published in 1949, a year after Leopold died while battling a brush fire at a neighbor's farm. He was buried where his life began, in Burlington, Iowa, near the Mississippi River.

Leopold's ideas are controversial, especially to those who believe land is a commodity, something useful that can be turned to commercial or other economic advantage. His supporters, however, praise his insightful views and his celebration of nature as a moral guide, similar to ideas expressed by American authors Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). In addition, many modern environmentalists follow Leopold's opinions on conservation. "A land ethic, then," concluded Leopold in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, "reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity."

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There:

  • Leopold uses the word "land" to mean a community of living things to be loved and respected. This idea argues for conservation ethics, because, as Leopold notes early in the excerpt, land is being degraded by pollution and mismanagement. "A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these 'resources,'" he notes, "but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state."
  • Leopold was born in 1887 and grew up during a period when Americans were beginning to experience some of the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the United States in the late eighteenth century and involved increasing production of large quantities of manufactured goods. Americans were starting to realize that there were limits to natural resources. Leopold's writings reflect his background in science in both the classroom and in natural environments. His career included work as a forester, a caretaker of forests; a wildlife manager; and a college professor.

Gifford Pinchot: Early Conservationist

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the United States transformed from a largely agricultural nation to an industrial giant. The nation's vast natural resources of minerals and forests provided sources of energy. These were turned into metal and wood products used by rapidly expanding populations in cities and towns as the nation extended from coast to coast. James Pinchot (1831–1908) was among the nineteenth-century businessmen called lumber barons who made tremendous fortunes in the lumber industry. But Pinchot came to regret the environmental damage lumbering caused in many regions. He began actively seeking ways to reduce the environmental impact of lumbering and for conserving natural habitats. He instilled those values in his family, especially influencing his son, Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946), who began planning a career in forestry (managing and maintaining forests).

Training for forestry, however, did not yet exist in the United States when Pinchot entered college in the 1880s. After graduating from Yale University in 1889, Pinchot studied in France at L'Ecole Nationale Forestiere (the National School of Forestry). Upon Pinchot's return to the United States, his father donated funds to Yale University to create a school of forestry. Pinchot became a professor there and developed his philosophy of the interdependence of people and natural resources and the human responsibility for maintaining those resources. Aiming for "the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run," Pinchot argued for efficient use of natural resources and eliminating wasteful and destructive practices.

In 1896 Pinchot was appointed by President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908) to the National Forest Commission, a group created to develop a plan for managing the vast forests of the American West. During the next fifteen years, through the National Forest Commission, his leadership in the U.S. government's Division of Forestry, and as head of the United States Forest Service (USFS), which was established in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), Pinchot effectively changed public land policy. Previously, the U.S. government simply decided to provide or sell land to private companies. Under Pinchot's leadership, the federal government maintained ownership and management of public land. The number of national forests increased from thirty-two in 1898 to nearly one hundred and fifty in 1910, covering nearly two-hundred million acres. Pinchot and Roosevelt made conservation a public issue and a national policy.

When Roosevelt's successor as president, William Howard Taft (1957–1930), showed much less interest in conservation, Pinchot protested publicly and was fired as head of the USFS in 1910. Pinchot immediately founded the National Conservation Association and served as the organization's president from 1910 to 1925. He also became involved in reform politics in Pennsylvania, running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1914 while supporting such reforms as women's suffrage, prohibition of the sale and use of alcoholic beverages, and recognition of labor unions. He later served as governor of Pennsylvania, winning elections in 1922 and 1930. While serving as governor during the early years of the Great Depression (1929–41), Pinchot battled for regulation of public utilities, relief for the unemployed, and construction of paved roads, promising to "get the farmers out of the mud." Pinchot died in 1946.

  • Economic development of unused land is a touchy issue in many communities. Leopold argues that people need to broaden their view of value beyond economic interests and use a land ethic that preserves diversity, wilderness, and the entire spectrum of life whether or not citizens see any immediate economic value in it.

Excerpt from A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

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.

This sounds simple: do we not already sing our love for and obligation to the land of the free and the home of the brave? Yes, but just what and whom do we love? Certainly not the soil, which we are sending helter-skelter downriver. Certainly not the waters, which we assume have no function except to turn turbines, float barges, and carry off sewage. Certainly not the plants, of which we exterminate [destroy] whole communities without batting an eye. Certainly not the animals, of which we have already extirpated [destroyed] many of the largest and most beautiful species. A land ethic of course cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these 'resources,' but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state.

In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens [humans] 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….

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail's pace; progress still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory. On the back forty we still slip two steps backward for each forward stride.

The usual answer to this dilemma is 'more conservation education.' No one will debate this, but is it certain that only the volume of education needs stepping up? Is something lacking in the content as well?

It is difficult to give a fair summary of its content in brief form, but, as I understand it, the content is substantially this: obey the law, vote right, join some organizations, and practice what conservation is profitable on your own land; the government will do the rest.

Is not this formula too easy to accomplish anything worth-while? It defines no right or wrong, assigns no obligation, calls for no sacrifice, implies no change in the current philosophy of values. In respect of land-use, it urges only enlightened self-interest. Just how far will such education take us?…

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 [unimportant].

Substitutes for a Land Ethic

When the logic of history hungers for bread and we hand out a stone, we are at pains to explain how much the stone resembles bread. I now describe some of the stones which serve in lieu of [instead of] a land ethic.

One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value. Wildflowers and songbirds are examples. Of the 22,000 higher plants and animals native to Wisconsin, it is doubtful whether more than 5 per cent can be sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use. Yet these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance.

When one of these non-economic categories is threatened, and if we happen to love it, we invent subterfuges [deceptive strategies] to give it economic importance. At the beginning of the century songbirds were supposed to be disappearing. Ornithologists jumped to the rescue with some distinctly shaky evidence to the effect that insects would eat us up if birds failed to control them. The evidence had to be economic in order to be valid.

It is painful to read these circumlocutions today. We have no land ethic yet, but we have at least drawn nearer the point of admitting that birds should continue as a matter of biotic right, regardless of the presence or absence of economic advantage to us.

A parallel situation exists in respect of predatory mammals, raptorial birds, and fish-eating birds. Time was when biologists somewhat overworked the evidence that these creatures preserve the health of game by killing weaklings, or that they control rodents for the farmer, or that they prey only on 'worthless' species. Here again, the evidence had to be economic in order to be valid. It is only in recent years that we hear the more honest argument that predators are members of the community, and that no special interest has the right to exterminate them for the sake of a benefit, real or fancied, to itself. Unfortunately this enlightened view is still in the talk stage. In the field the extermination of predators goes merrily on: witness the impending erasure of the timber wolf by fiat [decree] of Congress, the Conservation Bureaus, and many state legislatures….

There is a clear tendency in American conservation to relegate to government all necessary jobs that private landowners fail to perform. Government ownership, operation, subsidy, or regulation is now widely prevalent in forestry, range management, soil and watershed management, park and wilderness conservation, fisheries management, and migratory bird management, with more to come. Most of this growth in governmental conservation is proper and logical, some of it is inevitable. That I imply no disapproval of it is implicit in the fact that I have spent most of my life working for it. Nevertheless the question arises: What is the ultimate magnitude of the enterprise? Will the tax base carry its eventual ramifications [results]? At what point will governmental conservation, like the mastodon, become handicapped by its own dimensions? The answer, if there is any, seems to be in a land ethic, or some other force which assigns more obligation to the private landowner …

The Land Pyramid

An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to land presupposes the existence of some mental image of land as a biotic mechanism. We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.

The image commonly employed in conservation education is 'the balance of nature.' For reasons too lengthy to detail here, this figure of speech fails to describe accurately what little we know about the land mechanism. A much truer image is the one employed in ecology: the biotic pyramid. I shall first sketch the pyramid as a symbol of land, and later develop some of its implications in terms of land-use.

Plants absorb energy from the sun. This energy flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers. The bottom layer is the soil. A plant layer rests on the soil, an insect layer on the plants, a bird and rodent layer on the insects, and so on up through various animal groups to the apex [top] layer, which consists of the large carnivores.

The species of a layer are alike not in where they came from, or in what they look like, but rather in what they eat. Each successive layer depends on those below it for food and often for other services, and each in turn furnishes food and services to those above. Proceeding upward, each successive layer decreases in numerical abundance. Thus, for every carnivore there are hundreds of his prey, thousands of their prey, millions of insects, uncountable plants. The pyramidal form of the system reflects this numerical progression from apex to base. Man shares an intermediate layer with the bears, raccoons, and squirrels which eat both meat and vegetables.

The lines of dependency for food and other services are called food chains. Thus soil-oak-deer-Indian is a chain that has now been largely converted to soil-corn-cow-farmer. 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 functioning depends on the co-operation and competition of its diverse parts …

This thumbnail sketch of land as an energy circuit conveys three basic ideas:

(1) That land is not merely soil.

(2) That the native plants and animals kept the energy circuit open; others may or may not.

(3) That man-made changes are of a different order than evolutionary changes, and have effects more comprehensive than is intended or foreseen.

These ideas, collectively, raise two basic issues: Can the land adjust itself to the new order? Can the desired alterations be accomplished with less violence?…

The combined evidence of history and ecology seems to support one general deduction: the less violent the man-made changes, the greater the probability of successful readjustment in the pyramid. Violence, in turn, varies with human population density; a dense population requires a more violent conversion. In this respect, North America has a better chance for permanence than Europe, if she can contrive [plan] to limit her density.

This deduction runs counter to our current philosophy, which assumes that because a small increase in density enriched human life, that an indefinite increase will enrich it indefinitely. Ecology knows of no density relationship that holds for indefinitely wide limits. All gains from density are subject to a law of diminishing returns.

Whatever may be the equation for men and land, it is improbable that we as yet know all its terms. Recent discoveries in mineral and vitamin nutrition reveal unsuspected dependencies in the 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 [beautiful but not useful]? They helped build the soil; in what unsuspected ways may they be essential to its maintenance? Professor [J. E.] Weaver proposes that we use prairie flowers to reflocculate the wasting soils of the dust bowl; who knows for what purpose cranes and condors, otters and grizzlies may some day be used?

Land Health and the A-B Cleavage

A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.

Conservationists are notorious for their dissensions [opposition]. Superficially these seem to add up to mere confusion, but a more careful scrutiny reveals a single plane of cleavage [division] common to many specialized fields. In each field one group (A) regards the land as soil, and its function as commodity-production; another group (B) regards the land as a biota, and its function as something broader. How much broader is admittedly in a state of doubt and confusion.

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.

In the wildlife field, a parallel cleavage exists. For Group A the basic commodities are sport and meat; the yardsticks of production are ciphers of take in pheasants and trout. Artificial propagation is acceptable as a permanent as well as a temporary recourse—if its unit costs permit. Group B, on the other hand, worries about a whole series of biotic side-issues. What is the cost in predators of producing a game crop? Should we have further recourse to exotics? How can management restore the shrinking species, like prairie grouse, already hopeless as shootable game? How can management restore the threatened rarities, like trumpeter swan and whooping crane? Can management principles be extended to wildflowers? Here again it is clear to me that we have the same A-B cleavage as in forestry.

In the larger field of agriculture I am less competent to speak, but there seem to be somewhat parallel cleavages. Scientific agriculture was actively developing before ecology was born, hence a slower penetration of ecological concepts might be expected. Moreover the farmer, by the very nature of his techniques, must modify the biota more radically than the forester or the wildlife manager. Nevertheless, there are many discontents in agriculture which seem to add up to a new vision of 'biotic farming.'

Perhaps the most important of these is the new evidence that poundage or tonnage is no measure of the food-value of farm crops; the products of fertile soil may be qualitatively as well as quantitatively superior. We can bolster poundage from depleted soils by pouring on imported fertility, but we are not necessarily bolstering food-value. The possible ultimate ramifications of this idea are so immense that I must leave their exposition [explanation] to abler pens.

The discontent that labels itself 'organic farming,' while bearing some of the earmarks of a cult, is nevertheless biotic in its direction, particularly in its insistence on the importance of soil flora and fauna [plants and animals].

The ecological fundamentals of agriculture are just as poorly known to the public as in other fields of land-use. For example, few educated people realize that the marvelous advances in technique made during recent decades are improvements in the pump, rather than the well. Acre for acre, they have barely sufficed [met the needs] to offset the sinking level of fertility.

In all of these cleavages, we see repeated the same basic paradoxes: man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the search-light on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism. Robinson's injunction to Tristram may well be applied, at this juncture, to Homo sapiens as a species in geological time:

    Whether you will or not
    You are a King, Tristram, for you are one
    Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
    When they are gone, not the same place it was.
    Mark what you leave.

The Outlook

It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a 'scenic' area, he is bored stiff. If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well. Synthetic [not natural] substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him better than the originals. In short, land is something he has 'outgrown.'

Almost equally serious as an obstacle to a land ethic is the attitude of the farmer for whom the land is still an adversary [enemy], or a taskmaster that keeps him in slavery. Theoretically, the mechanization of farming ought to cut the farmer's chains, but whether it really does is debatable.

One of the requisites [requirements] for an ecological comprehension of land is an understanding of ecology, and this is by no means co-extensive with 'education'; in fact, much higher education seems deliberately to avoid ecological concepts. An understanding of ecology does not necessarily originate in courses bearing ecological labels; it is quite as likely to be labeled geography, botany, agronomy, history, or economics. This is as it should be, but whatever the label, ecological training is scarce.

The case for a land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against these 'modern' trends.

The 'key-log' which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient [suitable]. 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.

It of course goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether [scope or range] of what can or cannot be done for land. It always has and it always will. The fallacy the economic determinists have tied around our collective neck, and which we now need to cast off, is the belief that economics determines all land use. This is simply not true. An innumerable host of actions and attitudes, comprising perhaps the bulk of all land relations, is determined by the land-users' tastes and predilections, rather than by his purse. The bulk of all land relations hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill, and faith rather than on investments of cash. As a land-user thinketh, so is he….

The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process. Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land, or of economic land-use. I think it is a truism that as the ethical frontier advances from the individual to the community, its intellectual content increases.

The mechanism of operation is the same for any ethic: social approbation for right actions: social disapproval for wrong actions.

What happened next …

Leopold died in 1948, shortly before A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There was published. His ideas had their greatest influence beginning in the 1960s, when important environmental protection laws were introduced that reflected his philosophy. The Wilderness Act of 1964 was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69). As noted on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site, the act authorized the Secretary of the Interior "to review every roadless area of 5,000 or more acres and every roadless island (regardless of size) within National Wildlife Refuge and National Park Systems and to recommend to the President the suitability of each such area or island for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System."

Other acts influenced by Leopold include the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), which requires the federal government to assess the environmental impact of its land development plans, and the Endangered Species Act (1973), which recognizes the need to conserve the entire natural community and environment of endangered plants and animals. The Forest and Rangelands Renewable Resources Planning Act (1974), the National Forest Management Act (1976), and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976) are among other laws focused on preserving ecosystems.

Leopold was a co-founder of The Wilderness Society, an organization that remains vital and active in the early twenty-first century. The group, which reflects Leopold's philosophy, is devoted to "deliver[ing] to future generations an unspoiled legacy of wild places, with all the precious values they hold: Biological diversity; clean air and water; towering forests, rushing rivers, and sage-sweet, silent deserts." To accomplish this, according to the society, "We bring to bear our scientific expertise, analysis and bold advocacy at the highest levels to save, protect and restore America's wilderness areas."

Did you know …

  • Leopold played a leading role in several environmental organizations. In 1934 he was named to the Special Committee on Wild Life Restoration during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45). In 1935 he became a director of the Audubon Society, a conservation group that strives to protect, maintain, and restore ecosystems for current and future generations. In 1947 Leopold was elected honorary vice president of the American Forestry Association and president of the Ecological Society of America.
  • Stanford University, through the Stanford Institute for the Environment, created the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program. Each year up to twenty academic environmental scientists are selected to receive intensive, hands-on training and consultation to better communicate the science associated with complex environmental issues to the media, policy makers, business leaders, and other non-scientists.

Consider the following …

  • The U.S. government owns millions of acres of wilderness land. There are continuous debates over whether some of the land should be freed for development by oil, timber, mining, and other industries. Consider a current nature preserve controversy in the news and represent arguments from both sides. Discuss whether Aldo Leopold's "land ethic" applies to the controversy, or whether development would bring greater good.
  • A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There was published in 1949. Is it still relevant today? In what ways have individuals or nations embraced the land ethic or not?

For More Information


Herman, A.L. Community, Violence, and Peace: Aldo Leopold, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gautama the Buddha in the Twenty-First Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Knight, Richard L., and Curt Meine, eds. The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Knight, Richard L., and Susanne Riedel, eds. Aldo Leopold and an Ecological Conscience. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, reprinted 1987.

Lorbiecki, Marybeth. Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire. Helena, MT: Falcon Press Publishing, 2005.

Meine, Curt. Aldo Leopold: His Life & Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.


"About the Wilderness Society." The Wilderness Society. http://www.wilderness.org/AboutUs/index.cfm?TopLevel=About (accessed on June 8, 2006).

"Aldo Leopold, 1887–1948." Ecology Hall of Fame. http://www.ecotopia.org/ehof/leopold/ (accessed on June 8, 2006).

"Aldo Leopold: Father of Wildlife Management (1887–1948)." Environmental Education for Kids! (EEK!). http://www.dnr.state.wi.us/org/caer/ce/eek/nature/aldo.htm (accessed on June 8, 2006).

The Aldo Leopold Foundation. http://www.aldoleopold.org/ (accessed on June 8, 2006).

"Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. http://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/wildrns.html (accessed on June 8, 2006).

Helter-skelter: Unorganized; disorder.

Propaganda: Information that strongly supports a cause.

Letterhead pieties: Sincere statements that appear as slogans.

Back forty: A term describing unused land.

Biotic: The plants and animals of a region.

Ornithologists: Scientists who study birds.

Circumlocutions: Talking indirectly instead of expressing a concept directly.

Predatory: Preying on other living organisms for food.

Watershed: A ridge of high land dividing two areas that are drained by different river systems.

Tax base: The money the government collects from taxes.

Mastodon: Any of several very large, extinct mammals resembling the elephant.

Land mechanism: How the land works.

Biota: The plants and animals of an area.

Carnivores: Flesh-eating animals.

Ecology: The science of the relationships between organisms and their environments.

Human population density: The number of people living in a specific area.

Reflocculate: To reform lumps and masses of soil that have disintegrated.

Dust bowl: The Plains area of the United States that suffered severe drought in the 1930s; much of the area's topsoil was reduced to particles that blew away in the wind.

Cellulose: Part of the cell wall of most plants that is used to manufacture products such as paper, medical drugs, and explosives.

Agronomic: Relating to the study of soil science and crop production.

Artificial propagation: To introduce into an area animals not born there.

Exotics: Plants and animals introduced and not native to an area.

Paradoxes: Contradictions that may be true.

Robinson's injunction to Tristram: Refers to American poet Edward Arlington Robinson's poem about Tristram, a knight associated with King Arthur.

Hydroponics: The cultivation of plants in water filled with nutrients rather than in soil.

Fallacy: False reasoning.

Predilections: Personal preferences.

Approbation: A warm expression of approval or praise.

Leopold, Aldo

views updated Jun 11 2018


(b. Burlington, Iowa, 11 January 1887; d. Baraboo, Wisconsin, 19 April 1948),

wildlife management, ecology, game surveys, forestry.

During his lifetime, Leopold was recognized as an innovator in the field of wildlife management and an important contributor to ecology. After his death his writings became widely known and influential to a growing community of environmental thinkers. He undertook the first large-scale game survey in the United States, was the author of the first textbook on game management, and became a founding member of the first academic department in wildlife management. Leopold incorporated concepts from plant and animal ecology as he worked to reform state and federal wildlife policy during a period of intense growth in knowledge of wild populations and concern over human interactions with those populations.

The Development of a Sport Hunter . Leopold grew up in the town of Burlington, Iowa, in a house overlooking the Mississippi River. He was the oldest of four children. His sister, Marie, was a year younger, and his two brothers, Carl Jr. and Frederic, were five and eight years younger, respectively. The bluffs along the river provided a training ground for natural history, and the Leopold children came to know the flora and fauna well. The boys were especially well versed in the knowledge of nature that made for success in hunting. Carl Leopold, Aldo’s father, taught them to recognize the grasses, shrubs, trees, birds, and mammals of the hills and wetlands surrounding the town. Under this tutelage, Aldo developed an understanding of the interconnections among species and an awareness of how human communities relied upon the natural world.

Even with all the time he spent outdoors with his father and siblings, Aldo’s mother, Clara Leopold, made sure that he was immersed in subjects including poetry, philosophy, and German literature. She took pride in his achievements at school and encouraged his writing. She aspired to have all of her children attend finishing school, and Aldo would be the first, in 1904, to venture eastward.

The Training of a Forester . When Leopold recognized forestry as a legitimate career option in the first decade of the twentieth century, the educational opportunities in that field were only just emerging. Yale University offered the only program in the country that would provide a young forester with the credentials to manage public forest lands. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Gifford Pinchot to administer the nation’s forests as chief of the newly formed Forest Service in 1905. Together, Roosevelt and Pinchot formulated a conservation plan that focused on a utilitarian philosophy for protecting resources from excessive harvesting that might deplete the public value of lands. Pinchot’s inspiration came from Europe, after receiving his own forestry training in Germany. Programs such as the one at Yale adopted this conservation philosophy for forestry. Forests would be managed by people trained to recognize their short-term productivity as well as the need to sustain them for the public good over generations. Leopold therefore entered forestry at a pivotal time in the history of the profession.

In order to apply to the Yale program with more than his Burlington public school credentials, and to meet his mother’s ambitions, Leopold entered the Lawrenceville Preparatory School in New Jersey. He spent a year there, which proved to be a valuable experience in his personal as well as academic development. Upon leaving his family in Iowa, he was instructed to write home regularly and to include in his letters every detail of his new experiences. Those letters became a vital part of his development as a writer; his mother regularly corrected grammar and made suggestions for improving the narrative flow of his writing. For his part, Leopold sought to relate his experiences in an engaging literary fashion. He also continued and expanded his habit of daily writing in a journal that included personal reflections and natural history observations.

After a year at Lawrenceville, he applied and was admitted to the Yale forestry program. There he received the training that would prepare him for a career in Pinchot’s Forest Service. He completed his coursework and received a bachelor’s degree in the spring of 1908. He returned to Yale in the fall for a final year of training as a master’s student. Students at Yale were immersed in the utilitarian approach that became a motto for the conservation movement in those years: “for the greatest good for the greatest number over the long run.” The field experience provided in the last year also gave Leopold and his peers a practical sense of the work that lay ahead.

Raising Questions about Conservation . Through his training at Yale Leopold had adopted the views of the Forest Service and its administrators. However, once he began to experience the work of forest management he articulated some innovative notions, incorporating his perspective as a sport hunter.

His first months as a forester included a move to New Mexico, where he was stationed on the Apache National Forest. There he attempted to familiarize himself with a diverse landscape of mountains, rivers, forests, and wildlife. Amid surroundings very different from the countryside of his youth, he relished the challenge, but his inexperience also took its toll. After just a few weeks, Leopold was placed in charge of a reconnaissance crew, a team of men who rode through the forest making estimates of the timber. Their daily tasks included arduous horseback rides and careful measurement of forest and geographical parameters. In the evening, Leopold worked out calculations of the day’s measurements. His crew, lower ranking but more experienced, found him rather incompetent. Leopold had struggled with mathematics during his education, and the pressure of his new responsibilities amplified his shortcomings. He responded by denying his errors and further alienating his crew. The reconnaissance survey lasted three months, and in the end, Leopold was as enthusiastic as ever about fieldwork, but his supervisors began to recognize he lacked the skills to manage a Forest Service crew in the field.

Over the years, Leopold moved into positions that involved less direct fieldwork. The challenges of developing new policies for management of the public forests suited the young forester, especially as continued reconnaissance provided a more detailed picture of the existing forest conditions. He became particularly interested in linking emerging concerns about game and soil conditions in the forests. He observed firsthand how natural communities had changed in recent decades. Since the arrival of settlers in the foothills and valleys of the mountain west, farmers and ranchers had taken a toll on native game populations. Extending Pinchot’s resource management philosophy to include game, Leopold began a reconsideration of the relationship between public lands and hunting practice that would involve private landowners and government policy at every level. He recognized that the best management practices for government forests did not necessarily provide adequate conservation of game habitat. Although Roosevelt had hoped to create hunters’ paradises in specific locations throughout the West, as a hunter, naturalist, and president, he lacked a sound understanding of what it would take to maintain viable game populations in areas where timber harvests and other resource extraction enterprises took their toll on wildlife. It would take Leopold, and a generation of range managers and ecologists, decades to work out the details of effective game management.

In 1912, Leopold married Estella Bergere. Together they had five children, two girls and three boys. Leopold’s wife’s family included several generations of prominent sheep ranchers. Her Spanish heritage and family connections to practical range management broadened Leopold’s personal and professional perspective. As much as her family cemented his bond to the Southwest, he also longed to be closer to his own family in Iowa. Another personal experience that shaped his view of natural resource management came while he was traveling alone in a remote area of the Carson National Forest, where he was superintendent, in 1913. A rainstorm created flood-waters that soaked his provisions as he rode, then the weather turned cold, and he was caught in a blizzard. Wet and freezing, he contracted an inflammatory disease. He nearly died and spent months recovering at home. During his slow recovery, he began to think more systematically about game conditions and resource management.

A key motivation in Leopold’s rethinking of game policy came from the well-known and bombastic writings of William T. Hornaday, a naturalist who established his reputation as the superintendent of the New York Zoological Park. Hornaday decried the wasteful practices of eastern hunters who had depleted the forests and marshes of game. He railed against poachers, especially recent immigrants who, he claimed, lacked an appreciation of American hunting ideals. In 1915, Leopold met Hornaday in Albuquerque and became an immediate disciple. Declining game populations in the West seemed to be following the pattern established in the eastern states since colonial times, and Leopold believed that it was time to reverse that trend. Leopold read Hornaday’s books and the two men corresponded regularly. More than any scientific or rational understanding of the conditions, Leopold gained from Hornaday a sense of urgency that sparked him to action. He worked actively with the Albuquerque Game Protective Association for nearly a decade, and from his position with the Forest Service, helped to establish the Gila Wilderness Area, the first designated wilderness in the national forest system.

Contributions to an Emerging Field . Health problems and a persistent yearning to get back to the Midwest provided the impetus for Leopold to take a position in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory. The move, in 1924, kept Leopold in the employ of the federal government, but meant a significant shift from the responsibilities that had enabled him to be involved in game issues in New Mexico. His new tasks of managing and directing research gave him more time than ever to devote to his growing interests in conservation. Game conservation related to forest management, but not to the work he was doing in Madison. Wisconsin residents, however, had a much more vital awareness of conservation as a political and social concern. The state was populated by hunters who had a particularly keen interest in deer.

Leopold’s professional interests continued to shift from research at the forest lab to game management. He began planning a survey of game, which soon expanded to include collaborations with game experts in several midwestern states. In the midst of his planning, an offer from the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute gave Leopold an alternative to the Forest Service job. Work for the sport-hunting industry, which had a vested interest in the conservation of game that would perpetuate sales of their products, gave Leopold freedom to explore his interests.

Leopold spent much of 1928 learning game protection, preservation, and conservation at the national level. His connection to the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute placed him in a prominent position. He met with experts on the East Coast, including Hornaday. Leopold’s plans to conduct research into the conditions for game in various states initially drew criticism from Hornaday, who believed that the time for action was long overdue, and that research would only delay policy makers. Yet Leopold persisted with the plan and soon began meeting systematically with state officials and university scientists across the Midwest. This approach yielded a groundbreaking publication, a Report on a Game Survey of the North Central States, in 1931.

So detailed that some reviewers found it overwhelming, the publication’s gaps also highlighted the lack of knowledge in certain areas. The overriding message was that game populations were either in decline or undergoing significant shifts that needed local as well as broader attention in the form of policy and regulation. Leopold noted that local conditions needed ongoing study to determine how game populations might respond to increased hunting pressure, decreased quality habitat, ongoing predator control, or short-term weather effects. Game management assumed that certain factors could be controlled, but Leopold pointed out that in most cases, the factors were not yet defined, and the control was not at all understood.

The report also appeared against the backdrop of national awareness of the failures of past game protection practices. In some places those failures had been spectacular. Leopold was particularly aware of the deer management efforts on the Kaibab Plateau, an isolated forest region north of the Grand Canyon. Deer protection, initiated by Roosevelt in 1906, led to a population explosion that many observers blamed on the cessation of hunting coupled with ongoing predator control. These practices resulted from conflicting state and federal goals for the area. Leopold’s experience in the Southwest, where similar instances of game mismanagement had scarred the landscape, suggested that game experts needed to provide a more sophisticated solution than protection. He coined the term irruption to describe what happened when game populations were allowed to expand without control, and the Kaibab case became his key example. Although he had not visited the Kaibab and seen the conditions there firsthand, he corresponded regularly with foresters there, and invited one, S. B. Locke, to write a chapter on the events for a textbook Leopold was preparing. Locke never wrote the chapter, but their correspondence revealed the persistence of the Kaibab case in Leopold’s thinking about game management.

In 1933, Leopold published Game Management. The book was widely hailed as the first textbook in the field, and it remains a classic reference for wildlife management. In it, Leopold acknowledged his debt to the Sporting Arms and Ammunitions Manufacturers’ Institute, stating that the support he had received to conduct the game surveys had made possible his articulation of empirical principles of game management. He referenced European principles and practices, as well as the expertise of North American ecologists.

The book, which contained eighteen chapters in three sections, united game theory, practice, and administration into a comprehensive, empirically based profession. Leopold introduced principles from animal and plant ecology, including population growth and fluctuations.

He suggested new terminology for certain population cycles, most notably irruption for the rapid increases that led to dramatic declines in game. His admiration for rational management for sustainability, as found in European forests, inspired suggestions that game could be similarly maintained. In the early 1930s, he did not yet advocate the end of predator control, but his enthusiasm for the practice had waned. He proposed more research in order to determine the proper role of predators in rational game management practices.

Another outcome of Leopold’s success with this book was establishment of a faculty position at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The Alumni Research Foundation provided funding for a program in game management, including a salary and other expenses for Leopold. He became the first professor in such a program in the country. In that capacity, he interacted more frequently with his academic colleagues and developed closer ties to research ecology. By the late 1930s, he had integrated ecological views more explicitly into his articulation of game management as a profession. In 1939, he presented a paper to the Society of American Foresters and the Ecological Society of America at their joint meeting in Milwaukee. He titled the paper “A Biotic View of Land” and incorporated recent ecological concepts, which had appeared only marginally in Game Management. For example, Leopold used the “pyramid of numbers” to illuminate ecological relationships and demonstrate how management tended to oversimplify those relationships. Leopold also dismissed principles that had previously guided game managers. Ecology began to replace “economic biology,” and the role of species in an ecological discussion could no longer be assigned to purely utilitarian categories such as “useful, harmless, or injurious to man.” Instead, species served as links in complex food chains, the prevailing metaphor in ecology by that time.

Legacy . As a testament to Leopold’s stature in fields affiliated with game management, he was named an honorary vice president by the American Forestry Association. The Ecological Society of America, much to Leopold’s surprise, elected him as their president in 1947. Because he was not an active member of either group and rarely attended those meetings, these elections discomfited him to a degree, but he acknowledged the privilege, stating that he felt the responsibility of serving in spite of his previous lack of direct involvement.

Leopold died suddenly the following year. On 19 April 1948 Leopold, along with his wife and daughter, joined neighbors to fight a grass fire that had spread from a trash pile in a farmyard adjacent to the Leopold property near Baraboo, Wisconsin. This weekend property had become a family retreat for the Leopolds. They referred to its sole building as “the shack,” and studied its surroundings as a kind of experiment in restoring prairie to a landscape depleted by farming. Leopold was anxious to protect his land that day, but carrying a water tank on his back, he suffered a heart attack.

In the last decade of his life, Leopold wrote a series of essays, mostly at the shack, considering the proper role of humans in managing and appreciating the natural world. These essays blended natural history and philosophy with a call to action. For example, having realized the importance of predators in ecological systems, he wrote with regret about his own role in killing wolves in the Southwest. He expanded his definition of wilderness, and advocated for preservation of more such areas. After his death foresters, game managers, and ecologists recognized Leopold’s contributions as central to their profession. His philosophical contributions to ecology and conservation inspired the conservation minded, but were somewhat marginal to researchers in those fields. The influence of Leopold’s general works, however, became established nearly twenty years later, after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in the midst of growing concern about the degradation of the natural environment. Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac became a major source of that message. In essays that included “Thinking Like a Mountain” and “The Conservation Ethic,” Leopold had described the complex and essential role of humans in terms that resonated with an expanding public awareness of environmental degradation. His ability to connect ecological concepts with the sense that humans should bear responsibility for their activities and impacts on future generations has prompted some to refer to him as a “prophet” for conservation.



“Wanted—National Forest Game Refuges.” Bulletin of the American Game Protective Association 9 (January 1920): 8–10, 22. An early example of Leopold’s appeals for the Forest Service to adopt game protective policies.

“Determining the Kill Factor for Black-Tail Deer in the Southwest.” Journal of Forestry 18 (February 1920): 131–134. Leopold’s avocation as a hunter demonstrated in the context of his professional role as a forester.

“Game Methods: The American Way.” American Game 20 (March–April 1931): 20, 29–31. An example of Leopold’s emerging professional views of game management.

Game Management. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1933. The first “textbook” of game management, in which Leopold referred to some basic ecological principles along with considerable speculation and experiential explanations of population phenomena.

“Deer and Dauerwald in Germany: I. History.” Journal of Forestry 34 (April 1936): 366–375. An overview of Leopold’s experience touring forests in Germany and considering the history of game and forest management practices.

“Deer and Dauerwald in Germany: II. Ecology and Policy.” Journal of Forestry 34 (May 1936): 460–466. A further demonstration of the influence of European forestry had on Leopold, including discussion of recent ecological developments and the implementation of policy.

“A Biotic View of Land.” Journal of Forestry 37 (September 1939): 727–730.

“Deer Irruptions.” Wisconsin Conservation Bulletin 8 (August 1943): 1–11. A discussion of how game management efforts had gone awry in various locations, pointing to the need for more scientific management.

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.


Callicott, J. Baird, ed. Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. This standard volume examines a wide range of the philosophical and naturalistic views of Leopold in his best-known work.

Flader, Susan L. Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974. This book remains the best analysis of Leopold’s shifting views on game, ecology, and resource management across his career.

Lorbiecki, Marybeth. Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire. Helena, MT: Falcon Publishing, 1996. This biography is the most readable, detailed account of Leopold’s life. Special emphasis is placed on the philosophical aspects of his writings.

Meine, Curt. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. Includes the most complete bibliography currently available in published form.

Meine, Curt, and Richard L. Knight, eds. The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

Ripple, William J., and Robert L. Beschta. “Linking Wolves and Plants: Aldo Leopold on Trophic Cascades.” BioScience 55 (July 2005): 613–621. A discussion of the persistence and significance of Leopold’s influence on ecological thinking about connections between vegetation, herbivore populations, and predators.

Christian C. Young

Leopold, Aldo

views updated May 14 2018

Aldo Leopold

American forester, conservationist, and author, Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), a father of wildlife manage ment, deeply influenced the modern environmental movement a generation after his death. His collection of essays, A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, expressed the need for peo ple to develop an ethic around preserving the natural balance of wild land.

Leopold was born on January 11, 1887, in Burlington, Iowa. His father was a desk manufacturer and his grandfather was a landscape architect who had designed several of Burlington's buildings. He grew up in a mansion overlooking the Mississippi River, learning about nature. The trees and flowers on his family's land needed constant attention because of the thin and stony soil. Meanwhile, the Mississippi provided a migration route for vast numbers of North America's ducks and geese, and Leopold and his brothers and father often went down to the river valley to hunt them. Young Leopold became a curious observer of birds and natural history and began recording his experiences with nature every day in a journal, a habit he kept up all his life.

Leopold the Forester

After attending Lawrenceville Prep in New Jersey, Leopold enrolled in Yale University in 1905, graduated from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale in 1908, then earned a master's degree from the Yale Forest School in 1909. The Forest School was the first in the country, and the profession of forestry was growing thanks to the 1905 creation of the U.S. Forest Service. Leopold joined the service after graduation, and he was put in charge of a crew sent into the Apache National Forest in Arizona Territory to map the forest and look for timber.

In 1912, Leopold was promoted to supervisor of New Mexico's million-acre Carson National Forest. That same year, he married Estella Bergere, whose prominent Santa Fe family had been active in settling the Southwest. Leopold spent 18 months in 1913 and 1914 recovering from a severe case of nephritis, a sometimes fatal inflammatory kidney disease, and afterwards he accepted a less physically strenuous position as acting head of grazing at the Forest Service's district headquarters in Albuquerque.

In 1915, Leopold began pressing Forest Service employees to enforce fish and game laws—limitations on hunting—in New Mexico. Americans had hunted the country's native wildlife so aggressively in the late 1800s that many species were in danger of extinction, and hunters were advocating strict hunting laws to preserve deer, turkeys, and other commonly hunted wildlife. New Mexico and Arizona had agreed to let Forest Service rangers enforce their game laws when they became states in 1912, but rangers had not arrested a single person for violating them. Leopold created a handbook defining forest rangers' powers to limit hunting. He also traveled across New Mexico and Arizona to talk with citizens and local forest officers about forming local game protection associations, establishing wildlife refuges, and restocking lakes with trout. In addition, he founded a newspaper, The Pine Cone, the official bulletin of the New Mexico Game Protective Association.

To protect deer and other game, as well as cattle ranches, Leopold argued forcefully during the 1920s for completely eradicating populations of predatory animals: wolves, coyotes, bobcats, and mountain lions. “It is going to take patience and money to catch the last wolf or [mountain] lion in New Mexico,” he said in a 1920 speech to the National Game Conference (as quoted in Susan Flader's book Thinking Like A Mountain). “But the last one must be caught before the job can be called fully successful.” Leopold's efforts gained the admiration of former U.S. President and avid hunter Theodore Roosevelt, who sent him a supportive letter.

Between 1915 and 1924, Leopold worked in various administrative jobs with the forest service in the Southwest. In 1916 and 1917, he helped implement a new policy that added summer homes, campgrounds, and other recreational areas to the forests. From 1919 to 1924, he was placed in charge of operations for the Arizona and New Mexico forests, including personnel, finances, roads, trails, and fire control. Reluctant to see all forests opened to roads, he worked on a successful 1924 proposal to set aside a halfmillion acres in the Gila National Forest as a roadless wilderness preserve, an approach that eventually evolved into the National Wilderness Preservation Act of 1964. Meanwhile, Leopold wrote many newspaper and journal articles about game preservation and the health of wild land.

Moving to Wisconsin

In 1924, Leopold accepted a position as associate director of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. The job did not fit his interests in game management and wilderness protection, however, so he dedicated his spare time to those pursuits. He worked on a booklength manuscript, Southwestern Game Fields, which included life histories of wildlife in the Southwest, but changes in the region, including an explosion in the deer population, made the work outdated, and he abandoned the project. He joined a local conservation group and helped push for the passage of Wisconsin's Conservation Act of 1927, which created a department that oversaw the state's hunting laws and forests.

Leopold left the Forest Service in 1928 for a new project: compiling game surveys of the Midwest. He secured funding from hunting-gun manufacturers and traveled through nine states, consulting with hunters and local officials and scientists. He published his findings in his 1931 Report on a Game Survey of the North Central States, making him one of the country's top experts in hunted wildlife.

Leopold's second published book, Game Management, finished in 1933, became a classic wildlife management textbook. It promoted a new approach to dealing with game animals, instead of relying only on wildlife refuges and hunting limits or on breeding efforts. Leopold argued that wildlife managers had to understand animals' biology and their relationship to their habitats, and preserve, manage and restore those habitats. “The central thesis of game management,” he wrote in the book (as quoted by Flader in Thinking Like A Mountain), “is this: game can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it—axe, plow, cow, fire, and gun.”

In August of 1933, Leopold joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin. He and his students performed field research on wildlife and worked on wildlifepreservation programs that encouraged cooperation between farmers and hunters. In 1935, Leopold bought an old farm on the Wisconsin River in central Wisconsin's “sand country” that would become his retreat and muse for the rest of his life. He and his family planted thousands of trees there in an effort to restore its natural state.

Changing Philosophies

Later in 1935, Leopold traveled to Germany to observe forest and wildlife management there. He found the highly managed German forests too artificial. They had no predators or independent wildlife. Rangers fed deer on straw bales. Brick walls surrounded rivers. Fences protected recently planted trees. Leopold also saw that clear-cutting forests and letting them re-grow, as he had in the Southwest, produced inferior trees compared to forests with small, selective annual harvests. “We, Americans, have not yet experienced a bearless, wolfless, eagleless, catless woods,” Leopold wrote after his trip to Germany (as quoted in Marybeth Lorbiecki's biography, Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire). “We yearn for more deer and more pines, and we shall probably get them. But do we realize that to get them, as the Germans have, at the expense of their wild environment and their wild enemies, is to get very little indeed?”

The trip to Germany convinced Leopold that forests could not be controlled, but that foresters should preserve wild lands' natural balance. In 1939, Leopold presented a paper, “A Biotic View of Land,” arguing against old methods of wildlife management, which saw species as competing with each other and intervened to favor species people found useful (deer for hunting, corn for harvesting). Instead, he argued, conservationists needed to encourage diversity of species and stable, healthy land—wilderness that could always renew itself.

In 1943, Leopold was named a conservation commissioner in Wisconsin. He campaigned in favor of reducing deer herds and against eradicating wolves. It was a complete reversal from his public position of two decades earlier, but Leopold was putting his new views into action to address a concrete problem. With their natural enemies exterminated, deer were dying of starvation, their populations grown too large. Yet Leopold faced strong public opposition in Wisconsin, as the public was not ready to change its mind and allow predators to live freely.

The Classic Essays

World War II drew most of Leopold's graduate students out of school, so he spent more of his time writing literary and philosophical essays about wildlife and the land. In early 1944, Leopold began writing his landmark essay “Thinking Like A Mountain,” in which he vividly admitted that his years of wanting to eradicate predators were a mistake with terrible consequences for nature. In poetic language, he recalled shooting a wolf in the southwest decades earlier.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” he wrote (as quoted in Flader's book Thinking Like A Mountain). “I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.” Between then and the 1940s, he went on, “I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves.” As a result, he had seen mountains with “every edible brush and seedling” eaten to death by deer, followed by “the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd.” Nature replaces deer killed by wolves within a few years, he said, but a mountain range's overeaten vegetation still might not be replaced decades later.

By the 1940s, Leopold was famous in conservation circles, consulted on nearly every conservation issue of his time by more than a hundred government agencies, activist groups, professional societies, and journals. In 1947, he was elected president of the Ecological Society of America. In late 1947 or early 1948, he wrote his most important essay, “The Land Ethic,” which argued that people needed to develop a new ethic around preserving the health and integrity of natural areas. The essay would later become an important statement of the goals of the environmental movement. “A thing is right with it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community,” he wrote (as quoted in Flader's Thinking Like A Mountain). “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

In January of 1948, the federal government invited Leopold to help represent the United States at a 1949 United Nations conference on conservation. That April, he learned that Oxford University Press had accepted a collection of his essays, including “Thinking Like A Mountain” and “The Land Ethic,” for publication as a book. A week later, on April 21, 1948, Leopold died of a heart attack while helping to fight a grass fire on his neighbors' farm. He was 61.

Leopold's book of essays, titled A Sand County Almanac in tribute to the land where he wrote and set his writing, was published in 1949. His blending of natural history, scientific knowledge, and narrative and literary skill eventually made the work a classic. Though it fell out of print in the 1950s, it was republished as a mass-market paperback in the 1960s, and a new generation of people concerned about the environment discovered it. It has sold more than a million copies. “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us,” Leopold wrote in the book's foreword (as quoted by Curt Meine in an American National Biography article on him). “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”


Brown, David E., and Neil B. Carmony, editors, Aldo Leopold's Wilderness, Stackpole Books, 1990.

Flader, Susan L., Thinking Like A Mountain, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Loribiecki, Marybeth, Aldo Leopold: A Fierce Green Fire, Falcon Press, 1996.


Meine, Curt, “Leopold, Aldo,” American National Biography Online, http://www.anb.org/articles/13/13-00983.html (December 16, 2007).

Leopold, Aldo

views updated May 14 2018


Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), who was born in Burlington, Iowa, on January 11, was a pioneer of the American environmental movement. His essay "The Land Ethic," published in A Sand County Almanac (1966 [1949]), has become a foundational text of American environmental ethics. Leopold challenges his readers to reevaluate their relationship to the land they inhabit and act in accordance with a "land ethic" that "enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land" (Leopold 1966, p. 239). In his work the land and the biotic community become more than symbolic or abstract entities; they become beings with an intrinsic right to exist. Extending ethics and rights to the land, according to Leopold, necessarily "changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it" (Leopold 1966, p. 240). Leopold died in Baraboo, Wisconsin, on April 21.

Leopold's love of the land began when as a young naturalist he hunted and fished in his native Iowa. He took his interest in the natural world to Yale's School of Forestry in 1904. During his four years at the school founded by Gifford Pinchot (1865–1946), the first director of the U.S. Forest Service, Leopold absorbed the utilitarian philosophy of the early conservationists (Nash 1989). He served in the Forest Service from 1909 to 1928, working in Apache National Forest in Arizona and then managing the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. By 1928 his earlier studies in ecology and practice of game and forest management had taught him to see the world as a web of interrelated systems. He also came to understand the lasting consequences of individual action on the landscape. In "The Land Ethic" Leopold uses the term biotic pyramid to describe the dynamic relationships that exist among organisms and their environments. "Land," he argues, "is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals" (Leopold 1966, p. 253). In 1933 Leopold accepted an appointment in wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin.

The year 1935 was an important one for Leopold: His concern for vanishing American primitive areas led him to cofound the preservationist group the Wilderness Society. Leopold also purchased an abandoned, 120-acre farm in Sauk County, Wisconsin. It was in that setting that Leopold tried to articulate what it means to have an ethical relationship to the land. A Sand County Almanac, the record Leopold created of his years on the farm and his maturing environmental philosophy, was published in 1949, a year after he died fighting a fire on a neighbor's farm.

In his short piece "Axe in Hand" from Almanac Leopold provides an illuminating vignette on bias, showing how he imagines his relationship to the plants and animals that coinhabit his space and how he executes, sometimes literally, his decisions involving land management. The context for Leopold's dilemma is the felling of a tree; the decision he must make is between the white pine and the red birch, two species that crowd each other in those woods. Leopold examines the biases that influence a conservationist, which he defines as the axe wielder "who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of the land." He is specifically intent on examining the "logic, if any" behind his own biases (Leopold 1966, p. 73). Leopold understands that his biases are a filter through which he passes the details of the landscape, making his world and the objects in it comprehensible.

The examination of individual biases—in this case Leopold's inquiry into his preference for the pine over the birch—forms the first stage in the development of an ethical relationship to the land. What Leopold describes is land as a system with an integrity of its own. The boll weevil, for instance, will or will not attack the pine if certain relations with the birch exist or do not exist. Some plants will thrive and others will not, depending on whether the birch or the pine is there to give them shelter. When the axe wielder enters the scene, he has the potential to disrupt that system. His examination of bias enables Leopold to see all the possible consequences of his actions and act in a thoughtful manner.

In this essay Leopold paints a portrait of a community in which he is as much a part of the environment as are the trees, insects, and birds; he, like them, has a role to play. In "Axe in Hand" Leopold demonstrates what he calls in "The Land Ethic" the "ecological conscience"; that conscience, he writes, "reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land" (Leopold 1966, p. 258). Leopold summarized the principle behind the land ethic as follows: "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" (Leopold 1966, p. 262). Leopold's land ethic forces a reevaluation of the "value" of land broadly conceived and requires that limits be placed on the individual in favor of the health of the biotic community.


SEE ALSO Environmental Ethics;Multiple Use;Wildlife Management.


Callicott, J. Baird. (1989). In Defense of the Land Ethic: Essays in Environmental Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press. See the essay, "Leopold's Land Aesthetic."

Leopold, Aldo. (1966 [1949]). A Sand County Almanac. New York: Oxford University Press. Classic text of American environmental ethics; collection of essays detailing Leopold's experiences on his farm and his environmental philosophy.

Meine, Curt. (1991). Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Authoritative biography of Leopold.

Nash, Roderick Frazier. (1989). The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Traces the history of environmental ethics.

Scheese, Don. (1996). Nature Writing: The Pastoral Impulse in America. New York: Twayne.

Leopold, Aldo

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Leopold, Aldo (1887–1948)An American ecologist and author of Sand County Almanac (1949), in which he expounded his view that all living organisms are related and the biosphere they inhabit is a partnership to which humans belong. His book became very influential in the 1960s, in the early days of the environmental movement. Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, and educated in New Jersey and then Yale University, where he obtained a master's degree in forestry. He worked for the US Forest Service, then for the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturing Association, promoting game management. He was a keen hunter throughout his life. He became president of the Ecological Society of America and the Wildlife Society and was one of the founders, in 1935, of the Wilderness Society. From 1943 until his death he was a member of the Wisconsin Conservation Commission.

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Aldo Leopold

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