Aldo Leopold

“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 (Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac)

Today is Earth Day, celebrated across the US and around the world.  But I’m talking about yesterday, which was the 71st anniversary of the death of a conservationist who should have more recognition than he gets.  Aldo Leopold was an ecologist, forester, outdoorsman, and known by many as the father of modern wildlife management.

A graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, he worked with the Forest Service in the Southwest and later Wisconsin.  He eventually became the first Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin. His writings (hundreds of articles, reports, and essays, plus countless letters and journal entries) document an evolving view of how natural communities work – and how easily and carelessly humans sabotage them.  He advocated the scientific management of wildlife habitat, and the setting-aside of wilderness areas to preserve select lands in a roadless state.

In the course of his career, Leopold experimented with the tools conservationists had available to maintain and create wildlife habitat.   Policy and regulation worked well out west where most of the land was owned by the government;  financial incentives and subsidies were more effective among  midwestern landowners, but only as long as the payouts continued.  He determined that what was really needed was for landowners to develop an “ecological conscience,” a sense of right and wrong directed towards maintaining harmony with the natural community much as our social conscience is likewise directed towards harmony with the human community.

When I was a college student in a natural resources program, A Sand County Almanac was one of those books everyone was expected to read if not quote.  Among the collection of essays is the “The Land Ethic,” laying out the moral responsibility of humans to the natural world.

“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 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.”

This ethic is broadly drawn and would no doubt have evolved and been refined through feedback, discussion, and reflection.  Unfortunately, Aldo Leopold suffered a heart attack and died while fighting a fire on a neighbor’s land.  Thus, the posthumous treatise on the place of mankind in the natural community was his final word on the subject.

Yet his ideas and efforts have produced a legacy that lives on 7 decades later.  Nature-minded folk across the spectrum – conservationist and preservationist, hunter and animal rights activist – wave his words like gospels.  His ideas have influenced conservation policy and college curricula.

If you are an environmentalist of any stripe, I recommend you become familiar with Leopold’s writings.

Visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation

Aldo Leopold and the Birth of the Land Ethic,” on the Voices of the Wilderness podcast