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Aldo Leopold's Wilderness

Aldo Leopold Foundation

The pioneering conservationist advocated ecologically responsible land management before it was cool.

In the twenty tweens, one can hardly go a day without hearing about the green movement. With so much focus these days on conservation and protecting the environment, it seems obvious – we need to work to keep some areas of our world wild, in their natural state.

But this hasn’t always been so obvious. A hundred years ago, even those who worked with the wilderness – even those who called themselves conservationists – wanted to gain mastery over the land, rather than tread lightly on it. Aldo Leopold was one of the first to challenge that goal.

Born Jan. 11, 1887, in Burlington, Iowa, Aldo Leopold grew up loving the outdoors. A Mississippi River town, Burlington provided the boy with water and woods, bluffs and islands, a wealth of natural places to explore. He loved woodcraft and birding and hunting.

That might seem a little strange – that the boy who would grow up to be the father of wilderness conservation loved hunting. But hunters were the face of conservationism at that time. The focus was on making wildlands serve the needs of people. A forest could be a forest, but it would be even better if it provided us with lumber and flourishing game. So individuals, communities and governments allowed widespread clear-cutting and worked to eliminate the predators that would compete with us for game.

Leopold was a part of it, in his younger days working for the Forest Service. While stationed in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico in the 1910s and '20s, one of his duties was to hunt and kill wolves, mountain lions and bears. No one questioned the importance of killing these vicious predators: it was obvious. They attacked and killed livestock and game – they were in direct competition with humans.

In his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold remembered the kill that changed the way he thought. He recalled coming upon a pack of wolves with his Forest Service coworkers:

“In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the 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.”

What began in that instant was Aldo Leopold’s realization of the vital importance of predators. The wolf, along with her fellow predators, was more than just a fearsome killer. She was a key part of the ecosystem around her. Remove one wolf from the wilderness, and you strike a very small blow to the balance of nature. Remove them all – as we were determined to do a hundred years ago – and you destroy the balance as surely as a wrecking ball destroys a house.

Once Leopold’s eyes were opened, he began to see all the damage we’ve done to our wilderness in the name of managing it. He found that when a population of predators is depleted or eliminated from a wildland, the animals they once hunted, notably deer in many wilderness areas, are allowed to flourish. While that might sound like a magical forest – happy, fat deer, living without any fear of the wolf’s claw, and easy pickings for human hunters – in reality it’s anything but. Those happy, fat deer eat their favorite wildflowers and shrubs to extinction, completely changing the character of the forest floor. And they breed and breed, overwhelming the area’s resources until there are more deer than the land can support and their health plummets.

Leopold saw this kind of ecosystem breakdown in action on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau, where the systematic destruction of thousands of predators led to a deer boom…and then in the following years, the deer over-browsed their favorite foods, culminating in a plummeting population of starving deer. Killing predators to create a surplus of game had backfired.

This disaster, along with other examples of land management that did more harm than good, led Leopold to formulate his concept of a land ethic. At the heart of the land ethic was this statement by 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.” In other words, we must think before we act on nature: how will what we’re about to do affect the ecosystem? What kind of ripple effect will our action have – not just on the thing we’re acting on (e.g. a wolf we kill), but on all the species around it (e.g. deer, the food eaten by deer, the other species that eat that food, etc.)?

A Sand County Almanac (Wikimedia Commons) Leopold’s essay “A Land Ethic” was included in his book A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays he had written through the years, published by his son shortly after his death. In his essays – which also include the above “Thinking Like a Mountain” excerpt – Leopold muses about his boyhood, the areas where he grew up and lived and worked, and the seasons. And he challenges conventional ideas about wildlife, urging us to find a way to live in harmony with the land. A Sand County Almanac was published to little note in 1949, but green movement trendsetters in the 1970s discovered and embraced the book and Leopold’s ideas. Today, it’s a giant of environmental writing, as important as Thoreau’s Walden or Carson’s Silent Spring.

Aldo Leopold died April 21, 1948, at the age of 61. He had seen the country and its wildlands – and the way we often mismanaged them in the name of land management. He responded throughout his life by reminding us of how very important our wilderness is, not just for itself, but for humans, too: “What avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”