An Elegy for Aldo
Aldo Leopold is a conservation giant from American history who built on the legacy of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau to greatly expand the conservation movement by developing and fostering a vision for Land Ethic.
In his seminal work, A Sand County Almanac (1949), he wrote that there is a need for a "new ethic", an ethic dealing with human's caring relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it. Leopold states the basic principle of a land ethic is the recognition that people are a part of the biological community, when he wrote: "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land... [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 fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."
Born in 1887 along the still semi-wild Mississippi River in Iowa, Leopold was always drawn to the outdoors. Even his earliest drawings featured local birds and school essays chronicled his hikes through the countryside. He graduated from Yale University's Forest School in 1909 before beginning his career with the U.S. Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico. During this period he and colleagues advocated setting aside large areas of the National Forests as wilderness and in 1924 succeeded in having the Gila Wilderness Area established. The Gila was the first administratively determined wilderness and would be a critical precursor to the Wilderness Act passed by the US Congress in 1964. After a 24-year career with the Forest Service he joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin in Madison to focus on wildlife conservation. Early in his university career he purchased 80 acres of logged, repeatedly burnt, overgrazed land. Putting his conservation theories to work and seeing the slow revitalization of this land was the basis for A Sand County Almanac.
While building his ideas about a land ethic, Leopold, along with others such as Olaus and Mardy Murie, Bob Marshall, and Benton McKaye, formed The Wilderness Society. The purpose of this new organization was to insure that wild blank spots on the map always remained to inform our scientific understanding of how the earth functions as well as places for people to reconnect with the wild that would reinvigorate our collective spirit. They also understood and worked to establish wild places everywhere from window boxes and urban gardens to state parks and federally designated wilderness areas. Today, wilderness is the highest protected status of land in the United States of America and is the clearest and strongest embodiment of Leopold's land ethic.
Leopold's conservation legacy lives on and continues to evolve through the work that we all do to protect and promote conservation at home and abroad. We hope you will continue to explore your own Land Ethic and commitment to land and wilderness.
(Image courtesy of The Aldo Leopold Foundation)