Leopold, Aldo

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Aldo Leopold was an American forester and conservationist famous for his activism, his impact on American environmentalism and his development of the idea of a land ethic. He lived much of his life in Wisconsin, working for almost 20 years at UW-Madison prior to his death in 1949. He spent much of his time at his property in Baraboo, where he would write his most famous work, A Sand County Almanac. His writings remain canon within the American environmental movement and were also influential on the growth of the wider field of environmental ethics. He is remembered within Wisconsin in a number of ways, including through an institute and a series of state trails that bear his name.

Aldo Leopold (left)
Aldo Leopold, left, at a meeting of the Wilderness Society Council. Source: [1]


Early Life

Aldo Leopold was born on January 11th, 1887 in Burlington, Iowa. His father was Carl Leopold, a desk-maker, and his mother was Clara Starker, Carl's first cousin. In his youth, Leopold showed an intense interest in the natural world, hunting with his father and spending a great deal of time in the wilderness around his home studying and sketching the nature there.

As a teenager, Leopold became interested in attending the new forestry school at Yale, established in 1900. In 1904 he began attending classes at Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, a preparatory school. In 1905 he started his undergraduate work at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale before moving on to his master's work in forestry in 1906.[1]

Forest Service

In 1909, Leopold joined the US Forest Service, formed in 1905. He would work for the service until 1924, with only a brief hiatus as the US entered WW1, during which time he worked for the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. His initial assignment was as an assistant at Apache National Forest in southeastern Arizona. By 1911, at age 24, Leopold was promoted to managing the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. It was during his time working in the southwest that Leopold would first begin to appreciate the importance of wilderness and argue for its necessity. A formative moment in his life occurred in this period when as a young ranger in New Mexico he shot a mother wolf and saw "a fierce green fire die" in her eyes.[2]

More generally, he was noted for being a passionate and forward thinking forester throughout his career. Some of his notable contributions to the forest service include authoring the first game and fish handbook and the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon. in 1923 he was elected an associate member of the Boone and Crockett Club. In 1924, Leopold accepted a transfer to the US Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, joining it as associate director and bringing his time with the US Forest Service to a close.[3]


In 1933, Leopold was appointed Professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department, the first professorship of its kind. He owned a home near the UWM campus, where he would live with his family. When not at this home or at the university, Leopold spent a much of his time at an 80-acre property he purchased in Baraboo, Wisconsin. This property was worn out farmland and would serve as a laboratory for testing many of the ideas about wilderness and nature Leopold had developed over his life. His time spent here would become the basis for his most famous work, A Sand County Almanac.[4]


Aldo Leopold died on April 21st, 1948. He had a heart attack while helping to fight a grass fire on his neighbors land near his own Baraboo property. Tragically, he died shortly before his Sand County Almanac was published in 1949.


Sand County Almanac

During his time at the Baraboo property, Aldo Leopold experimented with his ideas about nature and ecology extensively. The result was A Sand County Almanac, a mixture of ecological observations and philosophical musings communicated through a series of notes and essays. The first section deals directly with what Leopold observed about the ecology of his Baraboo land, month by month. The second and third sections are a series of essays about wilderness and philosophy.

Notable essays include Thinking Like a Mountain in the second section, which deals with Leopold's transformational moment with the mother wolf in New Mexico, and The Land Ethic, the concluding essay of the book. Other insights include Leopold's contention that "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." He also noted the irony of the practice of conservation, seeking to protect wilderness from people by encouraging people to use it in order to garner political support.[5]

Land Ethic

One of the most important of Aldo Leopold's ideas was that of the land ethic, fleshed out in his essay of the same name. The land ethic is essentially the idea that mankind must recognize other natural life and resources as members of the same biotic community and give them their due respect. This includes respecting their right to exist and working to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem. Put in his own words, 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."


The importance of Aldo Leopold's ideas were considerable. He formed the Wilderness Society, an early environmental group that worked to expand and protect wilderness areas in the United States and continues its work into today.[6] He was respected as the foremost expert on wildlife management during his time, and his ideas have influenced American conservation and environmentalism ever since. Outside of the narrow scope of US environmentalism, Leopold's land ethic can be seen as an early incarnation of the science of ecology. Ideas about ecology would become extremely important to environmentalism down the line. His emphasis on the rights of the biotic community can also be seen as analogous to deep green ideas.


Aldo Leopold Foundation

The Aldo Leopold Foundation was formed by Leopold's children in 1982. It owns and manages his old Baraboo property and carries out a number of education and land management programs. As executor of his estate, the foundation also manages his body of work and promotes scholarship related to it. The 2012 documentary A Fierce Green Fire was a collaborative effort between the foundation and the US Forest Service.

Other Legacies

Aldo Leopold's name is born by a trail system in the state of Wisconsin, the Aldo Leopold Legacy Trail System.[7] A portion of the Gila National Forest also bears his name, the Aldo Leopold Wilderness.[8] In 1993, the US Forest Service established the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute at the University of Montana-Missoula, the only federal institute of its kind.[9]


Additional Sources

  • Meine, Curt. 1988. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-11490-2

External Links

Article History

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