“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.”—Aldo Leopold
There’s no question that for hunters and anglers in the world today, conservation is the most important issue we face. Our ever-expanding population and the near-constant leaps and bounds taken by technology are placing demands on our natural resources that are literally earth shattering. The needs for oil, plastics, food sources, natural gases, etc. are growing. As responsible and ethical sportsmen, our need to respond with conservation efforts are growing as well. We need to protect our hunting future. The idea of hunters being conservationists is often met with scrutiny by those outside of the hunting world. “How can we care so much about something we kill?” To that point I always tell people to look at the man who is often viewed as the father of modern conservation: Aldo Leopold.
Aldo Leopold was a renowned writer, philosopher, scientist, conservationist, environmentalist, and hunter whose work helped the world take notice of the conservation issues threatening to destroy the outdoor world he loved. His book “A Sand County Almanac“ has sold more than two million copies since its publication in 1949, and is regarded as the archetype for finding balance and sustainability between human need for resources and protecting the health and well-being of the planet and its wildlife. He believed that conservation was a matter of ethics, that we as humans had the power to control what happened to the land we lived on and therefore we were responsible for it. Leopold wrote of land ethics, suggesting that, by hunting, we are reinserting ourselves into the natural order and helping to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the natural world—what he referred to as the “biotic community.”
Leopold didn’t start out his career as a famous conservationist, but rather as a hunter with an upbringing similar to many of us. Aldo was born in Burlington, Iowa in 1887. His father, Carl, was a hunter and angler who introduced his son to the outdoor world at a young age. Carl took his son to the forests with him, teaching him to hunt and fish, and the art of woodsmanship. Aldo was an eager and excellent student who found in the forest a place where his mind could wander and a joy he would never find anywhere else.
As he grew older he began to catalog his excursions in the forest, discovering he had a talent for observation and writing. Aldo excelled in school, graduating at the top of his high school class, but he always considered his true education to be the one he received on his family’s annual vacations to northern Michigan, where he was free to wander, hunt, and explore the fields and forests around Lake Huron. These excursions lit a fire of desire in the young writer to pursue a career that kept him in the outdoor world. In 1904, Aldo Leopold was accepted to the Yale School Of Forestry—a new program at the time—where he was to pursue a degree in wildlife management. That pursuit would eventually lead him to discover his true destiny.
After graduating from Yale, Leopold was sent to the Forest Service’s District 3 territory, which was made up of the New Mexico and Arizona territories. As a hunter, Leopold was thrilled with the assignment, as the area offered some of the best hunting in the country. His earliest task was to hunt and kill the bears, wolves, and mountain lions of the area, which were feared and viewed as threats to local ranchers’ livestock and the lives of their families. It was during this time that Aldo shot a wolf. He noted the “fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” The experience changed him, causing him to think more about what he was doing, and it shifted his thoughts about wildlife. He recognized that the outdoor world was a delicate balance and that every creature within it played a part in maintaining that balance. Leopold began to view the wilderness from an ecological standpoint and not one that stressed the need for human dominance.
After the incident, Leopold began writing of the importance of nature and the human responsibility of preserving it. By the early 1920s Leopold had become known for these “nature writings,” which were largely made up of his own personal diaries. He embraced the idea of a particular type of preservation of national forests and public lands that called for the least amount of human interference possible. He became an advocate for the importance of all animal species, including predators, and their roles in the natural cycle of the world. Leopold began to use the term “wilderness” synonymously with preservation. He wrote books on game management for the New Mexico and Arizona forestry departments that promoted ethical and scientific rationales behind preserving wilderness areas.
Leopold’s efforts later led to the creation of the Gila Wilderness Area, the first national wilderness area in the Forest Service System. This monumental victory in Leopold’s fight for preservation drew attention to him as a conservationist and led to his election as a professional member of the Boone and Crockett Club. He then transferred to Wisconsin where he became the associate director of the U.S Forest Products Laboratory in Madison. While working there he continued to write and speak out about conservation while hunting, finding a special love for the Midwestern wild game that he had so vigorously pursued as a young man.
In 1933, Aldo Leopold was appointed the professor of game management for the University of Wisconsin, where he did things like speak out for hunting seasons and bag limits, and initiated a committee to begin re-establishing “original Wisconsin.” This committee became a conservation group that set out to restore landscapes and natural plant species to the area. He continued to write books and papers based on conservation, hunting, fishing, and enjoying the fruits of his efforts until his death in 1948. After his passing, Leopold’s legacy continued to influence conservation efforts around the country.
The Wildlife Society honored him by creating a conservation award in his name in 1950. His five children created the Aldo Leopold Foundation, a not-for-profit conservation organization whose mission is to foster land ethics through their father’s philosophy by conducting educational and land stewardship programs. In 1980 the Aldo Leopold Wilderness area was established in the Gila National Forest, and the University Of Montana and Iowa State University both instituted programs in his name that teach students about sustainable agricultural practices, as well as how to improve protections and management of wilderness areas and parks.
In short, Aldo Leopold was a man who understood the importance of nature and how vital it is to preserve it. Through hunting and fishing, he discovered the wilderness to be a wondrous place. Through his writing he shared it with the world. In these trying times, when it seems our wild places are under constant attack, it is important to remember the legacy of Aldo Leopold. We should follow his philosophy and use it as an example of how to love nature and preserve it for generations to come.
Featured image courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation