Aldo Leopold was one of the early leaders of the American wilderness movement and is acknowledged by many as the father of wildlife conservation in this country. From early childhood, Leopold was captivated by the natural world and was intent on learning through patient observations and, eventually, field studies the intricacies of the natural systems he encountered. Fresh from graduate school at the Yale School of Forestry, he established himself as a forward thinker within the US Forest Service. He recognized early in his career that the Forest Service for which he worked repeatedly enacted management policies without the necessary scientific information, and these policies were often more harmful than helpful to a healthy land. He set out to change this by applying sound science to public land management.
Leopold's public speeches and essays in the early 1920's on A Wilderness Policy, which advocated restraint in road building and the establishment of natural areas within national forests, inspired the first real public debate over the idea of wilderness. He is credited with establishing the first official wilderness area within the national forest system. In May 1924, just as Leopold was moving from the southwestern US to Wisconsin to head the Forest Products Laboratory of the USFS, the Gila Wilderness Area in New Mexico was created.
Leopold's interest and career eventually turned toward understanding and preserving wildlife populations. In 1933, the University of Wisconsin offered Leopold a position teaching in the first graduate program in game management in the nation, a position he held until his death. Here he mentored many undergraduate and graduate students and completed Game Management, as classic text still referenced today. As his career heightened, Leopold was recognized as an internationally respected scientist and a prolific writer of both scientific and policy articles and popular essays. Sadly, Aldo Leopold died of a heart attack on April 21, 1948 at the age of 61 while helping his neighbors fight a grass fire.
For many, Leopold is best remembered for A Sand County Almanac published together with Sketches Here and There. It is within this writing that his Land Ethic was revealed. The following is an excerpt:
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.... 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.
Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all of the things on, over, or in the earth.... The land is one organism. Its parts, like our own parts, compete with each other and co-operate with each other. The competitions are as much a part of the inner workings as the co-operations. You can regulate them--cautiously--but not abolish them.
The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it. The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, 1948
Edge of the Prairie web site contains more information about and links related to Aldo Leopold.
Bibliography of books by and about Aldo Leopold.