Historical Biography: Introduction To Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold was one of the founders of the environmental movement. Describes his interest in nature and his influence on policy.

From an early age, Aldo Leopold appreciated the natural world around him. He grew up in Iowa, where his father took him hiking and hunting in the Mississippi River marshes. By eleven he could already identify all the birds he saw in the family's yard. He went to Yale University, where he majored in forestry. Learning early about the abuse of the country's forested lands, he wrote an essay criticizing the timber industry for considering profit over land use.

Upon graduation from college, he hired on with the forest service. In 1909, the forest service sent him to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. His goal was to create a game refuge in the area. But the forest service dismissed his idea because it did not consider wildlife protection part of its charter.

In 1911, the forest service sent him to New Mexico, where he worked in the Carson National Forest. He loved the country, even though the work he did was physically demanding. He often led crews into the mountains for surveys. While working in New Mexico, he met the love of his life, Maria Alvira Estella Bergere, the daughter of a wealthy New Mexico rancher. In 1912 they were married at Santa Fe's St. Francis Cathedral. They lived in Tres Piedras, which was the headquarters for the forest service. Leopold built a house there that overlooked the beautiful Rio Grande Valley. It was a perfect place to study the land that he loved.

After two years, he moved to Albuquerque with his wife and son. They lived at the edge of the city near the Rio Grande's flood plain. The couple had another son soon after they arrived so had to move into a larger house. Leopold built another fine house on the edge of the wilderness. There he maintained an office where he wrote speeches, editorials, and letters. He advocated raising game on land that could not support domestic livestock. He fought against overgrazing of the thin soils of the southwest, which were already badly eroded. He served as the secretary to the New Mexico Game Protective Association. This group successfully raised the number of mule deer, antelope, black bear, elk, and wild turkey found in the state.

He spent some time in the Grand Canyon area, studying the tourist camping areas. He saw that the river was polluted with sewage. He was appalled at the garish neon signs erected on concession stands and on rock formations. Garbage was accumulating everywhere. Leopold, forest supervisor Don Johnson, and others proposed ways that the public could use this area while keeping it in pristine condition.

During World War I, he served as secretary of Albuquerque's chamber of commerce. One of his projects was to create a beautiful city park. He laid the groundwork for it, though it wasn't built until the late 1920s. But in preparation, the city bought several pieces of land along the Rio Grande for the future park.

After the war, Leopold was in charge of overseeing all the forest land of the southwest. He held that position until 1924. He was appalled at the destruction of the forests. Clearcutting was becoming a problem. Once trees were cut down, the tree roots no longer held the soil together. The soil eroded into streams, causing havoc with water-borne species. Excess water run-off due to erosion was also flooding some areas. He became concerned about soil conservation. But he believed that the same methods used to destroy the land could be used to recover it.

He wrote the first handbook for the forest service about that time. He also began questioning the fire fighting policy and predator control policies. He questioned whether man should interfere in natural processes. He explored the Gila river area, which was nearly untouched by roads or buildings. He noticed that the land seemed healthier than the forest lands he had recently seen. He realized that it would be easier to protect the land, than to try to rehabilitate it after the fact. In 1922, he wrote proposal to permanently protect the entire 750,000 acres of the Gila River valley. In 1924 the area was established in the Gila National Forest. It was the first such designation in the U.S. For this, Leopold is known as the Father of the National Forest Wilderness System.

In 1924, the forest service transferred him to the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. At first, Leopold was not happy leaving his beloved Southwest. He was not happy about being put in a desk job. The laboratory was mostly concerned with research on commercial products to be made from harvested trees. This was the exact opposite of Leopold's bent. However, he did enjoy the classes he taught where he took students on field trips and counseled graduate students. Some of them became wildlife biologists. He attended a three month course in Germany on forestry and wildlife management. After four years in Madison, he quit the job. He started writing full time and hired out as a game and forestry consultant. He published a book on game management in 1933. For the first time, zoology, biology, ecology, and forestry were discussed together.

Leopold knew he was starting to make a name for himself when in 1935, Bob Marshall and other conservation advocates formed the Wilderness Society. They asked Leopold to be their president. He did not want the notoriety or the headache, but agreed to be a founder. He continued to study the environment and advocate preservation and wise use. He studied in Chihuahua, Mexico, where he studied the concept of the land as a living organism. After that he stressed the interrelationship between biodiversity and healthy land. He said: "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 1941, Alfred A. Knopf publishers approached him about publishing some of his essays. They thought his writing would have broad appeal. Leopold wasn't keen on the idea, so it was three years before he did anything about it. Finally he submitted 13 essays, but his proposal was rejected. He reworked some of them and made them anecdotal. In April 1948, Oxford University Press bought a collection of his essays. The collection was published as "A Sandy County Almanac." The essays were stories of Leopold's observations of nature around him, the passing of the seasons, and the wildlife, and every living thing had a niche in the ecosystem.

When he died, he was recognized as a pioneer in the conservation movement. He argued the wise use of land long before it became politically correct. In the 1960s, "A Sand County Almanac," was revisited and became widely read colleges. His home in New Mexico still stands today and is used by the forest service. His words are still looked upon as advise for future generations of environmentalists. After his death, his five children formed the Aldo Leopold Institute, a non-profit organization with the goal teaching people to care for the land and its creatures. The Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, based in Missoula, Montana, carries on his work around the country. The Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, Wisconsin, educates the public about the interwoven harmonies of nature.

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