Aldo Leopold

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Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was an American environmentalist whose ethics of nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the left wing of the environmental movement, with his biocentric or holistic ethics regarding land. He emphasized biodiversity and ecology and was a founder of the science of wildlife management.

He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac (1949), which sold over a million copies.

In the debate between Conservation and environmentalism, Leopold was a leader of environmentalism and opposed conservation.


In 1909 Leopold, a recent graduate of the Yale Forest School, was assigned to the Forest Service's District 3 in the Arizona and New Mexico territories. He was first a forest assistant at the Apache National Forest in the Arizona Territory. In 1911, he was transferred to the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. Leopold's career, which kept him in New Mexico until 1924, included developing the first comprehensive management plan for the Grand Canyon, writing the Forest Service's first game and fish handbook, and proposing Gila Wilderness Area, the first national wilderness area in the Forest Service system. In 1933 he became Professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He purchased eighty acres in the sand country of central Wisconsin. The once-forested region had been logged, swept by repeated fires, overgrazed by dairy cows, and left barren. There he put his theories to work in the field, and eventually authored his best-selling A Sand County Almanac (1949), which he finished just before his death.


Early on Leopold was assigned to hunt and kill bears, wolves, and mountain lions in New Mexico. Local ranchers hated these predators because of livestock losses. However, Leopold came to respect the animals. He developed an ecological ethic that replaced the earlier "colonial Judeo-Christian wilderness ethic." Rethinking the importance of predators in the balance of nature resulted in the return of bears and mountain lions to New Mexico wilderness areas.

By the early 1920s, Leopold had concluded that a particular kind of preservation should be embraced in the national forests of the American West. He was prompted to this by the rampant building of roads to accommodate the "proliferation of the automobile" and the related increasingly heavy recreational demands placed on public lands. He was the first to employ the term wilderness to describe such preservation. Over the next two decades he added ethical and scientific rationales to his defense of the wilderness concept. In one essay, he rhetorically asked "Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?" Leopold saw a progress of ethical sensitivity from interpersonal relationships to relationships to society as a whole to relationships with the land, leading to a steady diminution of actions based on expediency, conquest, and self-interest. Leopold thus rejected the utilitarianism of conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt.

By the 1930s Leopold was the nation's foremost expert on wildlife management. He advocated the scientific management of wildlife habitats by both public and private landholders rather than a reliance on game refuges, hunting laws, and other methods intended to protect specific species of desired game. Leopold viewed view wildlife management as a technique for restoring and maintaining diversity in the environment rather than primarily as a means of producing a shootable surplus.

Wilderness also took on a new meaning; he no longer saw it as a hunting or recreational ground but as an arena for a healthy biotic community, including wolves and mountain lions. in 1935 he helped found the Wilderness Society, dedicated to expanding and protecting the nation's wilderness areas. He regarded the society as "one of the focal points of a new attitude--an intelligent humility toward man's place in nature."

See also

Further reading

  • Callicott, J. Baird, ed. Companion to A Sand County Almanac: Interpretive and Critical Essays. (1987). 308 pp.
  • Flader, Susan L. Thinking like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests (1974)
  • Flader, Susan L. The Sand Country of Aldo Leopold (1973).
  • Meine, Curt. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (1987), the standard biography
  • Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind, (3rd ed. 1982)
  • Strong, Douglas H. Dreamers & Defenders: American Conservationists. (1988) ch 6 online edition
  • Tanner, Thomas, ed. Aldo Leopold: The Man and His Legacy (1987).

Primary sources

  • Leopold, Aldo. Aldo Leopold's Wilderness: Selected Early Writings by the Author of A Sand County Almanac. ed. by David E. Brown and Neil B. Carmony, (1990). 249 pp.
  • Leopold, Aldo. The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays. ed. by Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott, (1991). 384 pp.
  • Leopold, Aldo. Game Management (1933, reprint 1986) 481 pp.