Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic

A Conversation with Susan Flader

From the Environmental Review Newsletter Volume Three Number Five, May 1996


In the forward to A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold wrote, "We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man, nor for us to reap from it the aesthetic harvest it is capable, under science, of contributing to culture."
     Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was an early proponent of wilderness preservation in the U.S. Forest Service, a co-founder of the Wilderness Society, and a lifelong student of forests and wildlands. He wrote and worked to educate his students, his colleagues, and the public about game management, soil erosion, and land conservation. Phrases from his writings such as; land ethic, thinking like a mountain, and land health have become part of the language of modern conservationists:. Leopold's ideas were based on long and close observation of the natural world and anticipated many of the ideas of current conservation biologists: He learned as a young forest ranger the importance of grasses in controlling soil erosion in southwestern forests; he saw how  wildfire shaped and maintained healthy forests and watersheds; he learned how predators such as wolves and mountain lions keep deer populations in check.
     We spoke with Susan Flader, a Leopold scholar, about the development of Leopold's thinking from a utilitarian preoccupation with management of resource commodities to an ethical responsibility to restore and preserve ecosystems.
     Susan Flader is a professor of American western and environmental history at the University of Missouri at Columbia and a biographer of Aldo Leopold. Professor Flader received the Ph.D. in history and humanities from Stanford University in 1971 and has been at the University of Missouri since 1973. Her Stanford Ph.D. dissertation on the development of Leopold's thinking about game management was subsequently published as Thinking Like a Mountain, by the University of Missouri Press, 1974 [now available from University of Wisconsin Press, 1994. ed.] Professor Flader has written numerous articles, and authored or edited six books, including collection of Leopold's writings, The River of the Mother of God (1991) and an historical interpretation of the Missouri state park system, Exploring Missouri's Legacy (1992). She is also the current president of the American Society for Environmental History.

ER: Professor Flader, how did you learn about Aldo Leopold?

SF: I learned about Leopold while an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, in a German literature course where we were studying Thomas Mann. The professor compared Thomas Mann to Aldo Leopold and got blank looks from the class. "What? you don't know Aldo Leopold?" When he wanted to send a book to his friends in Germany that was the best America could produce, he told us he sent Sand County Almanac. So I thought if the book is that good, I had better get a copy. I went on to study history and humanities at Stanford University while the Wilderness Act was being debated in Congress. It occurred to me to combine my interest in the outdoors with my profession of history, and look into the idea of wilderness? I remembered that Leopold that had something to say about it. It turns out our focus on wilderness tends to constrict our understanding of what Leopold was after, his thinking was much broader. Aldo Leopold has a remarkable holding power: you can read his essays in Sand County Almanac and elsewhere again and again and constantly find new insights in them.

ER:Where does one start, to understand Leopold's abilities as a naturalist?

SF: He was born in 1887 in Burlington, Iowa, in a big house overlooking the Mississippi River, so he had migratory waterfowl flying up and downstream every spring and fall, and good access to hunting and fishing and birding and botanizing. We have his early letters and journals as a young boy in which he is identifying the birds and paying attention to the seasons and everything he was seeing in nature. He decided to follow his natural bent and became a forester instead of working in his father's desk factory. Forestry though, would give a more practical, utilitarian cast to his love of nature.
     In the early 1900s, forestry was just becoming a profession; the first graduate school of forestry in
the country was started in 1900 at Yale University endowed by Gifford Pinchot's father, and Leopold knew by 1903 that he wanted to study there. He entered Yale in 1905 - the year the Forest Service was established - and his letters home soon revealed his enthusiasm for sustained yield management, silviculture, forest mensuration, and other forestry skills. Leopold graduated in 1909 with a masters degree in forestry, and joined the Forest Service, where he was assigned to Arizona and New Mexico territories. He began on the Apache National Forest in Arizona, as a forest assistant, and by the age of twenty-five was supervisor of the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. A year later he was stricken with acute nephritis, a kidney disease brought on by exposure and he nearly died. He had to take eighteen months to recuperate and even then faced the prospect of no longer being able to lead the rugged life of a forest supervisor.

     At this juncture, Leopold decided to return to his youthful predilection for wildlife, but with a utilitarian emphasis. He decided to create a new sideline for foresters; the management of game on forest lands. He began to develop a science of game management that was modelled on the practice of forestry. That meant it would have a practical, economic purpose of commodity production: foresters were producing timber, wildlife managers would produce shootable game. In his early years, while struggling for acceptance of this new profession he hewed very close to the utilitarian model.

ER: Maybe he hewed to the utilitarian line because that was the only way he could make a conservationist agenda palatable to the public and the Forest Service.

SF: Leopold always had a broader view of nature. His first effort to put together a comprehensive statement on what we would think of as a land ethic was in an unfinished 1923 essay called "Some Fundamentals of Conservation in the Southwest." He began by assessing the basic resources of the Southwest forests: waters, minerals, soils. He thought the Forest Service ought to recognize more responsibility for dealing with soil erosion, but he had a hard time getting foresters to agree. They thought it was enough if they protected trees at the headwaters of streams, but Leopold was coming to the conclusion that it was not forests at the headwaters that would protect the watershed so much as grass - grass that would grow if grazing pressure was not too heavy and if fires were allowed periodically to run wild over the landscape. By the early 1920s, Leopold had grasped the concept that today we call fire ecology - the role of fire as a natural element in the system. This was heresy in the early Forest Service. In "Some Fundamentals of Conservation in the Southwest", he presented his ideas about soil erosion, arguing that destruction of the land is at least in part a result of human activity and therefore humans ought to recognize a responsibility for protecting and restoring the land. So he was making an ethical case for conservation as early as 1923.
     Leopold sent copies of the essay to colleagues in the Forest Service for their suggestions regarding publication. What he got instead were criticisms, especially of his view of soil erosion, the heretical part of his thinking. He put the essay in his desk, where it remained until his death. I think Leopold might not have been entirely comfortable with the philosophical ruminations in that essay either, because the next year he went back to his strength, which was reading the landscape, and published a classic ecological essay called "Grass, Brush, Timber and Fire in Southern Arizona", in which he laid out without recourse to ethical arguments, the case for his interpretation of the soil erosion problem, all heresies intact. And it wasn't until 1933 that he again ventured an expression of his ethical ideas, this time in a very famous essay, "The Conservation Ethic", initially delivered as a speech in New Mexico. The essay again deals with the problem of soil erosion but this time Leopold adopted an ethical framework that grew out of his own reading of the landscape, his own understanding of how the system functions. The 1933 essay would become the foundation for Leopold's "Land Ethic", the capstone of Sand County Almanac.
     At first reading one might think "The Conservation Ethic" and "The Land Ethic" are very similar. But on a more careful reading you notice in "The Conservation Ethic", the language of control: the utilitarian notion at the root of the early Forest Service and the whole Progressive Movement, that you could learn how the system functioned well enough manipulate it and control it in the public interest. Leopold was still using that language in 1933. It appears also in his book Game Management (1933) which
became the pre-eminent textbook in the field of game management for decades. Today we might look back at Game Management and marvel at its aesthetic content, which is truly remarkable for a textbook. But if we are trying to follow the development of Leopold's thinking, we need topay attention to the language of control, the fundamental basis for his concept of management. It was that notion about the fundamental purpose of wildlife management that was to change in the mid-to-late 1930s. In 1933, Leopold was still thinking in utilitarian forestry terms that the ultimate end was to produce valuable commodities: timber, deer, or other wildlife.

ER: All the time he was kicking around this idea of human ethical evolution.

SF: Yes. But it is an ethical evolution that initially was a prop for conservation - the "wise use" of resources, or the sustained production of valued commodities. He often made the case that if you take care of these basic commodities, other less economically valuable elements of the system will also be saved. So the aesthetic idea was always there, but the basic purpose of management was commodity production. That is what finally changed after the mid-1930s.
     The change in Leopold's thinking occurred quite suddenly, keyed to three experiences: The first was his trip to Germany in 1935 where he went to study game management and forestry as the Germans had been practicing it for more than a hundred years.  But he found a system that was much too artificialized for his tastes. And he began to realize that we still had the possibility of managing lands in a much more natural manner in the United States.

ER: What did he see in Germany?

SF: He saw forests of spruce with branches wrapped around their trunks so the bark wouldn't be stripped by the deer to satisfy a vitamin deficiency. It was a wildlife desert. There were magnificent forests with deer, but the deer were being fed on crops that were grown outside the forest. It was a wholly artificialized system. Owls were almost non-existent, and other predatory bird species were much less numerous than they should have been. The river channels were engineered in straight lines instead of the original meandering watercourses. The landscape was fully and firmly controlled, but it was artificial and Leopold didn't like it.
     The next experience was the acquisition of his own land, what he and his family came to call "the shack" on the Wisconsin River  where he started to restore a worn-out farm to some measure of ecological integrity. He thought he knew exactly what to do but the land did not always respond as he thought it ought to. This instilled a sense of humility in him because he learned he did not have control of the landscape; at best, he might be able to nudge it one way or another.

ER: What was he doing to restore the farm?

SF: He planted trees, mostly pines, but they suffered more than ninety percent mortality. And then, if he was successful in getting them to grow, maybe the rabbits would nip off their leaders, or the deer or weevils or floods would get them. Most of the problems were natural phenomena, but it was enough to instill humility in someone who fancied himself a land manager, who understood how things should be done and who thought he was able to control the system.
     The third experience in the mid-1930s was two trips to northern Mexico to hunt deer in the Sierra Madre of northern Chihuahua along the Rio Gavilan. He realized that was a healthy ecosystem there: fires still burned periodically; there were still wolves and mountain lions taking the deer, but the deer were thriving; and the streams flowed between mossy banks. They were not all torn out and gravelly like many of the streams in southern Arizona and New Mexico. He realized that even when he had been promoting the establishment of wilderness like the Gila in southwest New Mexico, just over the border, he had been looking at sick land.
     His experiences in Mexico, Germany, and at his farm taught him there was a more appropriate purpose for land management: That was to restore a healthy ecosystem. The concept of land health became a key concept for him. Land health was the idea that a natural system had a basic resilience that would enable it to maintain itself and survive wildfire or windthrow or disease. He came to this realization in the mid-1930s even though the elements of the idea were in his writings before: the aesthetic sense, the ethical sense, the love of the land and wildlife. Now he was rethinking what the ends of his profession were, defining them not in terms of production of commodities but rather in terms of restoration of land health.

ER: Leopold was founding the Wilderness Society, teaching students, restoring his farm, travelling Europe and the Southwest.

SF: When I began work on his biography, I realized there were way too many leads to follow, so I concentrated on his work with deer management. My friends couldn't understand how a person who was getting a degree in history and humanities could possibly be writing a book about deer management. But it affords a good insight into Leopold's thinking, because he changed about 180 degrees over the course of his life on everything he ever thought about deer management. Deer were one of those commodities. Early on he was trying to produce more deer, and later, after the mid-30s, he realized that deer in overabundant numbers were a threat to the health of the ecosystem. Deer management was a way for me to figure out the progression of his ideas.
     I now realize that his biography could also have been written through a focus on his interest in soil conservation, which is to say the integrity of watersheds. In soil conservation you can see the change in his thinking in the early 1920s as he was travelling over the forests of the Southwest on inspection trips as an assistant district forester and asking, What is happening here? Why is this soil eroding? How is this system functioning? He had a much broader, more holistic view with respect to soil management in the early 1920s, than he did with game management.

ER: American forestry was modeled on German forestry wasn't it?

SF: Yes. The practice of silviculture and the concept of sustained yield management came from Germany and from Pinchot's studies in France also. It was very utilitarian. But there were American roots also, in administrative science, which drew on the concepts and techniques of American industrial management, and also in American plant ecology, primarily the concept of plant succession to a climax community, which was presumed to be stable.
     In early forest management, at least as the American foresters practiced it, they were managing for those climax species, which is why they emphasized cutting only mature and specifically selected trees. The Germans were much more willing to entertain other kinds of cutting, including clearcutting, because they did not have that ecological model of the stable climax forest community quite as firmly in their heads. That model of forest ecology was developed just at the time that American forestry was becoming established, and tended to see fire, disease, windthrow, and man himself as being outside of a normal system. And it is that model of ecology that had to be broken down and re-conceptualized. That transition occurred in the mid-1930s for Leopold and leading ecological thinkers, though it did not penetrate most forestry ranks until decades later.

ER: The Forest Service had a good reputation for conservation at its start.

SF: Forestry was the essence of conservation as it was promoted in this country during the Progressive Era at the turn of the century; Forest conservation and also water conservation, especially as related to land reclamation in the West. President Theodore Roosevelt made conservation a national moral crusade, and he turned to his friend Gifford Pinchot to lead it. So when Leopold wanted to get the same kind of credibility and recognition for wildlife conservation he modelled it on the profession of forestry.
ER: The Forest Service's reputation carried through until the 1950s.

SF: Sure. Up until World War II at least. If you wonder how Leopold could be comfortable functioning in the Forest Service, you have to remember what the agency was like in the early years. The plain fact is that there was very little demand for timber from the national forests until World War II and after, because there was plenty of timber still available on private land. So the early foresters, even though they talked the language of sustained yield management, had to find other justifications for all the lands they had. So they were quite willing to develop range management for cattle and game management and various kinds of recreation, even including wilderness areas, because there was not that much pressure on the timber resource.
     Then finally, during and after World War II, when there was a great demand for timber from the public forests for the war effort and for post-war housing, paper, and other products, the foresters began working as foresters, emphasizing sustained yield management and timber production. The abundance of "over-mature" timber in the forests coupled with new harvesting technologies and new uses for early successional species such as aspen and lodgepole pine led also to new rationales for clearcutting as a preferred harvest technique. Foresters were true to their training, but all of a sudden it was having more of an impact on the forests, at the same time as the public was demanding more access for recreation and protection of aesthetic values. So Leopold was quite comfortable and well respected in the early Forest Service because he was the one developing all these other sidelines, but the growing public acceptance of his ideas by the late 1960s was viewed as a threat by many practicing foresters.

ER: Did Leopold figure out the reasons for the deer overpopulation in the Southwest?

SF: The most famous case of deer overpopulation and collapse was on the Kaibob National Forest north of the grand Canyon in the early to mid-1920s. Leopold followed those events closely but was not directly involved, because the Kaibob was not administered by the Southwestern District. Leopold had begun in the early 1920s to work on a book titled Southwestern Game Fields, changed later to a more pointed focus on "Deer Management in the Southwest", but in the end, never published. He was going to draw on his experiences with deer management in the Gila National Forest where deer numbers were very low in the late 1920s and predator numbers were quite high, mountain lions and wolves especially. Leopold worked with local sportsmen, stockmen, and forest officers to establish game refuges within the forest and develop effective predatory animal control; meaning hunting and trapping. Leopold actually favored extermination of the big predators in those years. And they promoted good enforcement of the one-buck law too. In 1924, just as Leopold was about to leave the Southwest to accept a job in Madison, Wisconsin, the Forest Service adopted his recommendation to establish a large wilderness area in the Gila, the first in the nation. Shortly after leaving the Southwest, Leopold heard reports of damage from overbrowsing by deer on the Gila. By 1929, when overpopulation was becoming severe, Leopold assented to Forest Service proposals to open the refuges, relax the control of predatory animals, and allow more liberal hunting. But the Forest Service also proposed that an old wagon road be reconstructed into the Gila Wilderness so that more deer hunters could get in to hunt out more of the deer. Leopold was strongly opposed to this violation and tried to get colleagues across the nation to join in opposition. But the Forest Service went ahead with the road.

ER: They had trouble managing the Gila Wilderness so they put a road through it?

SF: Yes. The road went right through the middle of the wilderness, through the soft country where deer abounded. Once four-wheel-drive vehicles or trucks could get within the protective wall of mountains they could go almost anywhere in that central core of the wilderness, and it was so thoroughly violated that that part of the wilderness was eventually decommissioned.

ER: How did that deer overpopulation in the Gila resolve?

SF: After the road went in, more hunters and more liberal seasons were able to keep the deer numbers
somewhat under control. But periodically there is overpopulation just as there is today in many parts of the country and as there was in Wisconsin in the 1940s when Leopold began fighting the battle all over again.

ER: Why was wilderness so important to Leopold?

SF: His earliest definition of wilderness was country big enough to absorb a two-week trip going in by pack horse. And it was important to him that the wilderness remain roadless.  After World War I, the good roads movement drove roads through most of the remaining wild country in the Southwest and he saw the automobile taking over the area. His initial assignment in the Southwest in 1909 was to map and cruise the timber along the route of a proposed road in the Apache National Forest.  Even then he wrote home to his parents about "this fool mountain road."  By the 1920s, Leopold saw tourism as probably more of a threat to wilderness even than logging and grazing. He was helping to develop tourism in certain areas, but he thought it needed to be kept within limits. He feared the end of wild country once people had access with gasoline powered vehicles.

ER: Wasn't the subjugation of the wilderness the point of the westward expansion?

SF: Yes, but to Leopold that gave wilderness special historical value. He defended wilderness early on as providing a certain kind of recreation that was going to be in danger of disappearing - wilderness hunting. He published an early article called "A Plea for Wilderness Hunting Grounds." Another of his key articles was "Wilderness as a Form of Land Use," in which he defended wilderness on historical grounds: Wilderness was part of the culture of America. The pioneer experience of America was worked out in wilderness and we ought to retain some, including the frontier ranches, so we have a sample of what this country was built from. Then later in the 1930s, after the transition in his thinking, he started talking about the value of wilderness for preserving and studying what we now call biodiversity, wilderness as a land laboratory.

Leopold's philosophy, especially as he presents it in A Sand County Almanac, was grounded in love of nature. He was trying to bring us back to a more intense consciousness of land. We begin with an aesthetic sense, from which he hoped would grow a sense of obligation to to restore and maintain the land. His philosophy is based on love; it is not based on fear of the consequences if we misuse the land. Leopold was trying get people to love nature and to come to ecological understanding and a sense of obligation.

ER: Leopold left the Forest Service for the University of Wisconsin in the early 1930s. What effect did that have on his thinking about nature?

SF: Leopold left the Forest Service in 1928 to conduct game surveys in the north central states. And then in 1933 he accepted a newly created chair of game management housed in the department of agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin. The Depression, the Dustbowl, the natural and cultural devastation of the 1930s were factors in his intellectual development. He and his new colleagues were thinking of game management as a new way to deal with ravaged land and he began to think more culturally, he was not thinking just about techniques of management; he was thinking about how we live our lives, how we develop our public institutions, our sense of civic responsibility.
     Leopold's early efforts at game management, like his early efforts at ecological restoration at the shack, were not successful. And I think that instilled in him a realization that we do not have complete control of the system. This made him more ready to accept the goal of land health and more willing also to consider cultural dimensions of environmental degradation.
     I think he saw his work as part of the problem of supporting life on the planet. When World War II broke out, he began to put into his lectures ruminations about how we get along with other people in the world, and how we can create sustainable systems. Toward the end of World War II he began working with a university committee on post-war planning, thinking how wildlife and soil conservation would relate to the larger problems of sustainable land use. Through all that time, the concept of land health was vital to him.

ER: We are only recently coming to understand that a healthy landscape or ecosystem still contains disease, insect infestations, wildfires; what humans call disasters.

SF: That is what Leopold would have said. I think Leopold's point here is that we do not thoroughly understand natural systems, so let's at least realize that the natural world has functioned for much longer than human beings have been around, and let us not think that we have to impose our own understanding of the moment on the system and try to control it in our own image.

ER: Leopold used the analogy of natural systems being like a clock; you don't throw away the pieces just because you don't know what they do.

SF: Yes, but that clock analogy is mechanistic. He said "The first prerequisite of intelligent tinkering is to keep every cog and wheel"; that is a throwback to his earlier education.

ER: How is that a throwback?

SF: It is mechanistic: If you just keep all the pieces, you can make everything work just fine. There is a certain amount of arrogance that. I think Leopold's understanding of land health had a much larger dose of humility; it involved a respect for processes rather than just pieces, components.  
     What Leopold was writing and saying in the late 1930s and 1940s is what land managers are finally coming around to today. It is only in the last few years that the Forest Service and the Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service have begun to talk about ecosystem management.
     That lag is partly a function of history, because when Leopold was developing the idea of land health in the 1940s, we were also developing all these new technologies - exhibitions of human power and arrogance - the atomic bomb and jet propulsion, and air conditioning, and synthetic chemicals and persistent pesticides. There were demands of increased population and demands on America because of our place in the world leading the fight against international menace of communism, so we all pulled together. This was the American way to exercise control through our science and technology. It was done through the Forest Service in our management of the national forests and through the kind of agricultural technology we developed in the post-war years. After World War II we went in the opposite direction that Leopold would have wished, and it is only now, fifty years later, that we can see some of the consequences of that course and begin to appreciate where we went wrong. The Forest Service has had to go through the humiliation of going from one of the white hats to wearing the black hat in the eyes of many. We are beginning to realize we have to find a better way to manage our resources, and we are finding the way Aldo Leopold pointed out for us in the 1940s.

Copyright 1996 Environmental Review