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Aldo Leopold and 'A Sand County Almanac'

How did Leopold influence a generation of conservationists?


aldo leopold

Aldo Leopold, 1887-1948.


Aldo Leopold is often considered the godfather of wilderness preservation. His best-known book, A Sand County Almanac, may be the most eloquent plea for the conservation of wilderness ever written. Discover more about the life and times of one of the world's most influential environmental leaders.

Leopold's Early Life

Rand Aldo Leopold was born January 11, 1887, in Burlington, Iowa. At the time, much of Iowa was still wilderness, and like many budding conservationists, Leopold spent his youth exploring the woodlands, prairies and rivers near his childhood home.

An avid student, Leopold was able to attend a college-prep school in New Jersey, which enabled him to get accepted to Yale University. His motivation for attending Yale was clear: Gifford Pinchot, an early advocate of conservation, had started a program in forestry at the university. At the time, it was one of the only forestry programs of its kind anywhere.

Leopold and the Forest Service

In 1909, shortly after graduating from Yale, Leopold began a career with the U.S. Forestry Service, which assigned him to the Arizona and New Mexico territories. Part of his work involved the indiscriminate killing of wolves, bears and cougars that preyed upon the region's livestock. Eventually, however, he came to reject those killings as senseless destruction. He later wrote:

"A half-dozen other [wolves], evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy...

"We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes -- something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

A New Land Ethic

His experiences in the Southwest prompted a sea-change in Leopold's philosophy on the uses of land, forests and animals. He began to argue passionately for a forestry management ethic that was rooted in a holistic, "biocentric" model, where animals, plants and people were part of one living, breathing organism. His ethos put him in direct opposition to his former mentor, Pinchot, who believed in managing wilderness for timber, mining and other purposes.

Leopold's concepts were radical for their time, but he was able to convince his superiors in the Forest Service to put them to use: in 1924, almost a million acres of New Mexico wilderness was set aside as the Gila Wilderness, to be managed for no other purpose than preservation of natural resources.

Leopold's success didn't go unnoticed, and in 1928 he left the forest service to move with his family to Wisconsin, where he eventually established a new Department of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin. Shortly thereafter, Leopold published a landmark book summarizing his work in conservation, Game Management.

A Sand County Almanac

In 1935, the Leopolds purchased a family farm near Baraboo, Wisc., that was to serve as a meeting place, library, studio and laboratory for many of Leopold's colleagues and their ideas. While living there, Leopold worked on the book that was to become his most memorable legacy, A Sand County Almanac.

Tragedy struck in 1948 when Leopold was helping to fight a wildfire on a neighbor's property -- he suffered a fatal heart attack battling the blaze. Shortly after his death, his son Luna helped to finish editing the book that was eventually published to great acclaim as A Sand County Almanac.

In it, Leopold wrote: "The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such."

The Legacy of Aldo Leopold

Leopold's legacy, however, extends far beyond A Sand County Almanac and his other writings. Each of his five children went on to distinguished careers in the natural sciences: Luna was a hydrologist, Starker was a wildlife biologist, Nina was a naturalist, Carl was a plant physiologist, and Estella was a botanist and conservationist.

Another important part of Leopold's legacy was created in 1935, when he helped to found the Wilderness Society, one of the largest and most effective environmental groups in the world, dedicated entirely to the preservation and expansion of wilderness areas. The Wilderness Society helps to foster what Leopold called "a new attitude -- an intelligent humility toward man's place in nature."

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