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Borderlands: Aldo Leopold Proposed Land Ethics 23 (2004-2005)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Aldo Leopold Proposed Land Ethics

Article first published in Vol. 23 (2004-2005)

By Stella Perry

When people are ill, they consult a physician or another type of healer. To heal people is to restore their health and energy so that they may go forth and maximize their potential. But what do we do when the land is sick? Today, a forester would be called in to treat something called "land sickness." However, in the 1920's land sickness was unheard of until Aldo Leopold defined it.

On July 18, 1909, a stagecoach arrived in Springerville, Ariz. Exiting the stagecoach was Aldo Leopold, a young Iowan, with nothing but a degree in forestry from Yale and a sensitive understanding of nature. He was to be the new forest assistant at the Apache National Forest .


Image caption: Aldo Leopold, ardent environmentalist, poses with his blushing bride Estella & their dog Flick. Photo courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

Rand Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa, in 1887. Aldo Leopold's love of nature began on hiking and hunting trips with his father. From his father he learned an "ethics" in hunting. For example, the elder Leopold taught Aldo not to hunt ducks during nesting season even before federal law forbade it. Leopold's brother Frederic said, "Aldo was tremendously sensitive. And very anxious to be ethical.  That was extremely important to him. He had no patience with bad intentions or bad ethics. He was a perfectionist."

This early seed of right and wrong matured in the adult Aldo Leopold when he discovered that there were no ethics for the natural world he loved.

His two years in Arizona, 1909 to 1911, were a time of learning for the idealistic Leopold. In the foreword to the book Aldo Leopold's Southwest , Dale A. Jones writes, "His young mind was filled with such romantic aspirations as catching poachers and establishing a game refuge within the Apache Forest's Blue Range rather than with the practical chores of building logging roads and drift fences."

After his service in Arizona, Leopold became a temporary staff officer in Albuquerque. His dedication and open mind impressed district forester Arthur Ringland. In 1911, Leopold became Deputy Supervisor of Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. He was then appointed supervisor in 1912, the year that New Mexico became a state. "For the first time in his young career, Leopold was faced with solving the problems of unhealthy land: overgrazed meadows, erosion gullies, and a lack of game," according to Southwest editors David E. Brown and Neil B. Harmony.

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To communicate these problems, Leopold turned to yet another passion: writing . He began editing and distributing "The Carson Pine Cone," a newsletter that included government reports and proposed plans for area foresters to read. Unfortunately, in 1913, a kidney infection resulted in the loss of his position at Carson and brought him back to Albuquerque to administer grazing permits, a position he did not enjoy.

During these next few years, Leopold read William Hornaday's Our Vanishing Wildlife, convincing him to support game conservation. Still only in his twenties, he generated support for the protection of game, organized sportsmen's clubs and wrote the Game and Fish Handbook. The year 1916 saw Leopold's first article on wildlife conservation and a congratulatory letter from Theodore Roosevelt. By 1919, Leopold was assistant district forester, controlling 20 million acres in southwest forests, as well as handling business, finance, roads, trails and fire control.

In his thirties, Leopold's interest became that of applying land management prescriptions to the New Mexico and Arizona forests. He traveled the deserts, forests and plains of the United States and Mexico several times through the years studying soil. He obsessed over fluctuations in wildlife populations and developed new theories of game management. Dale A. Jones said, "In no area was Leopold further ahead of his contemporaries than in his understanding of how southwestern landscapes were changing."

For example, he believed that predator control was a strong tool for game management, and at the American Game Conference of 1920, he urged the eradication of all wolves and lions, a position he would later change. For many decades of the 20th century, most foresters, as well as hunters, cattlemen and developers, saw the wolf and other predators like bears and mountain lions as the enemy, not only of livestock but of other wildlife. The official federal policy encouraged the extermination of such predators by offering bounties to hunters for each animal killed. In his book A Sand County Almanac, Leopold describes an occasion when he and a companion working in the Blue Mountains of Arizona saw a wolf with pups.

They began shooting. After their guns were empty, they reached the female and Leopold watched "a fierce green fire dying in her eyes," something he never forgot. He realized then that this killing was a mistake, but he did not know why. Only gradually would he and other wildlife managers realize the essential role predators play in a healthy landscape.

Another problem Leopold sought to remedy was the decreasing quality of the outdoor experience. He believed that one important component of recreation for an individual was being alone in nature, breathing fresh air and enjoying a change of scenery. Upon entering the wilderness, the recreational tourist breathes the same quality of air as the previous tourist.

However, when an automobile or motorized vehicle is introduced into the wild, the pollution caused by the fuel-burning vehicle drastically reduces the purity of the air. Part of the city is transported to the wilderness. Roads, advertisements and new vehicles and "gadgets" also take away from the natural experience people are seeking. 

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To prevent the Gila Forest from being polluted by a proposed road, Aldo Leopold, with the support of forest supervisor Fred Winn, mapped out the boundaries of what would be the nation's first wilderness area. Leopold's articles, the submission of a formal proposal and strong support of the New Mexico community helped to convince the U.S. Department of Interior that the area should remain pure for future generations. In 1924, as Leopold was leaving the Southwest for Madison, Wisconsin, the Forest Service finally accepted his recommendation and designated part of the Gila as protected wilderness, some 40 years before the Wilderness Act of 1964. With his departure from the Southwest he loved, Leopold left behind a legacy.

Leopold's commitment to preserving the wilderness remained intact even though he himself was gone from New Mexico. Some claim that his book, A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, was the most poetic, intellectual, insightful and powerful book that the conservation movement would ever see. This book is a compilation of sketches, essays and theories written by Leopold. In it, he acknowledged that the wilderness would serve scientific purposes, such as understanding natural processes, studying wildlife and genetic variations of species and discovering the importance of relationships in ecosystems.

Leopold believed the health of the land could be maintained by the exact science of determining the symptoms of its sickness. He wrote, "In general, the trend of evidence shows that in land, just as in the human body, the symptoms may lie in one organ and the cause in another." Some symptoms of land sickness included increasing pest populations and vanishing plant and animal species. For example, when prairie dogs and squirrels increased to pest levels, they were poisoned. However, science shows that deviations in the plant community might have caused the increased pest populations. Problems with plants could also result in poor soil.

Leopold realized that "the effort to control the health of the land has not been very successful. It is now generally understood that when soil loses fertility, or washes away faster than it forms, and when water systems exhibit abnormal floods and shortages, the land is sick." He saw that many conservation treatments were superficial. He wrote, "Flood control dams have no relation to the cause of floods. Check dams and terraces do not touch the cause of erosion."

The land's ability to receive and store energy is known as its fertility. Leopold wrote, "Thus when a soil loses its fertility, we pour on fertilizer, or at best alter its tame flora and fauna, without considering the fact that its wild flora and fauna, which built the soil to begin with, may likewise be important in its maintenance."

To study land health, Leopold said two "norms" are needed. The first would be a place where the land has changed little despite a lengthy occupation of mankind. The second would be wilderness untouched by human civilizations. Through scientific analysis, detailed research and observation, a land doctor can discover how the wilderness has been able to maintain itself for a long period.

The concept of studying the interrelationships of organisms and their environment was first introduced in 1869 by Ernst Haeckel.   The idea then developed into the study of plant and animal communities. By 1935, the word "ecosystem" was introduced. Leopold was unique in that he proposed to humankind the idea of land ethics and acknowledged the land pyramid, beginning with soil, plants, insects, rodents, predators and humans. He wrote, "In many cases we literally do not know how good a performance to expect of healthy land unless we have a wild area for comparison with sick ones." The Gila Wilderness is a continuing testament of this theory.

Wilderness, Leopold said, has molded our way of life. "Wildlife once fed us and shaped our culture," he wrote. "It still yields us pleasure for leisure hours, but we try to reap that pleasure by modern machinery and thus destroy part of its value. Reaping it by modern mentality would not only yield us pleasure, but wisdom as well."

New Mexico and the country both honor the man who once said, "There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot."

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The Aldo Leopold Wilderness north of Silver City now contains 202,016 acres and is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Leopold's Game Management, published in 1933 as a textbook, is still used as the blueprint for federal conservation laws.

Leopold's sons and daughters keep his commitment alive online via the Aldo Leopold Foundation. There, eager birdwatchers and nature lovers can enroll in ecological study programs. The site also includes biographical information on Aldo Leopold and continuing efforts to promote new ideas of conservation and use.

Aldo Leopold was not only a forester and author. He was the chairman of the Game Policy Institute of the American Game Conference, member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Committee on Wildlife Restoration, founder of the Wilderness Society, chairman of the Department of Wildlife at the University of Wisconsin and governor of the Wisconsin Conservation Committee. He was also one of the first professors of Wildlife Management in the country. Leopold was a loving husband to wife, Estella Bergere, and father of five children. In a National Geographic article, Boyd Gibbons wrote, "After dinner Aldo and Estella would sit together in the living room, often holding hands, listening to classical music or reading aloud from novels and plays." At the age of 61, this soft-spoken man died of a heart attack, helping a neighbor put out a grass fire.

In the end, Aldo Leopold was first and foremost a naturalist. His lifelong admiration for the ecosystems of the deserts, prairies, mountains, forests and grasslands speaks clearly in the numerous essays, books and sketches tailored by his own weathered hands. Thanks to his efforts, thousands of Southwesterners and tourists from all over the world have found untold pleasures in the Gila Wilderness the past 80 years.

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Aldo Leopold Sources

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