Con­ser­va­tionist Aldo Leopold (left) at the annual meeting of The Wilderness Society Council in 1946. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service | Courtesy

The father of wildlife con­ser­vation, Aldo Leopold, quit his high-ranking job with the U.S. Forest Service after four years, fol­lowing his belief that con­ser­vation should come from the private sector.

He then became the first pro­fessor of wildlife man­agement in the country at the Uni­versity of Wis­consin. His career cul­mi­nated with the pub­li­cation of “A Sand County Almanac,” which laid out the prin­ciples that he called the “land ethic.”

Stanley Temple, pro­fessor of envi­ron­mental studies at the Uni­versity of Wis­consin-Madison, spoke about Leopold’s life and envi­ron­mental project on Oct. 19 in Phillips Audi­torium. The Aldo Leopold Foun­dation, at which Temple is a senior fellow, carries on Leopold’s eco­logical project to incor­porate and promote an ethical rela­tionship between humans and nature.

Temple said Leopold was the “first to think of con­ser­vation as having an ethical com­ponent.”

In the same way human com­mu­nities require basic ethics to thrive, Leopold thought humans needed ethical rules to live well in an eco­logical com­munity. Temple said Leopold viewed the devel­opment of eco­logical ethics as “the most pressing ethical issue” of his time.

Leopold attended the Yale School of Forestry and grad­uated in 1909 in the second class of pro­fes­sionally trained foresters. As one of few schools in the country with this program, Temple said Yale Forestry grad­uates imme­di­ately entered pres­ti­gious gov­ernment jobs in Pres­ident Theodore Roosevelt’s newly created U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service sent Leopold to manage the New Mexico Ter­ritory, where he stayed from 1909 until 1924. During his time there, Leopold believed in a gov­ernment-managed model of wildlife con­ser­vation, as he saw private landowners destroying the envi­ronment.

“Ulti­mately, the use of all resources will have to be put under public reg­u­lation, regardless of own­ership,” he wrote in “Pio­neers and Gullies.”

In 1924, the Forest Service pro­moted him to asso­ciate director at the U.S. Forest Products Lab­o­ratory in Madison, Wis­consin. Temple said Leopold felt unhappy in a desk job. Plus, his true passion was in con­ser­vation, not forestry.

Temple said after Leopold ended his tenure with the Forest Service, his attitude toward con­ser­vation and the government’s role in it shifted.

“The painless path of incen­tives and sub­sidies not only fails to lead us to land con­ser­vation, but some­times actually retards the growth of critical intel­li­gence on the where­abouts of alter­native routes,” Leopold said.

Temple said Leopold turned against the government’s method of taxing, reg­u­lating, and sub­si­dizing in favor of pro­moting indi­vidual ethics and social stigma.

“It is hard to make a man, by pressure of law or money, do a thing which does not spring nat­u­rally from his own per­sonal sense of right and wrong,” Leopold said.

Senior Andrea Wallace, pres­ident of the Hillsdale College Con­ser­vation Club, said con­ser­vation is a con­ser­v­ative ideal.

“There’s ways we can achieve eco­logical reform better through the private market than through public inter­vention,” Wallace said. “There’s a role for the state to make sure costs are inter­nalized because the Earth is not a private good.”

She said the government’s first envi­ron­mental goals should be to protect private property rights from infringement and to end sub­sidies that encourage poor land man­agement.

Temple char­ac­terized Leopold’s philo­sophical pro­gression as one of a “prac­tical person…not an Ivory Tower type.” In his prac­ti­cality, Leopold under­stood the need to combine the dif­ferent interests involved with wildlife con­ser­vation: pol­itics, eco­nomics, culture, history, and phi­losophy.

Temple said, for example, that Leopold cared deeply about the eco­nomic well-being of landowners. He knew that farmers would properly care for their land only if it was eco­nom­i­cally ben­e­ficial.

But Temple said Leopold saw a growing dis­connect between farmers and landowners in the United States. Leopold dealt with family farmers, who had strong per­sonal interests in the long-term well-being of their land.

In America today, however, family-owned farms com­prise a small per­centage of workable land. This creates a problem for Leopold’s land ethic: Landowners have fewer ethical attach­ments to their land.

“Working lands in the U.S. are no longer owned by indi­viduals working on the land,” Temple said. “They’re owned by cor­po­ra­tions. There are no multi-gen­er­a­tional owners.”

Temple said Leopold’s ideas about con­serving private land apply even more today because  2 percent of the U.S. pop­u­lation make deci­sions for 85 percent of pri­vately owned land.

Speaking about how con­ser­vation would look in a Leopoldian world, Temple said, “No one is forcing you to do it. No one is coercing you with a subsidy. You’re doing it because you think it’s right.”

Temple said he sees evi­dence of an ethical view of nature all around, such as in the organic and local food movement, where the decision to promote sus­tainable land prac­tices comes from con­sumers and pro­ducers who want to pre­serve the envi­ronment.

Temple said the land ethic can gain con­sensus if younger gen­er­a­tions are immersed in envi­ron­mental edu­cation and expe­rience with nature.

In addition to cul­ti­vating ethics through a liberal-arts edu­cation, Hillsdale College pro­vides expe­ri­ences in nature through the Slayton Arboretum.

“The most important thing is to expe­rience ecosystems, like the Arb, which allows stu­dents to realize the sig­nif­i­cance of con­ser­vation,” said Laurie Rosenberg, Slayton Arboretum program coor­di­nator.

Rosenberg said Leopold’s thinking tran­scends ide­o­logical bound­aries.

“Leopold made other people open their mind to his ideas,” she said. “He was a liberal thinker, and Hillsdale’s liberal edu­cation allows you to think clearly about con­ser­vation.”

While the land ethic has various appli­ca­tions and ideas, Temple said Leopold left us with a Golden Rule: “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.”