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.”