January 11th, 2014 marked Aldo Leopold’s 127th Birthday.
Aldo Leopold had a deep passion for and insight into our natural surroundings. Through emotive writings and speeches he meticulously blurred the lines between science and art by explaining the scientific workings of our environment in ways that appeal to the human conscience.
Leopold began his study of nature formally when he enrolled in Yale Forest School, but he had been an avid observer of the outdoors his whole life. After graduation he worked for the Forest Service in New Mexico and Arizona and then moved north to take a position as a professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin. His home in Sand County, WI set the framework for his most famous literary piece, A Sand County Almanac. The land he bought here had been in intense agricultural use and he spent years rebuilding it into a healthy natural state. As it did, he observed the land, animals and the interactions that fostered growth.
Leopold’s expansive literary works set the foundation for a new way of looking at our world that has inspired scientists, conservationists, and people across generations. His view of a land ethic was all encompassing, pointing out that we are part of a community that includes soil, water, air, animals, all working together like organs in a body. He encourages people not to think of themselves as a user of resources for economic gain, but part of a system that keeps us all alive.
A companion to The Conservation Ethic is a lesser known work entitled Conservation Economics (1934). This essay challenges traditional public land conservation and calls for the development of incentives to induce private landowners to conserve their land for the greater good. He argued that, geographically speaking, it is not possible for all of the most valuable land to be held in public ownership because it will always be held privately for agricultural production. Moreover, public lands will be dispersed limitedly because a high ratio of public to private lands will eliminate the tax base and any operating revenues for public land up keep.
This notion that we must foster private land conservation by providing incentives to private landowners is the mantra of Resources First Foundation. Sustainable conservation requires a system that encourages the best stewardship of our land and resources, and private landowners are the key players in doing so. The future of conservation will require us to rely more and more on private landowners to steward our natural resources and provide food, fiber, and energy we need to survive.