A Restorationist Perspective on the New Leopold Biography

Restoration and Management Notes 6/2 (Winter 1988), pp. 81-83.

Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work
Curt Meine
University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1988
638 pages. $29.95 (cloth).

Aldo Leopold is probably best known to the general public as an eloquent advocate of wilderness preservation. But Leopold, trained in the Pinchot-inspired (and endowed) Yale Forest School in the early 1900s, imbibed a good deal of the credo of Progressive utilitarian management. Its presence in, and effect on, his work is undeniable; and one of the challenges facing anyone who would understand Leopold, including his most celebrated work, A Sand County Almanac, is to give these two perspectives their due. It is sometimes suggested that the progressive "conservationist" strand in Leopold's thinking is early and immature, and that the "preservationist" strand is later and represents his considered views. But this is too simple, and doesn't do justice to Leopold's work as a whole. Consider, for example, the closing sentences of "The Land Ethic": "By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel, and we are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use." (A Sand County Almanac, pp 263-64 [Ballantine edition]).

How Aldo Leopold tried to weave together the "good points" of the steam shovel and the need for "gentler and more objective criteria for its use" is amply illustrated in Curt Meine's biography, which contains not only a record of Leopold's actions, but also an account of his thoughts and their development. Through abundant quotations from published and unpublished essays and letters we can see Leopold coming to terms with the implications, practical and theoretical, of his early, progressive conservationist views. We can see his increasing estimation of the complexity of the relations between species and their habitats going hand-in-hand with his decreasing confidence in "management" techniques and the thinking that underlay them. We can see his intellectual evolution from a brash young forester, intent on maximizing board-foot production, to the critic of "conservation-by-agency," to the elder statesman of American conservation, founder of the Wilderness Society and crystallizer (not, Leopold himself would insist, author) of the land ethic. All of which makes fascinating reading.

What does Meine's admirably told story tell us about Leopold and ecological restoration? While there is no index entry for "restoration," and while the term "restoration" is used indiscriminately for restocking, game production, and reclamation as well as for the careful attempt to reproduce a lost historical-ecological model, Meine's book testifies to Leopold's lifelong involvement in, and commitment to, projects which can only be described as restoration. We can also see, I think, some development in Leopold's own conception of the aims and ends of restoration. There is, of course, Leopold's restoration of his "shack" and its environs. While Meine doesn't play up the number of man-hours and dollars spent on replanting (twelve springs' worth of effort, and thousands of trees, shrubs and wildflowers, many of which were chosen because they were "original"), it must have been enormous. The present-day Leopold Memorial Reserve would not exist but for those man-hours and dollars. Perhaps not as well-known is the fact of Leopold's involvement in the 1930s with federal restoration projects created by the New Deal. In the early 1930s, concurrent with the shaping of plans for the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, Leopold was involved in plans to establish a public "Conservation District" in Wisconsin's sand counties. The lands would be restored by New Deal labor and then overseen by the state. At the same time the Faville Grove Wildlife Experiment Area, a locally-owned and run game management project, got underway, with Leopold as adviser. Leopold was also deeply involved with the Coon Valley erosion control project run by the Soil Erosion Service, whose goal was "not just to save soil, but to reverse the tradition of disintegrative land use that wasted it in the first place" (313). In 1935, Leopold also served on the influential Beck committee (the President's Committee on Wild Life Restoration), which recommended the expenditure of $50 million for the purchase and restoration of 12 million acres (4.8 million ha) of refuge (315-16).

This is emphatically not to say that Leopold's attitude towards New Deal restoration efforts was uncritical. Meine explains very well Leopold's dissatisfaction with "conservation-by-agency" (320). Sloppy administration, various problems Leopold regarded as inherent in public ownership, and good intentions coupled with ignorance of complexity conspired to produce uneven and sometimes disastrous results. But, significantly, Leopold seems not to have rejected the ends of federal efforts at restoration, as much as the means taken to achieve those ends and the standards for deciding when those ends had been achieved. After traveling in Germany for a few months in the summer of 1935, observing the shortcomings of too-intensive German management techniques, Leopold could still hold up as a goal "an attitude of respectful guidance (as distinguished from domination) of the intricate ecological processes of nature" (356).

It was his increasing awareness of ecological complexity, more than any other single thing, that seems to explain Leopold's drift away from the progressive ideal. By the summer of 1936 he had to admit the inability of wildlife management "to replace natural equilibria with artificial ones" -- "game management has become a slower, harder, but vastly more important job than it was" (366). His autumn 1936 sojourn in the Rio Gavilan of northern Mexico presented him with "a picture of ecological health" unspoiled by overgrazing and the other causes of ill he had become so familiar with, and impressed upon him the contrast between "intensive management" techniques and "natural controls." It was here, Meine suggests, that Leopold realized "that there no miracle cures for the symptoms of 'land pathology'... [that] the only effective treatment was preventative" (370). This was an important turning-point in Leopold's thinking about conservation. It did not shake Leopold's conviction of the importance of restoration efforts, however. In November 1937 Leopold devised a restoration and management plan for the 15,000-acre (6,000 ha) holdings of the Huron Mountain Club near Lake Superior. The plan was, in Meine's words, "an elegant example of low-intensity management aimed at preserving and managing for long-term stability," a basic purpose of which was restoration of an area badly overpopulated by deer (386). It was about this time that Leopold, in an essay entitled "The Farmer as Conservationist, " characterized conservation as a "positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence or caution" (389). The requisite "skill and insight," which for Leopold included the recognition that ecological complexity made utility far too crude a measure of success, implied the idea that "the less violent the manmade changes, the greater the probability of successful readjustment" of the land (394). Leopold still championed good husbandry as "the heart of conservation" (431); but he was coming to a fuller realization of how difficult such husbandry was.

The furor in Wisconsin in the early 1940s over deer irruptions further stimulated Leopold's thinking, leading him to distinguish the sort of conservation which "feels a primary interest in some one aspect of the land... with an incidental interest in the land as a whole," from that which "feels a primary interest in the land as a whole, with incidental interest in its component resources." It was this latter point, which concerned itself with the "functional integrity" of the land, which led Leopold to the view that "the land should retain as much of its original membership as is compatible with human land-use. The land must of course be modified, but it should be modified as gently and as little as possible" (465). This ideal, with its emphasis on "original membership" and "gentle modification," contrasted markedly with the then-prevalent heavy-handed flood control methods of the "stream-straighteners and ditch-dredgers" in the Soil Conservation Service and the Army Corps of Engineers (481). It was during this time that Leopold poignantly lamented the "cosmic arrogance" of post World War II "power-science," a prevalent theme in his later, best-known writings (482-83).

But Leopold still remained taken by the restoration ideal. At the 1947 North American Wildlife Conference in Texas Leopold visited the King Ranch in Kingsville, which he described as "one of the best jobs of wildlife restoration on the continent, [with] unparalleled opportunities for both management and research..., a gem among natural areas [which] must be kept intact" (495). What distinguished this restoration project from others in Leopold's mind, and accounted for his willingness to describe it as a "natural" area, was apparently its degree of success in "retain[ing] as much of its original membership as is compatible with human land-use." This, plainly, was the result of more than mere good intentions: "conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding of the land, or of economic land-use" (503).

By the time he wrote this warning, the University of Wisconsin Arboretum had been going for thirteen years, and Leopold had been rebuilding the land at his shack for more than twelve. Meine is clearly right to claim that Leopold's "own husbandry of the shack property was affecting his view" about conservation (466), but his involvement with the Arboretum must have had its effect, too. His sustained efforts at restoration, with his increased knowledge of the ecological and cultural history of central Wisconsin, undoubtedly contributed a lot to Leopold's own "critical understanding of the land." The essays which date from this period -- "The Ecological Conscience" and "The Land Ethic" especially -- re-emphasize the need for humility in the face of ecological complexity: "In human history we have learned (I hope) that the conqueror role is eventually self-defeating. Why? Because it is implicit in such a role that the conqueror knows, ex cathedra, just what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable, and what and who is worthless, in community life. It always turns out that he knows neither, and that is why his conquests eventually defeat themselves" (503).

Note that what is condemned here is "conquest" -- not restoration or "respectful guidance" or "gentle modification" -- of the land. (Always remember Leopold's practice.) This might not seem like a significant difference. After all, the knowledge needed for restoration or respectful guidance of nature is at least as hard to come by as that needed to conquer it. But there is a difference: the magnitude of the changes, and the aims with which those changes are undertaken. Leopold saw that we cannot live on and by the land without changing it. He also saw that the effects of our living on and by the land need not be negative: that we can, if we are careful and deliberate and humble, and if we have the requisite historical and ecological understanding, work with natural processes to the ultimate benefit of both them and ourselves.

What is needed, of course, is "critical understanding of the land" and the appreciation of the history of the biotic community that involves. As Meine's discussion of "the Professor's" pedagogy makes clear, this was the goal of much of Leopold's university teaching as well as his involvement with the community beyond the university. Leopold died of a heart attack while fighting a fire on a neighbor's farm in April 1948. Earlier that month he had worked on a plan for "the acquisition of at least one of two boyhood farms of John Muir as a state park... the objective being to restore the flora to something approaching the original" (517). Evidently the ideal of restoration was one Leopold never outgrew, though his sense of what was needed to achieve that ideal, as well as the details of the ideal itself, grew along with his ecological sensibilities. The earliest attempts at restoration with which Leopold was involved were simple attempts to reverse damage done by indiscriminate hunting and grazing, the aim being to restore productivity. Gradually, with increasing knowledge of the complexities to be faced in restoration efforts, Leopold seems to have become convinced, in Ding Darling's words, that "nature could do the job better than man" (316). Concurrent with this conviction was a new emphasis on "original" or "unspoiled" specimens -- they provide the "standards" (368), the "benchmarks" (328), the "base-data of normality" (413) against which attempts at restoration are to be measured.

Which is not to say that Leopold was a prototype of the restoration ecologist. Still, his view that it is possible to work together with natural processes to the benefit of all parties to the transaction, together with his involvement with projects such as the UW Arboretum and others Meine mentions, display an appreciation of some of the insights on which later systematic efforts at ecological restoration are based. Meine's fine book contains much more than I have hinted at in this review; it is a balanced and insightful account of the life of one of the genuine pioneers in American conservation. It avoids being hagiographical, showing Leopold's prejudices as well as his insights, and is crammed full of details about Leopold's views and the reasons he had for them. It deserves a wide reading.

Peter Losin
Department of Philosophy
Gonzaga University
Spokane, WA 99258

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