- Historic Sites
A Signature On The Land
The naturalist ALDO LEOPOLD not only gave the wilderness idea its most persuasive articulation; he offered a way of thinking that turned the entire history of land use on its head
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
Leopold was a good Pinchotminded forester, then, when he graduated in 1909 and in July took the train to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and from there a stagecoach that rattled northwest to the little town of Springerville in Arizona Territory, where he began his duty as a U.S. Forest Service recruit in District 3's Apache National Forest. Like most people who see the landscapes of the Southwest for the first time, he was immediately seduced by the clarity of light and the generosity of space—and, not least, by the peaks and valleys of the Apache’s Blue Range and White Mountains, a confused and magnificent tangle of geography that piles up to the edge of the Mogollon Rim, with chattering creeks, grassy, flower-splashed meadows, and, above all, forests of ancient ponderosa pines that ring the fractured upthrust peaks like the dark tonsures of monks.
For almost fifteen years the Southwest would remain the home of Leopold’s heart, and its forests the arena within which his career in the Forest Service should have flourished. He was smart, hardworking, creative, fearless, and committed, qualities much esteemed in an agency that often viewed itself (not !!logically) as locked in combat with the forces of ignorance and greed. But he also had the kind of quirk that bureaucracies tend to fear (again, not illogically): the capacity to grow beyond the intellectual confines of the organization for which he worked and, in growing, to question some of its most deeply held values. Chief among these, in Leopold’s case, was the conviction that all Creation had been put in place mainly to ensure the survival and comfort of the human species.
His talents, in fact, did take him quite a distance. After just two years on the Apache, he was made deputy supervisor, then, in 1912, supervisor of Carson National Forest, where he inherited years of incompetent (and, some said, corrupt) administration. Local sheepmen had been allowed to run so many animals on the range every summer that parts of it were stripped as clean as a billiard table. No longer, the somewhat brash twenty-five-year-old supervisor made it clear from the outset. He established a system of individual grazing allotments and vowed to monitor each and every one of them to make certain that the proper grazing fees were being paid and that no more animals than the land could sustain would be allowed to forage. “By God,” he said, “the Individual Allotment and every other reform we have promised is going to stick —even if it takes a six-shooter to do it.”
He and his rangers did arm themselves with six-shooters and other sorts of guns, but none was forced to draw his weapon, and by the time Leopold married Estella Bergère, the daughter of an old Santa Fe family, and settled down in the hamlet of Très Piedras on the slopes of the upper Rio Grande Valley, his integrity and unswerving determination had won respect from the sheepmen and the forest’s rangeland was on its way to a slow recovery. Soon enough, however, so was Leopold; in the spring of 1913 he was stricken by a case of acute nephritis that almost killed him before he could get to medical help in Albuquerque. His sick leave lasted more than sixteen months, during which he began to broaden his reading, moving away now from matters having to do with timber and grazing management and toward those concerned with the creatures that inhabited the forests. He was especially taken by William T. Hornaday’s Our Vanishing Wildlife , a jeremiad against unregulated hunting, whether for sport or for commercial purposes. Leopold would remain a sport hunter all of his life, but Hornaday’s argument that decades of abuse had brought the game animals of America to a sorry condition was supported by the facts: from the nearly extinct buffalo to the entirely extinct passenger pigeon, American wildlife had been under systematic and increasingly devastating assault for generations.
Even most hunters now recognized the fact that if their sport was not consistently and wisely regulated and sufficient wildlife habitat preserved to support it, there soon would be nothing left to shoot—a sentiment that had helped win the passage of the Lacey Act of 1900, prohibiting the interstate shipment of any wildfowl killed in violation of state hunting laws. This understanding inspired the birth and growth of such conservation organizations as the Boone and Crocked: Club, the National Association of Audubon Societies, the Conservation Department of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the American Game Protective Association (AGFA), founded by gun manufacturers, chiefly the Winchester Repeating Firearms Company, in a definitive exhibition of enlightened self-interest; and it had caused President Theodore Roosevelt, a bigstick hunter himself, to designate fifty-three federal game refuges, the beginning of today’s ninety-one-million-acre National Wildlife Refuge System.