- 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
In 1921, after much time thinking things through and exchanging views with such like-minded colleagues as Arthur Carhart, a young “recreational engineer” in Colorado’s White Mountain National Forest, Leopold outlined his own thoughts on the subject in an essay for the November issue of the Journal of Forestry . After paying tribute to Pinchot’s belief in the “development” of natural resources under the principles of “highest use” for the good of mankind, Leopold took his argument out into territory previously unexplored (at least in the pages of the staid Journal of Forestry ). Perhaps, he reflected, utilitarian use had gone far enough by now to “raise the question of whether the policy of development… should continue to govern in absolutely every instance, or whether the principle of highest use does not itself demand that representative portions of some forests be preserved as wilderness.” By “wilderness,” he went on to say, “I mean a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks’ pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.”
The definition was important. Leopold himself was not yet ready to offer—and most of his fellow foresters certainly were not ready to accept—the opinion of someone like John Muir, the hairy old wood sprite who had founded the Sierra Club, that humankind should preserve the wilderness simply because it deserved to be protected as part of the original creation and as a measure of our obligation to that creation. Nor would he yet present such arcane arguments as those of Henry David Thoreau, who had insisted as long ago as 1861 that “in Wildness is the preservation of the World.” Instead Leopold built his case around the notion that in some rare and wonderful places the highest recreational “use” was primitive backcountry hiking and camping, with no facilities and no conveniences. True, he said, only a minority of Americans would want to use such areas for such purposes, but “it is our duty to vary our recreational development policy, in some places, to meet the needs and desires of the minority also.”
After this carefully crafted citation of democracy as his governing principle, Leopold got down to specifics: he pro- posed that about five hundred thousand acres of the headwaters region of the GiIa River in GiIa National Forest be established as the first officially designated wilderness area in the national forests. “It is,” he said, “the last typical wilderness in the southwestern mountains. Highest use demands its preservation.”
This was no idle burst of eloquence. On October 2, 1922, Leopold presented a formal proposal for the preservation of the GiIa to Frank Pooler, supervisor of District 3. While Pooler was not especially opposed to the idea, it did not sit high on his agenda and was still languishing in the files when a letter came from the chief forester, William B. Greeley in Washington, proposing that Leopold be transferred to Madison, Wisconsin, to become assistant director of the Forest Products Laboratory. Greeley, like Leopold’s Southwestern superiors, had taken note of his growing interest and expertise in pure research and his uncommon abilities as a public spokesman. “I have felt,” the chief wrote, “that Leopold has rather exceptional qualifications for this position.”
It is a good deal less clear why Leopold accepted the transfer. Certainly there was more money in the job, and his family was growing; there were four children by now—Carl, Starker, Luna, and Nina—and a fifth, Estella, would be born in 1927. Still, he loved the Southwest and was clearly reluctant to move until meetings with Greeley and other Forest Service officials in Washington persuaded him to give in. On May 29 the family left Albuquerque for Madison. Five days later Frank Pooler slid Leopold’s GiIa proposal out of the file, and the first federally designated wilderness area in American history became a reality. Neither Pooler nor Leopold ever remarked on the moment.
As it turned out, Leopold was not especially happy operating in what he called the “industrial motif ” of the Forest Products Laboratory. When it became obvious after several years that his chances for advancement elsewhere in the Forest Service were limited, he left the agency with few visible regrets, accepting an offer to head a national survey of game populations and habitat conditions for the Sporting Arms and Ammunitions Manufacturers’ Institute in 1928.