- 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
It was a wise move. Nothing like this survey had ever been undertaken—not even by the U.S. Biological Survey —and its accomplishment enhanced both Leopold’s expertise and his reputation. Two important publications came out of the experience: Report on a Game Survey of the North Central States , published in the spring of 1931, which was, as his biographer Curt Meine described it, “a groundbreaker, an empirical companion to the ideals of the game policy,” and Game Management , published in 1933, a textbook that established Leopold as both a pioneer in and the unquestioned leader of a discipline that had not even existed a few years before. The experience also led directly to another job: in July 1933 he became a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin. It was the first such position ever created, and he would hold it for the rest of his life.
By then the balding self-made scientist was the “professor” to his students and acquaintances alike, a wry and rumpled intellect given to unceasing pipe smoking and the wearing of disreputable slouch hats. “He was the embodiment of mind—,” one acquaintance said, “almost always serious, or thinking of serious problems.”
Among these serious problems was the matter of wilderness. He continued to refine his thinking and his writing on the subject, some of it a little incendiary. In a 1926 speech before the National Conference of Outdoor Recreation, for example, he advocated the construction of fewer roads in the forests and defended the right of all people to access to the joys and solitude and beauty of wilderness. “We insist,” he said, “that the average American is entitled to these things as a privilege of citizenship rather than a chance crumb from the economic table.” This brought a charge from one critic that “he wants the ‘wilderness’ to himself and the elect few, and objects to roads because they inevitably bring other people.” That’s right, Leopold admitted in a retort to this early version of the cry of elitism that would be leveled at wilderness advocates in the decades to come. “All that we wilderness cranks are asking for,” he said crankily, “is a few roadless areas where we can go once in a while, and where we will at least have a chance of escaping the man who has bought his way.”
Defining prevailing ideas and giving them shape, he formulated what he called the Land Ethic.
He was pleased when the Forest Service surveyed the rest of the forests in 1926 and came up with seventy-four tracts of land that might qualify for designation as wilderness areas similar to that on the GiIa. He was even happier when it developed the so-called L-20 regulations, which allowed the chief to encourage the designation by district foresters of “primitive areas” that were to be kept in as wild a condition as possible, and happier still when the list of such areas had grown to sixty-three in 8.4 million acres by 1932.
All well and good, but wilderness established by such means, Leopold would come to believe, was too piecemeal and scattered to truly preserve all that needed to be saved. Something more capacious in both size and vision was needed. His thinking took on a certain urgency in 1935, when he returned from a trip to investigate the supremely overmanaged forests of Germany, where, he wrote, “the forest landscape is deprived of a certain exuberance which arises from a rich variety of plants fighting with each other for a place in the sun. It is almost as if the geological clock had been set back to those dim ages when there were only pines and ferns. I never realized before that the melodies of nature are music only when played against the undertones of evolutionary history. In the German forest … one now hears only a dismal fugue out of the timeless reaches of the carboniferous.”
The possibility that America’s forests might someday be equally bleak he found appalling, and he was ready to listen when a brilliant young forester named Robert Marshall offered a proposal. Ebullient, brash, and utterly charming, Marshall was the son of a hugely successful New York merchant named Louis Marshall, who himself had been a major force in the creation of New York State’s six-million-acre Adirondack Park in the 188Os, with its interior Forest Reserve that was to be kept, in the words of the law, “forever wild.” Exposed from childhood to the wonders of the natural world, young Marshall, like Leopold, had become addicted to wild places at an early age.
In his first letter to Leopold in 1930, Marshall had called him “the Commanding General of the Wilderness Battle,” but until his death from heart disease in 1939 it would be Marshall himself who really directed the campaign. In both the Forest Service and the Interior Department (where in 1934 he established a system of wilderness areas on sixteen Indian reservations), Marshall had been a relentless champion of wilderness, and in an article for The Scientific Monthly in 1930 he had declared that “there is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness.”