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Aldo Leopold

A contemporary of Oberholtzer—just three years younger—Aldo Leopold was also born in Iowa. And like Ober, Leopold pondered over the mighty Mississippi flowing south. Aldo was born in Burlington, Iowa, in January 1887.

Unlike Oberholtzer, Aldo Leopold did not live a long life. He died of a heart attack, trying to put out a grass fire on the prairie of Wisconsin in the spring of 1948 when he was just 61 years old. The world lost a visionary in that particular grass fire.

And just one week before that particular grass fire, Aldo Leopold had heard from Oxford University Press that they had accepted his book. After using the working title, Great Possessions, the book would be published in 1949 as the seminal work, Sand County Almanac. [To date it has sold over two million copies and has been translated into twelve languages. Sand County Almanac helps the reader see with both heart and eye the ecological details of bird and mammal, marsh and forest.]

Aldo Leopold, always the naturalist, studied forestry at Yale University and began his fieldwork near Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was near there, with a forestry crew, that “Leopold and another crew member spotted a wolf and her pups crossing the river. They shot into the pack and then scrambled down the rocks to see what they had done… ‘We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, (wrote Leopold) and have known ever since, that there was something known only to her and to the mountain.’” (1) What some do not realize is that the first part of that story occurred in August of 1909 and the thoughts articulated as a fierce green fire were penned in 1944. Thirty-five years and half a lifetime of ecological education had led to this change of heart about the wolf, the predator, and what it might be to “think like a mountain.”

Leopold served on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, beginning in what was called Game Management later helping turn that work into the field of Ecology. Aldo Leopold loved canoeing in the Quetico border region, and his work would overlap with Oberholtzer’s when Leopold began speaking and writing about the necessity of wilderness for science, history and adventure. The public debate over wilderness had begun. And in the years between World War I and II, Leopold, along with six others that included Ernest Oberholtzer, was asked by Bob Marshall to help form The Wilderness Society. (1934)

Motivated in part by Henry Ford’s Model T, which took untold numbers of Americans into the heart of Nature, the Wilderness Society came together to “define a new preservationist ideal because of a common feeling that the automobile and road building threatened what was left of wild America.” The group that Bob Marshall pulled together included Harold Anderson (Washington DC accountant), Robert Sterling Yard (National Park Service and hiker), Harvey Broome (Knoxville lawyer and hiker), Benton MacKaye (forester, planner, and organizer of the Appalachian Trail), and Bernard Frank (a watershed expert). “To give the organization a stronger national standing, the group also invited Aldo Leopold and Ernest Oberholtzer to join as founding members.” (2) Marshall called Leopold “the Commanding General of the Wilderness Battle.” (1)

The world of ecology would have greatly benefited from another two decades of Aldo Leopold, much as it did benefit from decades more of the planner and advocate, Ernest Oberholtzer. Leopold left a legacy in The Shack renovated on a sandy farm on the bank of the Wisconsin River near Baraboo. Leopold and his children planted thousands of trees. This land later became a forested island of health in the farmland and marshes surrounding it.

We also know that Aldo Leopold stayed on and worked on Mallard Island alongside Ober and other members of the council of the Wilderness Society. “For four days in June [1947] Zahniser and Ober gathered with Aldo Leopold, Bernard Frank, Bill Zimmerman, Olaus Murie, Robert Griggs, Harvey Broome, and Benton MacKaye to confer about the airplane problem and wilderness conflicts elsewhere… Comfortably situated at ‘the Mallard,’ in Oberholtzer’s delightful three-story wood-frame house, the council… discussed a variety of pressing issues. Leopold explained how the eradication of wolves and other predators had caused deer and elk to proliferate. That, in turn, generated pressure to permit more hunting and build new roads into national forests and other public lands. At his urging, the council adopted a resolution that ‘the unwise depletion of predators is one of the outstanding threats to wilderness preservation.’”(3)

Aldo and Estella Leopold left a lasting legacy in their five children and many grandchildren. “Though Aldo never pressured them to do so, all his children became scientists and conservationists. Starker was a premier wildlife ecologist (he died in 1983). Luna (who died in 2006) is renowned for his pioneering work in river hydrology. Nina and her second husband, Charles Bradley, worked on prairie restoration at the Shack property (until her death in 2011 at 93). Carl was a plant physiologist, researching seed variability (he died in 2009), and Estella, Jr, is a paleobotanist, tracking the continent’s history of vegetation,” most recently Emeritus Professor of Botany at the University of Washington. (1) (edited with life data)

Aldo Leopold and Ernest Oberholtzer highly respected each other, and Ober has a book on Game Management signed by Leopold now shelved in upper Bird House.

Article written by Beth Waterhouse in March 2013, using:
(1) Aldo Leopold, A Fierce Green Fire (1996) by Marybeth Lorbecki
(2) Driven Wild (2002) by Paul Sutter
(3) Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act
(2005) by Mark Harvey.


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