Habitat & Conservation  |  06/13/2023

Leopold, The Land Ethic and The Uplands

Left: Aldo Leopold with a pheasant and his bird dog Gus, near The Shack, 1943. Right: Aldo Leopold and rooster at the Riley Preserve, Wisconsin, November 11, 1941.

How Aldo Leopold’s lessons still echo in Pheasants Forever’s habitat mission

By Chris MadsonPhotos courtesy of The Aldo Leopold Foundation

In 1928, Aldo Leopold was assistant to the superintendent of the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. He’d moved to that position after 15 years of field work in the national forests of Arizona and New Mexico, and when he took the transfer, he’d been assured that his boss at the lab was about ready to retire, opening the top job for him.

After four years of hard work and patience, Leopold saw no sign of the retirement. Frustrated with the delay, he quietly made it known that he was interested in a change. The offers poured in, from elsewhere in the Forest Service and from a variety of other potential employers who were more interested in his work in wildlife conservation than his contributions to the field of forestry.

Aldo was most intrigued by an inquiry from a group that called itself the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI). The industrialists in this organization had watched the decline of small game in the American heartland with growing concern. They knew that, without game, hunters would quit hunting, and without hunting, the market for guns and ammunition would collapse. They were looking for someone who could figure out why game in the Midwest was in decline, and offer advice on how the trend could be reversed.

Aldo had been an ardent hunter all his life and an outspoken advocate for wildlife throughout his career — the SAAMI assignment suited him down to his socks. On July 1, 1928, he jumped in the family sedan and set out on what would be an intensive two-year research effort from Minnesota and Missouri to Indiana and Ohio, culminating in a 297-page report, Game Survey of the North Central States.

What he saw worried him. Woodlots grazed down to the subsoil, denuded of any undergrowth. Grass and weed cover cleared indiscriminately in an often misguided attempt to control insect pests. Osage orange hedges that had been planted in the late nineteenth century to act as natural fences for livestock cut down, their roots grubbed out to gain a few more acres of corn ground.  And erosion — huge gullies cutting down into the rolling country along the region’s watercourses that made the land useless for humans and wildlife alike.  

He called it “slick and clean farming,” and he suspected that it was as destructive for farmers as it was for game.

“These processes of devegetation have been accomplished by grazing as well as by cutting, and have accompanied the intensification of agriculture on practically all of the richer lands of the region,” he wrote in Game Survey. “In previous chapters the necessity of restoring at least part of this vegetation has been pointed out as necessary for the production of game crops. It must here be emphasized that its restoration is equally necessary for the conservation of the land.”

Almost as soon as Leopold started the research, other activists in the nascent conservation community became aware of it. At the 1928 American Game Conference in New York City, a committee was formed to draft “a national policy of wild life conservation and restoration.” Leopold was asked to chair the committee. Two years later, he presented the final report to the 1930 American Game Conference in an address that was vintage Leopold.

“How can all the characteristics of the land, the game, the landowner, the sportsman, and the public be knit together into a feasible and effective program of game restoration?” he asked.  He suggested seven important steps. Four had to do with research, training wildlife managers, and including people with interests in wildlife that reached beyond hunting. The other three were more straightforward actions on behalf of wildlife:

“Extend public ownership and management of game lands just as far and as fast as land prices and available funds permit,” he wrote  “. . .  Recognize the landowner as the custodian of public game on all other land . . . and insist on public funds from general taxation for all betterments serving wild life as a whole.”

After nearly twenty years with the Forest Service, Aldo was well acquainted with the benefits wildlife enjoyed on federal lands in the West.  He waw aware of Wil Dilg’s national wildlife refuge taking shape on the upper Mississippi, one of several federal wildlife reserves across the nation that, in 1929, became the official National Wildlife Refuge System. 

While these reserves, along with the national parks, were critical for the survival and well-being of many wildlife species, he also saw that they were of little use to farmland game. As yet, there was no federal effort to protect prime agricultural land. The Agricultural Adjustment Act would become law in 1933, the first federal law that compensated farmers to stop farming some of their land.

Aldo Leopold and three University of Wisconsin students on a prairie burn, circa 1944.
Possibly because of his long association with the Forest Service, Leopold was ambivalent about the capacity of government to produce abundant wildlife on its own on rich Midwestern farmland. 

On one hand, he supported the game policy’s first goal: “to extend public ownership and management of game lands just as far and as fast as possible.” On the other hand, he was realistic about how far and fast this approach could possibly reach, given the political and fiscal limits government faced in corn country.

“It would appear,” he wrote in the Game Survey in 1931, “that even after State game departments are more amply financed (as they should be) there will be little hope of their assuming the entire cost, or even any large part of the cost, of the desired Statewide practice of management.” In 1939, he expanded that idea: “Government cannot own and operate small parcels of land, and it cannot own and operate good land at all.” 

The solution to this problem, in Leopold’s mind, was to enlist the help of Americans at large. “The average citizen, as well as the hunter, has a stake in wild life. It is his property, and the social value of hunting and other recreations depending on wild life affects his individual welfare. He supports parks, schools, museums, etc., not because he uses them personally, but because of their value to society.  Why should he not help support wild life conservation?”

He was savvy enough to recognize that hunters had a particularly large stake in conservation work on farmland. Like the rest of the public, they stood to benefit from a reduction in soil erosion, an improvement in water quality, protection of long-term soil fertility, and the wellbeing of hundreds of species of songbirds and other nongame. 

In addition, the hunter’s avocation depended on widely distributed, abundant population of game, produced largely on private lands.

“The motive power for both game research and education must arise first of all from sportsmen’s organizations,” he concluded in the Game Survey.

Aldo lived what he wrote, developing a new philosophy of conservation, working at the international and national levels to forge sound conservation policy and, at the most intimate scale, improving habitat on individual Wisconsin holdings, including his property on the sand barrens along the Wisconsin River. 

Aldo died in 1948, fighting a grass fire that threatened the habitat around his beloved Shack.

Here in the twenty-first century, almost a hundred years after he first defined the need, another generation of hunter-conservationists hears the call of the uplands — an obligation to support the work Leopold began to sustain wildness on America’s richest land. 

Pheasants Forever’s Call of the Uplands campaign itself may be over. But the spirit live on. And Leopold’s concepts look hauntingly like PF’s present-day habitat mission. We won’t go far wrong if we are guided by a precept Aldo set down in one of his last essays:

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?’ If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.”

Chris Madson has spent a career writing about conservation and the land ethic. He grew up in Iowa, lives in Wyoming, and wanders bird country far and wide and in-between with his Brittanys.

This story originally appeared in the 2023 Spring Issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you enjoyed it and would like to be the first to read more great upland content like this, become a Pheasants Forever member today!