Aldo Leopold and 100 Years of Conservation in New Mexico

By Siobhan Niklasson
April 2012

In 1911 a young forester named Aldo Leopold stepped off the train in New Mexico just before it became the nation's 47th state. He entered a place whose landscape had been altered by humans in one way or another since their arrival here after the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago, and would be altered further after his departure. In the early days of New Mexico's statehood, Leopold got around on his trusty horse, Polly. The howls of wolves still echoed from canyon walls, and the delicate soils of the semiarid land had been degraded by generations of overgrazing of sheep and cattle.

Leopold grew up in Iowa, hunting, fishing and investigating the natural setting of his own backyard. It was perhaps mainly because he wanted to work outdoors that he became a forester (Brown & Carmony, Aldo Leopold's Southwest, 1990). He was fascinated by the natural world, and wrote eloquently about it. His most prominent work, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, combines his observations of the world around him with contemplations about humans' place in that world.

Although pressing environmental concerns have evolved since Leopold's time, his writings have remained relevant, and in fact have helped inspire several generations of environmental work, including the environmentalist movement that began in the 1960s. Recently, Leopold's life and legacy have once again come to our attention with the hundredth anniversary of his arrival in the Southwest, and the release of the film Green Fire: A Land Ethic for Our Time (2011).

It was in the Southwest that Leopold had an encounter that proved transformational for his life and work. As a young man and an avid hunter, Leopold eagerly joined in the killing of predators to preserve game for human sport. At lunch one day in the Apache National Forest in Arizona, when Leopold and his colleagues spotted wolves crossing a river, they reflexively shot into the pack. Descending to see an old wolf they had hit, Leopold and his compatriots "reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain" ("Thinking like a mountain," A Sand County Almanac).

Reflecting on that day years later, and having witnessed the damage unfettered deer populations could wreak on a southwestern mountain environment, Leopold began to think in a new way about nature: nature should not be preserved solely to serve man's economic or recreational needs, but it should be preserved because it has intrinsic value: a value that depends on the health of all of its complex and interrelated parts ("The Land Ethic," A Sand County Almanac).

Leopold himself complained that people's connection to nature was fraying. Living today, we understand all too well what he was talking about. Fewer of us spend much quality time in nature, instead increasingly living in an artificial world where all our needs are met indoors, on the Internet, and in structured activities on manicured fields. Unlike Leopold, who grew up exploring outdoors, many kids today learn about the environment through television shows and Internet research.

But in nature lie a wonder and a wealth of knowledge that cannot be accessed indirectly. Holding a bird in your hand inspires a much deeper respect than reading about birds in a book. Breathing in the pine-scented air and crossing paths with a coyote in a ponderosa forest is a much more memorable experience than seeing the same thing on TV.

Today environmental thinking tries to re-emphasize and strengthen the connections people have with nature. This trend is driven by the idea that an appreciation of the natural world is the first step to responsible stewardship of it. The environmental movement that dominated the second half of the twentieth century led to a lot of changes in the way natural resources are protected, but it was fraught with a heavy feeling of culpability. PEEC is among a number of modern environmental organizations that are striving to find a more personal way for people to connect to the environment.

Organizations like PEEC are trying to get people back out into nature, to see it with their own eyes, just as Leopold did when he saw the dying wolf. Chick Keller, a founding PEEC board member, says, "At PEEC, we don't advocate. We try to make connections. The iconic epiphany in Leopold's life happened when he got close to wildlife - looked in its eyes - and got to know it in a way he couldn't from afar. PEEC does this: we get people to look into the eyes of nature."

In this quest, the life and works of Aldo Leopold come back to the forefront. Leopold was frank about the necessary place that people and their economic needs have in the greater environment. But he saw space for us to conduct our affairs with greater consideration for the natural world around us. As he wrote in the foreword to A Sand County Almanac, "We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect."

Siobhan Niklasson is a board member and educator at PEEC (Pajarito Environmental Education Center).


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