Aldo Leopold: A Founder of the American Wilderness Movement

Many of us enjoy getting out there in the wilds of our vast public lands. We love to hike, camp, fish, sight-see, and experience the beauty of our natural world. Wilderness Areas offer us a glimpse of lands and ecosystems relatively intact and preserved from human influence. Preservation of Wilderness areas now seems like common sense, but it wasn’t always so. Aldo Leopold, one of America’s most influential conservationists of the 20th century, was also a huge influencer in developing the framework of what we now know as our National Wilderness Preservation System.

Early Days

Born in small-town Iowa in 1887, Aldo Leopold would go on to influence the thinking of an entire nation. He was a Yale-educated forester, scholar, teacher, writer, and a conservationist before it was popular to be one.

Assigned to the American Southwest in his early career days, he worked in forestry and wildland fire on the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. Always honing his observations of the land, its flora and fauna, he developed a deeper appreciation of the value wild places hold.

Aldo Leopold was instrumental in developing the plans to manage a portion of Gila National Forest as wilderness, and it became the first officially designated Wilderness area anywhere in the world on June 3, 1924. Three-quarters of a million acres were set aside to be managed as wilderness for future generations.

Returning to the Midwest

Leopold took a position in Madison, Wis. in 1924. A thought leader in game management, he published the first such textbook in the nation in 1933. He became chair of the new game management department at the University of Wisconsin, the first of its kind in the United States. Two years later, he and several colleagues founded the Wilderness Society.

In 1935, Aldo Leopold and his family purchased a small farm in southwest Wisconsin, which became the site of many of his observations and experiments. Some of his essays from this period were published as perhaps his best known work, A Sand County Almanac.

Leopold was killed by a heart attack while fighting a grass fire on his neighbor’s farm in 1948. In 1982, his children founded the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. The non-profit continues Leopold’s life work: community education, stewardship, and continuing the dialogue about a land ethic and what that means in our time.