Leopold Legacies — how he came to preserve the Gila Wilderness

Aldo Leopold
Aldo Leopold

It is autumn 1919, in a wild and scenic area of New Mexico’s Gila Forest. A young assistant district forester named Aldo Leopold is on horseback, trying to imagine what his surroundings will be like if a proposed road system goes through, a "civilizing" influence becoming all too familiar in other forests of the Southwest.

Not here, he resolves. Something must be done to save it so future generations will be able to enjoy the purity and beauty of this back country.

Leopold, with the aid of a few like-minded U.S. Forest Service colleagues, and strongly supported by the local community, eventually persuaded his employer that the area should remain free of roads and be preserved for wilderness recreation.

On June 3, 1924, 755,000 acres were set aside by the Forest Service, as the Gila Wilderness. It was the world’s first designated wilderness land.

Leopold’s next cause was a logical progression. What good were wild habitats without wild creatures to live in them? He became passionately dedicated to promoting sensible game management.

Applying the word "management" though, would be somewhat of a misnomer in an historical context. It implies there was a specific plan to control the use of game.

Back then, policy makers simply restricted hunting so game would last longer. They accepted that many wildlife species would inevitably go the way of the passenger pigeon and great North Atlantic auk, and be hunted to extinction, or die off from loss of habitats.

Some large game, for example the once prolific grizzly bear, were almost gone in the West already, even in sizable forests like the Gila. Only a few survivors were left, and they were migrating north, to the safer wilds of Canada.

Conservation and restoration of game was not a new concept, but few people regarded it as a renewable resource that could be directed, much like a farmer manages crops in his fields. Ideas were plentiful, but a broad-based approach to game, rooted in scientific research, and defining specific game related problems and solutions, was non-existent.

Leopold found solutions, and a young audience of converts to carry them forward.

Four years after the Gila Wilderness was established, he was lecturing on the subject at the University of Wisconsin. Later he taught Wildlife Ecology there and served as the first chairman of a new Department of Wildlife Management. Under his tutelage the profession began to move out of the pioneering stage and into a respectable realm of highly educated, field-trained, wildlife specialists.

His monumental work, Game Management, first published in 1933 as a textbook, was used as a blueprint for several important federal conservation laws. Its techniques and principles are durable. Today, it would be difficult to find a game manager or wildlife conservationist anywhere in the world who has not studied from it or who does not keep a well-thumbed copy within easy reach.

His "land ethic" writings still teach and inspire. All conservation efforts affecting man and animal alike, Leopold was convinced, begins with the land.

He crisscrossed the forests, deserts, and plains of this country and Mexico’s several times through the years, studying soil. His conclusions changed several widespread misperceptions of soil erosion, and subsequent loss of valuable watershed and farmlands. By the time he died in 1948, ecology was growing up and becoming a precise science.

Aldo Leopold was eminently suited for the roles of conservation innovator and leader of forestry and game management. Duck hunts and nature walks were a cherished part of his early childhood. He chose the fledgling forestry service as a career because it included the best of both worlds:  the irresistible outdoors and the sport of hunting.

His lifetime love for both did not begin to fully evolve into a committed goal for integrated conservation, which included predators, until one fateful encounter with a wolf and her cubs.

Eating lunch on a rim rock, high above a turbulent stream, he and some companions saw a form, breast-deep, fording the white water below. At first, they mistook the animal for a deer. As it climbed onto a bank toward them, they realized it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang out of the willows, tails wagging, to playfully welcome her.

In those days, it would have never occurred to any of them not to shoot wolves. When the rifles were empty and the smoke cleared, the female lay dying, and a cub limped away, leg dragging, disappearing into impassable rocks. In their excitement, and shooting down a steep hill, their aim had been more enthusiastic than accurate.

Decades later, in his 1949 book of classic essays, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold marked this event as a turning point in his life, both professionally and personally. He recalled, "We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes . . . something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

In his Forward to Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote, "There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot." He could not.

Other people who cannot often visit our country’s oldest wilderness, the Gila, now celebrating its 75th year. If it’s true, and many believe it is, that a strong spirit lives on, then perhaps Aldo Leopold’s can be said to dwell here. Certainly his legacies do. Perhaps he can be heard by pausing on a quiet trail, and listening to a mountain . . . in this wild and scenic place he helped to preserve.