The Foundation will be closed JUne 11–12 for a private event.
Leopold Center Details Here

Contemplating Winter’s Canvas

Contemplating Winter’s Canvas

By Bennett Artman
Leopold Foundation Land Steward Fellow, 2023/24

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and it appears that this principle maintains in the winter months when it comes time to mark trees for winter lumber harvest and we see that indeed, the paint is mightier than the saw. Winter is brushing season here on the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area (LPCA). This means that as the temperatures drop and the leaves fall we get the chain saws roaring, the brush piles burning, and the paint cans spraying. This is all in the effort of using this unique season of stagnancy as a catalyst for change and restoration come spring. Leopold referenced this very act in his essay, “Axe in Hand”, in which he points out the benefits of brushing in winter. The cooler temperature allows one to work hard in comfort, the lack of leaves allows clarity of sight in assessing what ought to be felled, or not felled, and the relative silence and dormancy of the fauna and flora provide a blank canvas upon which a conservationist, or land steward, can begin to scribe their signature into the land.

When winter came rolling around, later and warmer than usual, I was slow to accept the practice of cutting trees down as a form of habitat restoration. I thought to myself “wow, how ironic, here I am at the birth place of the modern conservation movement, using my environmental studies degree, to kill trees.” My understanding of the health of an ecosystem had yet to be sharpened and nuanced. A tree, no matter how scraggily, jagged, or puny, was a life that ought to be saved because, I thought, it is still a functioning member of the biotic community. And while this is true in certain biomes and regions, I soon learned it is often important to apply a deeper understanding of your specific region and land history when attempting to be a truly effective land steward. This became evident after a few weeks in the field marking timber stands with paint in order to prepare for a timber harvest.

There are multiple sections of the LPCA that were acquired as former farm fields and homesteads left unmaintained or unmanaged thus resulting in a hodgepodge of thick forest growth. To the untrained eye it may appear as a result of nature taking its course as it ought to, but once accustomed to what high quality south-central Wisconsin habitats can look like, you realize the current state of these forests is unfocused, unproductive, and inhospitable for most ecological purposes. As a land steward, I realize that this forgotten forest is a result of nature’s resiliency colliding with human’s interference resulting in native species becoming inhibited by persistent invasive species growth. White oaks that might have become beautiful open grown titans of a Wisconsin oak savannah now manifest as a suppressed fragment of what it could have been with a small canopy crown and little service to the greater ecosystem. The same happens to the other native grasses, shrubs, and trees as they are confronted by exotic-invasive species like Black Locust, Multiflora Rose, or Reed Canary which were all planted in the past by former land owners for various reasons related to their usefulness in the immediate moments but with little thought of how this might affect the land in coming generations.

This is all to get back to the point of how I changed my mind on the usefulness of stewardship practices like timber harvests or tree felling as a means of restoration. The practice of sustainable forestry as a means of symbiotic conservation is not a novel idea. It has been used by many Native American tribes to great effect, like the Menomonee for centuries, even millennia, in order to satisfy the needs of their human communities while also contributing to the progressive cycle of the biotic community. Even amongst western science and academia, reframing the use of forestry as a means of conserving and bettering a landscape as opposed to pillaging and perverting our environment caught on nearly a century ago as espoused by Aldo Leopold and his contemporaries.

Glenn Frank, President of the University of Wisconsin - Madison, during Aldo Leopold’s tenure at the university, wrote the introduction to the 1928 publication of Forestry in Wisconsin: A New Outlook. In Leopold’s copy of this book he underlines a part of Frank’s writing that says “Before we can make any marked headway in conservation we must manage, somehow, to substitute the psychology of conservation for the psychology of conquest and exploitation, for, like the pioneer, we still think in terms of cash returns of a year instead of the civilization of a century. We must, if we are to do more than play at conservation, substitute stable and scientific agriculture for an unintelligent raping and ruining of the soil; we must substitute intelligent forestry for mere timber slashing; we must dress the land that we have deflowered.” This plea for course correction seems obvious to many, yet was, candidly, radical for the time. Frank wrote this introduction as encouragement to his contemporaries and colleagues in the world of forestry which at the time was more akin to farming than it was conservation or habitat management.

One of those colleagues that this statement made an impact on was Aldo Leopold, who had recently graduated with a degree in Forestry and cut his teeth with the US Forest Service working in New Mexico in what would become the Gila Wilderness Area, thanks to him. This early experience with vast areas of natural beauty made an impression on young Leopold and galvanized his interest in using his knowledge of the flora and fauna he learned as a forester as a means of informing others about the importance of protection, conservation and restoration. This mission began with his efforts to petition for the Gila and other areas of vast natural beauty to be sectioned off as Wilderness areas but it didn’t end there. Leopold took the words of Glenn Frank to heart and began to “dress the land that we have deflowered” by helping to forge the study and practice of habitat restoration which, up to this point had yet to be recognized as a distinct and defined area of study in academia and in practice.

Nearly one hundred years later and these words from Frank are read with more poignance and imperative than ever before—they were not written in vain. The Gila Wilderness celebrates its centennial this year. A Sand County Almanac was written and informed by these words and helped to spark the modern American conservation movement. And I sit here today at the Aldo Leopold Foundation reading this plea for a change in how we treat our forests knowing that there is a whole generation willing to make this change happen. So even though the odds may be against us and a lot has changed since 1928 and the days of Glenn Frank, the principles of peace, protection, and perseverance maintain. We continue to make small but positive change one tree mark, one sustainable harvest, one burn and one seed at a time. This cycle of reflowering our land is a team effort between us land stewards and the rest of the members of the biotic community. We must, as Frank and Leopold remind us, “substitute the psychology of conservation for the psychology of conquest and exploitation” by “chang[ing] the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it”(Frank, 2); (Leopold, 240).