Breaking News. Estella Bergere Leopold Passes At 97 Read More

Following Land Ethic Trails: Howard and Nancy Mead

An image of Howard and Nancy Mead

If one wants to trace the evolution and growth of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and indeed the Land Ethic, one will need to venture down an important trail, or rather Wisconsin Trails.

Longtime supporters, avid hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts, Howard and Nancy recently reflected on their own personal and professional journey to build an ecological conscience generally and Leopold’s land ethic specifically. Aldo Leopold Foundation executive director Buddy Huffaker and I visited with Howard and Nancy to celebrate this long-time commitment to conservation and in doing so we were entertained and awed with how their shared love for hunting and the outdoors led them to buy and grow Wisconsin Trails Magazine and become forces of nature for conservation.

Howard grew up on Mandan Crescent next to the UW-Madison Arboretum, turning the Arboretum into his playground where, unbeknownst to him at the age of 12, he met Aldo Leopold. Howard and his friends had been playing soldiers, digging fox holes, and building forts when Aldo spotted their battle scene on the Arboretum property he managed. In a 2009 interview with Stephen Laubach, Howard said he didn’t realize that it was actually Aldo Leopold until he was an adult and realized the connection to the Arboretum. “Aldo said he wouldn’t tell my parents if my friends and I would fill those fox holes back in,” Howard recalled.

Little did Howard know then that this great chance meeting between Howard and Aldo Leopold was his first encounter with the man whose life would be entwined with his own. “Aldo never did tell my parents,” Howard laughed. As an adult, he was instrumental in assisting Reed Coleman and Frank Terbilcox in securing properties surrounding the Leopold’s family farm along the Wisconsin River which would ultimately become the Leopold Memorial Reserve, enshrining this land for conservation and future generations. Howard’s connection to and formative role in the formation of the reserve is highlighted in Stephen Laubach’s 2014 book, Living a Land Ethic: A History of Cooperative Conservation on the Leopold Memorial Reserve.

Howard and Nancy met as students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their early dates would involve traveling to the Wisconsin River to hunt ducks and pheasants. Nancy recalled waiting to be let out of her locked dorm dressed in her hunting garb at 5:30 in the morning to go hunting with Howard. “She would never do anything indoors, if she could do it outdoors”, said Howard. Two years later they were married with an agreement with her parents that she would finish her college degree, which she did. And so, this conservation couple began their life together, sharing their lifelong passion for hunting and the great outdoors.

Nancy and Howard Mead in hunting gear (in Madison) in 1956.

Howard recalled how on their early hunting trips that, while she was an excellent shot, just as often Nancy would collect plants and tie a dried bouquet to her hunting rifle. They also spent time at The Coleman cabin, a cabin owned by friends of the Leopold family on a property near the Leopold Shack, where Nancy recalled regularly “cooking pheasants in a Dutch oven.” Occasionally, they would hunt on the Leopold Memorial Reserve (which at that time included the Leopold and Coleman family properties). As ownership has changed over the years, the Leopold Memorial Reserve has recently been renamed the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area, now 4,000 acres owned by the Pines family and Aldo Leopold Foundation with the foundation overseeing the ecological management. This active conservation area is a subset of the even bigger 12,000 acre Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area. Learn more about this important work to support imperiled grassland birds and pollinators which was recently featured as a model conservation effort during the Midwest-Great Lakes Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration conference including an upcoming 170-acre prairie restoration that alone is estimated to eventually support over 3,000 Monarch Butterflies each year.

Around 1961, shortly after the birth of their first child, they acquired Wisconsin Trails Magazine, known then as Wisconsin Tales & Trails. Howard and Nancy became its editor and publisher. Nancy recalled a shoebox filled with hundreds of 3 by 5 cards noting the names and addresses of their first subscribers. They started the magazine in their basement while caring for their children. “And, amidst student typists, or babysitters who typed”, as Nancy recalled. Together, they grew Wisconsin Trails Magazine into a megaphone for Wisconsin conservation, recreation, culture, and history.

Howard read Round River first, Aldo’s essay from his personal journals published in 1953 by Aldo’s son Luna; however, he hadn’t read A Sand County Almanac until his postman gave him copy, “And I never gave it back”, Howard laughed. Clearly influenced by Leopold’s writing along with their own growing roles in the conservation movement the Meads infused Wisconsin Trails Magazine with the Land Ethic. They even went on to publish a special edition of A Sand County Almanac illustrated with photographs.

The October 2012 issue of Milwaukee Magazine said of their contribution to Wisconsin conservation that, “Along the way they and the magazine made a mark. Perhaps none was more prominent than the role the publication played in raising awareness of Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. A series of articles on the landmark eventually helped spur Senator Gaylord Nelson’s successful campaign to have the area declared a national lakeshore in 1970.”

Under their direction, Howard and Nancy published Wisconsin Trails Magazine for nearly four decades until 1998 when they finally sold the magazine. However, their journey and support of the conservation Land Ethic did not stop there. They continued supporting, serving on boards, and volunteering their time for several environmental nonprofits.

In 2013, Howard and Nancy were recognized by Gathering Waters with the Harold “Bud” Jordahl Lifetime Achievement Award, recognizing their commitment to conservation and land preservation over decades. This award is given to those who have “permanently safeguarded Wisconsin’s natural treasures”.

The two of them on “Pine Nob” a lookout point at our farm in Iowa County from 2010.
The two of them on “Pine Nob” a lookout point at their farm in Iowa County from 2010.

Recently, after a lifetime of hunting, Howard and Nancy sold their family hunting shotguns with the proceeds of their gun collection sale benefitting the Aldo Leopold Foundation, because, as Nancy shared with us, “the direction you are taking the organization is so farsighted, just like Leopold.”

Always humble, Buddy assured Howard and Nancy “that there is no bigger honor than having the trust, confidence, and financial support of conservation legends like you two,” as we sipped coffee in the Mead’s living room watching chickadees, cardinals, and nuthatches dance about as if to serve as witness to the continuity of care for all things “natural, wild, and free.”

Howard, joked that “If you want facts, ask Nancy, if you want embellishments, ask me”, highlighting the secret of their loving partnership and conservation journalism success – a great sense of humor. Last year they celebrated 65 years together.

Their time devoted to advancing the conservation Land Ethic through their life’s work, particularly through Wisconsin Trails Magazine, could best be summed up when Howard said “Nothing good is accomplished without some work”. They certainly have done so much good work and made such an impact while living their Land Ethic.

*Special thanks to Jeff Nania for his assistance in ensuring the greatest value possible was received by both the Meads and the Leopold Foundation given the unique nature of their gift.