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Leopold's Wild Idea, Part One

The Gila Wilderness

Part One of Three: 2023-24 Education and Communications Fellow Kysh Lindell's spell-binding history of the Gila Wilderness, from its centuries as Indigenous homelands, to Leopold's bold proposal, to today and its future. The Gila Wilderness' U.S. Forest Service designation is 100-years-old in 2024.

By Kysh Lindell

On June 3, 1924, regional forester Frank C. Pooler quietly signed Aldo Leopold's proposal to protect a 755,000 acre area of National Forest in southwestern New Mexico as wilderness—an entirely new designation for the Forest Service, and for the country. 100 years later, the Gila Wilderness—now reduced to 558,000 acres and severed from adjacent wildlands by a highway—still stands as a testament to Leopold's foresight, but one wrought with complexity.

Leopold's Wild Idea

Born and raised along the banks of the Mississippi River, young Iowan Aldo Leopold encountered his fair share of wild places during his childhood. Family trips to the scenic Les Cheneaux Islands of Michigan, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain National Park exposed him to wild landscapes whose natural features and systems remained largely in-tact, changed relatively little by the generation of settlers who came before Leopold. He eagerly sought out the wild even in more human-influenced environments, often taking stock of the various bird species in his own backyard and mapping out the forests and rivers surrounding his prep school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. This interest in the natural world eventually led him to seek a degree at the Yale School of Forestry and, in 1909, he graduated as one of the first college-trained foresters in the country. Soon after, Leopold shipped off to the Southwest to begin his forestry career in the national forests of the Arizona and New Mexico territories.

Leopold's hand-drawn map of his outdoor explorations in Lawrenceville, NJ. 1905


A student of the Gifford Pinchot era of forest management, Leopold did not initially prioritize wilderness protection. Rather, foresters were taught to follow the doctrine of the "greatest good for the greatest number in the long run," which encouraged responsible use of a forest's natural resources for economic, recreational, and environmental purposes. During his personal and professional time in the Southwest, however, Leopold began to realize that commercialization, development, and especially the American public's growing interest in automobiles were beginning to threaten the health of some of the nation's last in-tact stretches of wild, largely undeveloped forest. Over-grazing of sheep and cattle threatened soil and watershed health, new roads created discontinuities in wildlife habitat, and increased tourist activity did a number on several natural sites in the West. Leopold found the commercialization and development around the Grand Canyon especially egregious, calling business practices there "repugnant" when he was sent to draft a recreational plan for the monument in 1915. Even in these early days, Leopold was beginning to see land, soil, plants, and wildlife as more than just commodities—an early expression of his land ethic.

As he traveled the Southwest, Leopold encountered areas ranging the whole spectrum of wildness; none, though, was wilder than the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico. A life-long hunter and wildlife expert, Leopold had a particular interest in sustaining healthy populations of game animals. The Gila region's large deserts, grasslands, pinyon and ponderosa pine forests provided excellent habitat for diverse wildlife and its relatively undisturbed condition gave recreationalists like Leopold the chance to partake in "primitive recreation" like hunting, fishing, and backpacking while completely immersed in a natural setting. For Leopold, the Gila proved the perfect site for the wilderness experiment.

Leopold in the Gila National Forest

In 1921, after discussing his ideas with fellow wilderness advocate Arthur Carhart, Leopold penned "Wilderness and Its Place in Forest Recreational Policy," a foundational essay arguing that the Forest Service should set aside swaths of national forest land as designated wilderness areas. Here, he offered his definitive definition of wilderness: "a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two weeks' pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.” The Gila, he argued, was the ideal first candidate.

The wilderness idea was revolutionary, and not entirely popular. Why set aside thousands of acres of land, free from resource extraction, roads, cars, and human development for the express purpose of "primitive recreation" and aesthetic beauty? Was that truly the highest use of the land? When Leopold penned his official proposal for wilderness designation in 1922, he argued that the Gila offered more to the American people as a recreational area than in any other form: the rugged terrain posed challenges for agriculture and grazing, the area was remote and sparsely populated, and, above all else, it was one of the last remnants of a wild America that was rapidly disappearing. Leopold's writing proved persuasive, and his proposal was approved by Forest Service officials in 1924.


Wilderness & the Land Ethic

Though Leopold would take a few more decades to clearly define his idea of a "land ethic" in writing, his advocacy for the Gila Wilderness demonstrates how his own land ethic came into action fairly early in his career. From his personal encounters with wild places emerged an ethical drive to protect their recreational, ecological, and spiritual values.


Leopold initially moved to protect the Gila for recreational purposes, looking to maintain opportunities for quality camping, hiking, hunting, canoeing, and fishing that he had once enjoyed. Along with weekends spent in the wild mountains of the Apache and Carson National Forests and many hunting trips along the Rio Grande, one canoe trip through the Colorado River Delta had a particularly strong impact on Leopold's wilderness advocacy. In "Green Lagoons," an essay that would later appear in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold remarks on the incredible natural beauty, abundance of native wildlife, connection to the everyday motions of the land, and sense of freedom afforded by the wildlands of the Colorado River: "[the quail and deer's] festival mood became our mood; we all reveled in a common abundance and in each other's well-being. I cannot recall feeling, in settled country, a like sensitivity to the mood of the land." More than anywhere else, Leopold seemed to feel a part of a larger land community when immersed in wilderness settings. As he paddled along the Delta, stopping to set up camp, hunt birds, or cook a meal of wild game, he grew increasingly aware of the intricate lives of those non-human beings around him and wholly engrossed in the natural cycles of the land. At the heart of this experience was a deep love for the land and a fascination with the creatures that inhabited it.

Leopold canoeing in the Colorado River Delta, 1922

At the same time, Leopold concludes "Green Lagoons" with a sobering thought: "Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?" Leopold was witnessing firsthand the decline of American wilderness at the hands of developers and automobile users, and thus grieving the incredible opportunities for connecting with the land that wild places had once given him. In this context, his move to protect wild areas and, by extension, a particular type of recreation illustrates his land ethic. Spending time in wild places, Leopold believed, was one of the best ways for people to come to understand their humble place in a community of life, observe and learn from the natural world, and achieve a fulfilling sense of freedom not always possible in more developed areas of the country. At its core, finding a land ethic meant strengthening relationships between people and land, and wilderness recreation exemplified that practice. In Leopold's eyes, it was part of his own responsibility to nurture those relationships by keeping wild places wild.

Recreation… But for Who?

While Leopold specified that he did not intend for wilderness areas to become "rich men's preserves" serving only wealthy, predominantly male recreationalists, many argue that this was, or even still is, their main audience. Indeed Leopold's 1922 proposal for a "Gila National Hunting Ground" centers only one major value of wilderness areas: recreational access for hunters who enjoy pack trips. For many, this may read as "white men only." Though Leopold came to better understand the multiple and diverse values of wild places later in life, his 1922 definition glosses over the darker histories of colonialism and violence that accompanied the Gila's creation.

Leopold's 1922 proposal for "Gila National Hunting Ground," was accepted in 1924

For more than 20,000 years, a number of different Indigenous peoples have inhabited the greater Gila region. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Mogollon, early Puebloan, Mimbres, Warm Springs, Chihene, and Chiricahua Apache (N'de) peoples, among others, had stewarded and utilized the land, plants, animals, and waters of the Gila for subsistence, safety, and spiritual practice. Among the area's varied ecosystems, they were able to seasonally farm, gather wild plants, hunt wild game, and carry out other cultural practices in close relationship with the land. Noted leader of the Bedonkohe band of Chiricahua Apache (Ndendahe) Geronimo (Goyahkla) is said to have been born at the headwaters of the Gila River, marking an added significance for this group.

Beginning around 1500 with the arrival of Spanish settlers, colonial forces began threatening the lives of Indigenous peoples in the area, either by direct violence or by laying claim to the land that they depended upon for survival. Many were driven to seek refuge in the wildlands of the Gila as the unfamiliar European settlers could not navigate its rugged terrain. Following the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821), Mexico gained control of the province of New Mexico and allowed its citizens to establish land claims of their own; this process added another set of violent conflicts to the layered history of land use in New Mexico. The land that now encompasses the Gila changed hands for a final time in 1848 as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo transferred ownership of the territory to the United States as reward for their victory in the Mexican-American War.

The Apache Wars (1849-1886) rank among the most violent conflicts of the era. The United States Army engaged in bloody battles with several bands of the Apache (N'de) people over who could rightfully inhabit the new U.S. territory of New Mexico—ancestral homelands that the Apache (N'de) people were not willing to relinquish. The Gila was the last Apache (N'de) stronghold in the Southwest and contains several historic battle sites. Just a few years before Leopold first arrived in the Southwest, the U.S. Army, U.S. government and white settlers forcefully relocated many Apache (N'de) people to reservations in Arizona and Oklahoma and established permanent claims to the land, effectively severing the connections between many Indigenous peoples and their ancestral homelands. Even further, the U.S. government denied many land claims held by Mexican settlers, dispossessing and displacing Latino populations in equal measure.

A group of Chiricahua Apache (N’de) people photographed during the Apache Wars, 1886.

The mosaic history of the Gila contributes to many of its contemporary issues. For one, descendants of local Indigenous nations and Latino settlers lack opportunities to fully inhabit and interact with the land in traditional ways. The Gila's remoteness, extreme terrain, financial requirements, strict land use restrictions, and traumatic history often limit access for these populations, whether they intend to use it for recreation like Leopold imagined, or otherwise. At its essence, Leopold's definition of wilderness and, later, the language of the 1964 Wilderness Act designate these as places where "man himself is a visitor who does not remain," which may be at odds with Indigenous, Latino, and Chicano notions that these areas were homelands—places they would inhabit and steward in perpetuity. In the words of Ruben Leyva, Indigenous scholar and descendant of the Gila Apache (Chihene Nde), "we understood that our bodies were indivisible from our homelands and that our identity exists as part of the land we now know as the Gila National Forest, the Gila Wilderness, the Cibola National Forest, and other sacred locations preserved by the U.S. government." This is one limitation of a young Aldo Leopold's land ethic: seemingly only by evicting the original stewards of the Gila could his concept of wilderness be achieved.

Though this is a glaring issue in the Gila's legacy, it is not evidence that land ethics cannot support both recreation in wilderness areas and justice for Indigenous, Latino, and Chicano people. Indeed Indigenous, Latino, and Chicano peoples across the world have their own conceptions of wilderness and land ethics, enjoy experiencing wild places, and work to protect them from the same threats of resource extraction and development that Leopold was reacting to. In fact, many of the descendants of the Gila's original residents who were not forced onto distant reservations remain in the Gila region and continue to interact with the Gila Wilderness in significant ways, from hunting and gathering plants to hiking, camping, and packing. While the Gila's history has its tensions, Leopold and his proposal among them, it's future could certainly benefit from a more inclusive land ethic—one that centers the priorities of these historically marginalized peoples, re-ignites Indigenous stewardship, promotes equitable recreational access, and restores historic connections to wild lands.


Part One of Three: This concludes Part One; Part Two and Three will be published on this page over the coming weeks.