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Leopold's Wild Idea, Part 3

A petroglyph at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, adjacent to the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico.

Leopold's Wild Idea, Part Three

By Kysh Lindell

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Spirituality & Culture

In the final decades of Leopold’s life, his land ethic and wilderness writing evolved tremendously. He began to recognize that the value of wild places lay not only in their rare recreational and scientific opportunities, but in their incredible ability to shape the lives of individuals and entire cultures.  

Tales of Leopold’s later wilderness ventures appear in A Sand County Almanac and volumes of Leopold’s unpublished manuscripts, including essays like “Flambeau” and “Song of the Gavilan” and journals from his hunting trips in the Gila and Sierra Madre. In these deeply personal reflections, Leopold articulates how spending time in wilderness has afforded him and many others an unmatched sense of freedom and self-reliance, renewed health and spirit, and a rare chance to hear that “vast pulsing harmony” that connects all life on Earth. More than a novel recreational experience, he realized time spent in the wilderness taught people how to understand their place in the larger community of things, to appreciate the complex motions of lands not dominated by human influence, and to reconnect with older, more challenging ways of living.  

In “Flambeau,” for instance, Leopold writes of a pair of young men he encountered canoeing the wild Flambeau River in northern Wisconsin. The two men, fresh out of school and soon to enter military service, were thrilled to paddle and camp each day guided only by the rhythms of daylight and their own minds, making decisions without the help of pocket watches, guides, bosses or parents for the first time in their lives. To those boys, “the elemental simplicities of wilderness travel were thrills... because they represented complete freedom to make mistakes. The wilderness gave them their first real taste of those rewards and penalties for wise and foolish acts which every woodsman faces daily, but against which civilization has built a thousand buffers.”  

Aldo Leopold and son canoeing at Quetico Provincial Park, a wilderness reserve on the Minnesota-Canada border, 1938.

These wilderness trips, taken on Leopold’s own time and without the pretense of research, seem to conjure his most emotional moments and lead him to his greatest ethical revelations. That the land is a community of interdependent parts and should be approached humbly is not something he understood all along, but a conclusion drawn from a lifetime of lessons in wilderness. The foresight that the generations of people after him, “having never seen a wild river, will never miss the chance to set a canoe in singing waters” is the driving force behind his wilderness advocacy.  

Aside from Leopold, the ethical and spiritual value of wild places appears across many cultures. As ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan notes, the Yaqui people of the Sonoran Desert have historically treated the rugged wildlands of the Sierra Bacatete as a kind of holy place—one “rich not only in vegetation and wildlife but also in power.” They did not settle in these mountainous areas permanently, but visited to interact with a more-than-human wilderness power they called yo ania and other animals that inhabited this wilderness realm. Devoted to protecting these wild connections, the Yaqui fought to defend the Sierra Bacatete from colonization and development for centuries.  

In Alaska, Gwich’in descendant Bernadette Dimientieff says her people advocate for wilderness protection because it provides the strongest protection for the Porcupine caribou herd — animals that not only sustain the tribe's food supply and keep the tundra ecosystem healthy, but also underpin the tribe's ethics. “We treat them with respect and humility,” Dimientieff says of the caribou, “because we are related to them.” This reciprocal relationship between humans, caribou, and wild places is not just economically prudent, but fundamental to how Gwich’in people treat their fellow earthly inhabitants.  

In northern Wisconsin, the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa has established Frog Bay Tribal National Park — a tract of tribal land they call “an unequaled wilderness experience”— to protect the wild waters that lay at the heart of the band’s spiritual practice and survival. The park safeguards the shoreline of Lake Superior (Anishinaabewi Gichigami), fragile estuaries and riparian corridors, traditional resources like paper birch (wiigwas), and a rare boreal forest ecosystem, all while allowing members of the band and the public to nurture their own connections to wild places.  

Though the exact definition of “wilderness” is specific to each group, there are endless examples of the positive ties between wild places and human spirituality, ethics, and culture. As Leopold puts it, “wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artifact called civilization. Wilderness was never a homogenous raw material. It was very diverse, and the resulting artifacts are very diverse. The differences in the end-product are known as cultures. The rich diversity of the world's cultures reflects a corresponding diversity in the wilds that gave them birth."  

A petroglyph at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, adjacent to the Gila Wilderness in southern New Mexico.

Wild places are bastions of diversity—both natural and cultural—and make clear to us the webs of interaction that support all life on this planet. These interactions give a place its wildness, and humans their richness. In this context, conserving wilderness does not only mean setting aside tracts of protected land; it means protecting whole biotic systems, their human and non-human members alike.    

The Gila Wilderness is no different. Colonization, development, and destructive land management practices have ripped at the seams of the Gila’s natural and cultural webs, nearly eliminating the rich relationships between the land, its organisms, and its many stewards. Yet its protected status and dedicated guardians have safeguarded at least one thing: the possibility for renewal.

Whether you value the Gila for its aesthetic grandeur, its wildlife, its ancestral significance, its solitude, its hunting, gathering, fishing, and camping opportunities, or its scientific promise, the vast Gila has capacity for all of these connections, and many more involving no humans at all. Where traditional relationships with land have been severed, the wild Gila provides the space and natural resources for renewed connection. Where relationships between people have been battered, the Gila serves as common ground—consecrated ground—from which we can find a more just path forward. Where we have argued our differences, the Gila reminds us that what we share is something greater than ourselves.  

The Future of Wilderness

So, where do we go from here? What will wilderness be in another 100 years? How will we sustain it?

In the sage words of the late Kiowa writer M. Scott Momaday, “we Americans need now more than ever before—and indeed more than we know—to imagine who and what we are with respect to the earth and sky. I am talking about an act of the imagination, essentially, and the concept of an American land ethic.”  

Perhaps some would point to Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, so eloquently laid out 75 years ago in the final pages of A Sand County Almanac. We're certainly partial to our namesake but recognize that a land ethic for his time may not be the perfect land ethic for ours. Indeed, Leopold himself recognized that ethics are meant to evolve with their communities. The more salient task is to go beyond his voice, ever diversifying and expanding our understanding of what wilderness is and does, how we ought to relate to it, and how we ought to relate to one another.  

The only real danger is looking at wilderness and land ethics from just one perspective. That can and has led to some troubling pitfalls. To name a few:  

  • Believing that there is only one “right way” to treat or use wilderness  
  • Believing that the cultural work is done, and wilderness has done everything it needs to
  • Believing that collaboration between different people who have stake in wilderness is impossible or unnecessary
  • Believing that wilderness can only exist without the presence of people, including Indigenous people  
  • Believing that Western and Indigenous ideas about wilderness are totally incompatible
  • Believing something better can’t be made of a violent history
  • Believing we don’t need wilderness areas
  • Believing wilderness areas are the only wild places  
  • Believing ancestral ways of life and kinship with wild places cannot be revived

In reality, wilderness holds space for all perspectives, experiences, and possibilities. At its core, wildness is incongruous with dichotomous, restrictive, and stagnant thinking about what it should be. Wildlands are always changing, and purposefully larger than any human influence. There is no one solution for the issues facing wilderness, and no one person who can or should carry it out alone. The key is finding common ground in our shared quest to care for land; luckily, our last remaining wildlands provide the perfect meeting place.  

That is why the Aldo Leopold Foundation advocates for increased co-stewardship and collaboration, Tribal sovereignty, and development of a national land ethic in the mission of caring for wilderness areas. For guidance, we look to more ethically and inclusively managed wildlands where co-stewardship, knowledge, and decision-making responsibilities are shared between local community members, Indigenous nations, scientists, and land management agencies. For instance, the more than 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is collaboratively managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the Bears Ears Commision—a coalition of Tribal members representing five Indigenous nations with ancestral ties to the area. Together, these representatives and agencies work to make decisions that protect both land health and biodiversity, cultural resources, sites, and opportunities, and public access to protected lands. A similar relationship exists between the National Park Service and the Grand Portage Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa who co-steward the land, facilities, and stories of Grand Portage National Monument in Minnesota.  

Demonstrators call for greater protection of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, 2017. More than five tribes claim ancestral ties to the area, including the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni.

In fact, better Tribal consultation, protection of cultural sites, and incorporation of Indigenous knowledge into land management decisions are now federal policy thanks to the work of Indigenous leaders, activists, and lobbyists. Since the presidential Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships and Joint Secretary Order 3403 were issued in 2021, over 200 new co-stewardship agreements have been signed and the hope for improved wilderness stewardship is gaining national ground.  

Bears Ears, Grand Portage, and countless other co-stewarded lands and resources provide instructive examples of what better wilderness management could look like in the next 100 years—for the Gila and beyond. Ultimately, though, as Leopold reminds us in the preface to A Sand County Almanac, “there are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.” This mission is for those who cannot.  

The Aldo Leopold Foundation & Wilderness

In 2024 and beyond, the Aldo Leopold Foundation is committed to ensuring that both wilderness and the land ethic grow stronger. We hope to do that in three key ways:

Convening and amplifying diverse voices on wildness and wilderness, especially Indigenous ones

Though engaging with Leopold's writing is a part of our work at the Foundation, the land ethic speaks through more than just his voice. We make it a priority to bring together a diverse array of writers, artists, scientists, conservationists, and thinkers to share their insights through our monthly virtual programs, in-person events, and our annual Leopold Week speaker series. In the last year we have hosted award-winning authors like Diane Wilson and Ed Yong, Indigenous scholars and local Tribal representatives, emerging and celebrated artists, and conservation professionals from across the country— many of them speaking on themes of wildness, wilderness, or what Leopold dubbed the "natural, wild, and free." We hope you will join us for a year of fascinating programs touching on the theme of wilderness, including our live broadcast of the Gila Centennial Speaker Series taking place in Silver City, New Mexico on May 31.  

Engage with this goal:

Register for the Gila Centennial virtual broadcast

Watch Leopold Week 2024 Programs  

Watch Curt Meine's wilderness program

Join our e-news to stay informed on all events  

Examining the legacy of Aldo Leopold to demonstrate how wilderness perspectives and management can evolve for the better

As representatives of Leopold's legacy, we make it our mission to look at the whole Leopold— from his early days in Iowa and the Southwest to his final days just steps from our headquarters in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Toward this end, we share his writings widely by providing copies of both his seminal work A Sand County Almanac and his lesser-known publications in our Marshland Market, along with providing free access to discussion guides and the feature-length documentary Green Fire to help facilitate important conversations about wilderness and the land ethic. Perhaps Leopold did not have all the answers about the future of ethical land management, but we hope to inspire discussion about the evolution of the land ethic for the next generation.

On-site in the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area, we also walk the walk by working to re-wild over 4,500 acres of land. Our healthy prairies, oak savannas, wetlands, and forests have grown larger and more wild than the Leopold family could have ever predicted when they first purchased this "sand farm in Wisconsin, first worn out and then abandoned by our bigger-and-better society." Our land stewardship goals and practices have evolved since that era, but the core value of restoring land back to health remains at the heart of our work.  

Engage with this goal:

Read A Sand County Almanac  

Learning resources

Learn about the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area  

Re-affirming that the land ethic is all of ours to define, refine, and expand.

Leopold concludes A Sand County Almanac with a re-assuring notion: "I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever 'written'… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community."

We are all part of today's thinking community, so the land ethic is ours to define, refine, and expand as we need. Leopold's 1949 land ethic may not fit today’s society just right, but we strive to develop a global land ethic that can. In that effort, we are committed to learning from and strengthening relationships with our Indigenous community members, sharing positive examples of co-stewardship and diverse land ethics, and continually engaging with our "thinking community" via our social media, e-newsletter, website, programs, and events.  

Engage with this goal:

Follow us on social media

Visit our website  

Read Part 1 of "Leopold's Wild Idea" here and Part 2 here.