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Leopold's Wild Idea | Part Two

Wolf pups

Leopold's Wild Idea, Part Two

By Kysh Lindell

Conservation, Research & Ecology

Leopold and his family left the forests of the Southwest for tamer Midwestern landscapes in 1924, just a few days after his proposal for the Gila Wilderness was approved. Leopold's understanding of the ethical value of wilderness continued to evolve as his professional and personal experiences diversified. More than just a recreational haven, Leopold began to realize that wilderness areas like the Gila supported wildlife conservation, important scientific research, and ecological health.

Leopold was a wildlife fanatic his entire life, even starting numerous game protection organizations in Arizona and New Mexico and later conducting game surveys across the Midwest. Though, as Leopold argued in his book Game Management, land use in the Midwest would need to fundamentally change in order to bring wildlife populations back into balance, there was another place wildlife conservation could make gains: wilderness.

During this period, land in much of the U.S. was being subdivided, sold, and put to work. As ranching franchises grew in Arizona and New Mexico, the landscape grew increasingly fragmented and lost many of its large carnivores as they posed a threat to cattle and sheep. To the detriment of wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions, predator control was the norm in the march of progress. In his essay "Escudilla," Leopold writes of the death of Bigfoot, the last grizzly bear in Arizona: "The government trapper who took the grizzly knew he had made Escudilla safe for cows. He did not know he had toppled the spire off an edifice a-building since the morning stars sang together." For Leopold, this "edifice" represented a thriving biotic community complete with all the creatures evolution had added into its complex web— especially top predators who kept the whole system in balance. This was exactly what the land ethic sought to protect, not tear down.

Wilderness, then, was a refuge. Without the permanent presence of white settlers, their anti-predator biases, and their tendency to turn a profit off of land, dwindling species like the grizzly bear who needed plenty of habitat and natural prey could thrive as nature intended. Though it was too late for the Southwestern grizzly bear, millions of acres of protected wilderness now support the recovery of other wildlife. The Gila is one such hub for endangered species, even serving as the site for reintroduction of the endangered Mexican gray wolves that once starred in Leopold's famous essay "Thinking Like a Mountain." Other rare and threatened species that rely on the Gila include the Gila trout, southwestern willow flycatcher, pinyon jay, Chiricahua leopard frog, Mexican spotted owl, and loach minnow. The same is true for threatened and endemic plant species like Hess' fleabane, Gila groundsel, and Mogollon death camas. Wild plants and animals have always been at the heart of Leopold's land ethic as essential members of the "land community," and wilderness provides them ample protected space to live out their lives.


Critically endangered Mexican gray wolf pups

In fact, the impacts of rapid climate change are proving just how integral wilderness areas are to the survival of all species. Not only do wilderness areas allow wildlife to more easily adapt to the threats of climate change by allowing them to safely travel to more suitable habitat, but they also contain natural systems that can help mitigate the effects of climate change inside and outside their own boundaries. For instance, wilderness often protects excellent sources of clean water and healthy ecosystems that naturally reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, like forests, grasslands, and wetlands. The Gila is one such area, encompassing the headwaters of the Gila River and hundreds of thousands of acres of native, carbon-sequestering plants. In the words of Indigenous rights activist Ricko DeWilde, "a green future that destroys some of the last intact wilderness in the world defies logic." Land ethics challenge us to protect the future of all species on the planet, and wilderness provides one avenue to do that.

In his essay "Wilderness as a Land Laboratory," Leopold examines another important function of wilderness as a scientific resource: "A science of land health needs, first of all, a base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism… Wilderness, then, assumes unexpected importance as a laboratory for the study of land-health." This "science of land health" is what we might today call ecology, or the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments. Because wilderness areas have been largely spared from intensive development, we can study their trees, soils, and other natural features to understand how healthy ecosystems once naturally functioned and, in turn, what actions we could take to help other damaged lands recover.

The Gila is particularly special as it supports research not only about threatened wildlife, but also fire activity. Thanks to the Gila's long-standing "let it burn" policy— a mandate to not suppress wildfire within the Gila's boundaries— scientists can study how wildfires have impacted its ecosystems over time. That crucial information can help us understand how to reduce the threats of climate change for all members of the biotic community, from the humans and other animals who are threatened by increasingly intense wildfires to the plants that need regular contact with fire to regenerate. Fire research in wilderness areas has contributed to positive changes in legal and social attitudes toward fire, including an increase in prescribed burning for both wildfire prevention and ecosystem restoration across the country. The opportunity to learn how healthy land systems work offered by the Gila and other wilderness areas has helped us take into account the environmental needs of not only humans, but the "soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land" when making decisions about land management— a shining example of the land ethic in action.


A prescribed burn on the Leopold-Pines Conservation Area, 2021. Credit: Jackson Newman

Western Science & Indigenous Knowledge

Though the idea that individual plants, animals, soils, and waters function as part of an interconnected system may seem obvious now, most scientists and conservationists in Leopold's time had yet to hear about the new science of ecology or Leopold's claim that it needed an ethical component. Leopold only published his guiding maxim for the ideas posthumously in 1949, writing "a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Many different Indigenous communities had been living out diverse versions of what some might call a land ethic for thousands of years before white settlers arrived. The Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, for example, had been following the ancient Seventh Generation Principle, which encouraged them make decisions today that would benefit the earth and its inhabitants living seven generations after them. The idea that all parts of the natural world are interconnected and that humans have a responsibility to our fellow living beings is a common theme in Indigenous belief systems across the world and has contributed significantly to their stewardship of the natural world. In fact, despite managing less than a quarter of ecosystems worldwide, Indigenous peoples protect approximately 40% of all "ecologically intact landscapes" and an astonishing 80% of the world's biodiversity. Federally protected wilderness areas share these same aims, yet often fail to prioritize Indigenous communities' needs, knowledge, and stewardship practices in their land management. As much as wilderness areas have benefitted the world through wildlife conservation, research, and ecological health, Western science alone does not fulfill their full purpose, nor can a land ethic be fully realized if it does not incorporate all members of the biotic community.

A gardening metaphor from Indigenous scholar and plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer illustrates this concept well and provides us guidance for the future of wilderness management. Take a Three Sisters Garden: a method of planting corn, beans, and squash together wherein the plants mutually benefit one another and produce nutritious food despite harsh environmental conditions.


A Three Sisters Garden. Image by Lopez-Ridaura, S., Barba-Escoto, L., Reyna-Ramirez, C. A., Sum, C., Palacios-Rojas, N., & Gerard, B. is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0)

Several Indigenous nations throughout the Americas developed and utilized this method beginning more than 3,000 years ago, including the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy and Ancestral Puebloan peoples. Corn or maize acts as a supportive trellis for the beans, beans add helpful nitrogen to the soil, and squash creates a protective, leafy barrier that keeps sunlight and weeds out of the soil. In Kimmerer's metaphor for the ideal intellectual garden, corn represents Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) from Indigenous peoples, beans represent scientific ecological knowledge from the academic realm, and squash represents an ethical space where both parties can engage with one another. When grown together in an ethical environment, these forms of knowledge each produce more fruitful products than they might individually.

If we apply this metaphor to land management, the garden looks like a wilderness area stewarded using both traditional and scientific ecological knowledge. In other words, a collaborative venture that treats both land and people ethically. We believe this model is the future of the land ethic, and one that could be born in the heart of the nation’s first wilderness area.


Part Two of Three: This concludes Part Two. Read Part One here and Part Three here.