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Leopold's Wild Idea: The Gila Wilderness at 100

A black and white image of Aldo Leopold bow hunting in the Gila Wilderness

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.

Recreation

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.

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.

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:

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A Portrait of Kysh Lindell

About the Author

Kysh Lindell

Kysh is a former Fellow and current Marketing & Communications Associate.