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Doing What Leopold Did

We’re doing what Leopold did and searching for the right word for it. Is it possible for the right definition to be associated with the wrong word?

The definition is great – the act of rebuilding the land’s diversity, function, and processes over time and space – and certainly attractive to an ecologist like me. We definitely want to be doing that. And whether it’s acknowledged or not, it defines something critically important to the 7.6 billion people that rely on the earth’s natural resources for food, shelter, and clean air and water. But, I don’t think most people get that from the words defined – ecological restoration. It’s the right definition but for inadequate words.

Ecological restoration conjures – and I even know better – a return to the past. While components of the system have been rendered nonfunctional or lost, it’s often perceived as a preoccupation with historical benchmarks, arbitrarily chosen, no less. The word restoration undermines all the forecasting of conditions, actions, and outcomes ecologist routinely do. There is another problem too that appears systemic among other possible word choices for our definition.

Ecological restoration, land health, resilience – they are all nouns and as such imply a definitive end-state. Rightly, one could assume we advocate for something both known and achievable. It’s neither. Ecologist Frank Egler said, “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, but more complex than we can think.” Worse than being accused of longing for the past is being perceived as fixated on a singular expectation that’s nebulous at best and unattainable at worst. This isn’t just academic mire, but it amounts to a fundamental breakdown in communication. How will we ever democratize our ideas among the billions?

Ecology is all about – or really only about – relationships. Verbs capture relationships, how one thing relates to another. For example, 7.6 billion people use the earth’s natural resources. What’s more, verbs easily swap out over time, redefining relationships as beliefs change.

Aldo and Estella Leopold planting pine seedlings at the Shack in 1936. Photo from the Leopold Archives.

The Word

Did Leopold have a verb that could address the land’s diversity, function, and processes over space and time? I think so. And as one ecologist in a lineage on Leopold’s land, I would argue it hasn’t changed in 83 years.

It is exactly what Aldo Leopold and his family did in the 1930 and 40s; Aldo and Estella’s children did in the 1940 and 50s; Nina Leopold, Charlie Bradley, and Frank Terbilcox did in the 1970 to 90s; and the Aldo Leopold Foundation and their partners have done for the past 25 years. We care for this place.

Like a family relationship, caring manifests in countless ways and changes over time with context or desired outcomes, but regardless, remains true. Caring for a baby is wholly different than a teenager, and yet, fundamentally the same. Generations of managers of Leopold’s land so too have been fundamentally the same. Different aims, context, information, expectations, tools, but the intent to care is always present.

A Lineage of Land Managers That Cared

Aldo Leopold’s Shack prairie is one of the oldest replanted prairies in the world. Allowing semantics to enter for a moment, restored prairie usually implies that some pre-existing prairie plants, either stressed or suppressed, were brought back to full vigor. In this case, Leopold’s journals document a formerly cultivated field was predominantly weeds. Despite no pre-exiting prairie remnant, they planted a prairie, whose fibrous roots hold the sandiest soils and returned the land to health. Eight decades later, it is still a magnificent sight in the summer.

Nina Leopold Bradley and her husband Charlie Bradley intensively studied all manners of living and non-living aspects of this special place through their Leopold Fellows program. The geology, hydrology, current and past plant communities, and surveys of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians rounded out their research. One of the early fellows, Konrad Liegel (read his story here), mapped plant communities prior to European settlement based on the original Wisconsin land survey records. Yes, we do look back, as Leopold did, with great interest for perspective as we consider future potential. Konrad determined the vast majority of the area was prairie and savanna. As Aldo demonstrated decades previous, collecting prairie seeds elsewhere and sowing them on the property produced results. Nina and Charlie planted a number of prairies; one, in particular, offered a lesson not lost on them.

Steve Swenson and Nina Leopold Bradley relax after a burn outside the Bradley Study Center, the home that Nina and Charlie built near the Shack.

Frank Terbilcox, neighbor and former long term property manager, dug a wildlife pond for Nina and Charlie and spread the spoils on adjacent land. The subsequent prairie seeding was ultimately rewarded with a diversity that rivaled his own remnant, or original prairie, now called Frank’s Prairie. They realized this was no accident. The soil, raised out of the water table and placed on higher ground, contained few upland weed seeds. This greatly reduced competition from weeds as the young prairie plants developed. Planted four decades ago, the wonderfully diverse Estella Bergere Leopold Prairie is a reminder of the importance of site “cleanliness” prior to planting. Owing to the “every cog and wheel” mentality, Nina and Charlie insisted on very diverse prairie plantings since the 1970s. This premium on diversity has been a thread throughout the generations, influencing choices of wildflowers, grasses, plant height, and seeding densities. This emphasis and investment is yielding important dividends now as the pollinator crises is revealing the value of diverse and quality habitats.

Fire is one of the processes that keeps the wildflowers and grasses dominant in prairies, savannas, and oak woodlands. Although known in Aldo Leopold’s time, it was not until Frank’s management decades later that fire was re-applied to the land through prescribed burning. Over time, species that don’t rely on fire had outcompeted much of the native prairie plants. It became evident that decades of fire’s absence would require more direct means such as timber harvests to truly promote and connect prairie, savanna, and oak woodlands.

 The Land, Ourselves

Continuing this tradition of caring for this place is an honor for the staff of the Aldo Leopold Foundation. By the mid-2000s we had planted the fallow fields to prairie, annually controlled invasive plant species across hundreds of acres, and improved our prescribed burn program to standards unimaginable to our early predecessors.

In 2005, one of Nina and Charlie’s former Fellows, Mike Mossman, retired Wisconsin DNR biologist, did a bird survey of the foundation’s 600 acres and the surrounding 15,000 acres of state, federal, and private lands. It was the scientific basis to be formally recognized as the Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area (IBA), a distinction for areas of critical bird habitat across the globe.

Data from listening sessions throughout the Leopold Pine Island Important Bird Area (IBA) informs land management decisions.

While we secured this impressive designation, the data provided a wake-up call. Despite decades of effort, we were not accomplishing as much as we thought. We assumed maintaining and expanding grassland habitats would just naturally invite those critters in desperate need. It didn’t. Mossman’s study showed that few grassland birds were singing the praises of our beautiful and diverse prairies, they were just too small and disconnected. Those results took a little while to sink in.

Nationwide, grassland birds are in precipitous decline due to their susceptibility during migration and the rapid loss of breeding habitat. Their salvation will require more than just our efforts and the capability of our lands to provide their preferred home – this is, after all, one sand farm in Wisconsin – but nonetheless these birds represent a worthy conservation priority.

Sometimes recognizing what’s best for the land community is difficult. Our management planning revealed the obvious course correction wasn’t limited by our tools so much as ourselves. More often than we’d like to admit it, probably in more arenas than we’d like to admit, our personal sensibilities, insecurities, and aesthetics heavily influence our thinking. Certainly, not everything in nature is intended to be beautiful to us or to abide by our rationale. Ecologists, of all people, know the importance of dynamic systems in nature, and yet directing such dramatic change as a major timber harvest exposed a threshold of emotions.

Thankfully, our desire to manage an ecosystem that functioned was greater than our sensibilities would have otherwise preferred. Those before us had dabbled in timber harvests; none had stepped so boldly. In 2015, the Leopold Foundation’s Carl Cotter, IBA Stewardship Coordinator, organized a 170-acre timber harvest to promote lowland, swamp white oak savanna. We removed over 6.7 million pounds of wood, the equivalent weight of 270 school buses. Jim Pines, neighbor and Leopold Foundation board member, took notice and with Carl’s assistance, conducted a nearly identical harvest on 280 acres in 2016 and 2017. That harvest removed 10.7 million pounds of wood on adjacent land. Different than a timber harvest that’s expected to regenerate and become forest once again, this now open land was the desired future condition.

Birds of the Leopold Memorial Reserve

Red-headed woodpeckers have responded positively to timber harvests within the IBA.

It has been rewarding to receive recognition and praise from colleagues that understand the importance of work at this scale for grassland birds.  But what we really hoped for was approval from our priority birds. They approved! In 2016, the bird survey was re-run and the area of recent timber harvest had numerous hits for red-headed woodpecker and field sparrows at points that previous surveys had none. Other indications of success were the maturation of our planted prairies. Henslow’s sparrows, listed as a species of continental concern, were found in abundance in our IBA where the prairie was vast and the thatch was thick.

Reconciling with the Future

There is much more work to do. But, I like our perspective and approach. We used to spend a great deal of time planning parcel by parcel, as if separate considerations, ignoring the interstitial spaces. However, the land between is the connective tissue and allows various parts of our system to function as a whole. Now, we spend as much time managing between areas as within. Dakota Johnson, Leopold Foundation’s site manager, executed strategic brush removal projects linking previously disconnected prairies, improving the value of two prairies with one action. Our old perspective saw these areas as “no-man’s land” and certainly not worthy of time and financial investment.

Forecast predictions for decades out indicate longer drought periods. We’ve not buried our head on this sand farm, and anticipate a possible return to conditions that left Leopold’s predecessor belly up. The land will be ready this time, as our plans for prairie and oak savannas are adapted for the future.

If we accomplished anything additive to our predecessors it might be in crossing that perceptual threshold regarding our sensibilities. We stepped beyond a series of small, simple, and comfortable choices, and made what some have called hard decisions. That is one challenge with caring – it’s personal with the baggage of values, emotions, and relationships as much between people as between people and the land. And, at least in our case, it’s not just mine to reconcile. This special place and its future are cared for by our members, board, staff, family, donors, and conservation citizens. Uncomfortable at times for sure, but I like to think others need to cross this threshold with us, challenging our sensibilities in favor of the land. And, I really like the sound of 7.6 billion people caring for the earth’s natural resources.


Feature photo, top, of the view from Frank’s Prairie, a restored remnant prairie once owned by property manager Frank Terbilcox.


Did you enjoy this article? It was originally published in our Summer 2018 Outlook magazine. Become a member and get the Outlook magazine delivered to your mailbox!

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