A framed photo was my first introduction to Aldo Leopold. The color image, larger than life, welcomed new students entering the doors of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in the 1980s, a tangible reminder of Leopold’s deep roots at the institution, Class of 1909.
Young Leopold enrolled there for formal training in “deciding what to chop,” eager to redress the early 20th Century timber crisis. I sought skills to “keep every cog and wheel” of our plummeting wildlife populations (though I wouldn’t have known to use Leopold’s phrase yet). As graduate students, we both placed our faith in science to solve the environmental crises of our eras.
His education would benefit from pathbreaking ideas of school founder Gifford Pinchot and other Progressive Era conservationists. I was still more fortunate; my first wildlife management course required readings from A Sand County Almanac, where I absorbed Leopold’s earned wisdom from his pioneering work in ecology. “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us,” Leopold explains in the foreword, succinctly supplying the “why?” that had been missing from classroom data on the damage humans inflict upon wolves and mountains across the Earth. “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.” Those lines would guide my work and life.
After graduation came years of research into public attitudes and values toward wildlife, and investigating the ideals and principles that influenced Leopold, Muir, Carson, and other historic environmental leaders. Those studies were woven into my writing for children and families once I became a mom. Each of my children’s books, beginning with a biography of Leopold, have aimed at sharing ways of living in harmony with land, respecting place and biota as well as people.
One research project brought me especially close to Leopold’s values, as a scholar at Grey Towers National Historic Site. In Leopold’s day, that wooded Pennsylvania estate of the Pinchot family doubled as the summer camp site for Yale Forest School students. Field training there in long-term forest planning surely internalized 20-year-old Aldo’s understanding of Pinchot’s conservation principle, that natural resource conflicts must be resolved based on “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” That “long run” responsibility for coming generations is vital to the Land Ethic, securing its ability to transform our collective future.
Living in Maryland, I’ve had one chance to visit the Shack. With dear friends Kathy Watkins and Leopold biographer Marybeth Lorbiecki, I walked among the pines, toured the Foundation headquarters with Buddy Huffaker, and lunched with Nina Leopold Bradley herself. I’ve never felt more connected to Leopold’s “thinking community.”
Back home, to help expand that group of pragmatic idealists, I’ve organized events from woodcock walks to a screening of Green Fire. Coordinating tree plantings at an Audubon sanctuary is another way I’ve sought to help others build personal relationships with the land. My undergraduate ecology students often respond profoundly to their readings from the Almanac, giving me hope that sharing Leopold’s vision is working. As one wrote after a semester packed with dire reports on collapsing biodiversity and climate inaction, “Everything is so full of doom for people my age. The Land Ethic at least gives us a way to move forward.”
These days, a hand-crafted oak plaque from The Good Oak Society welcomes me to my workspace, a daily reminder of Leopold’s evolving legacy and my own aspirations. The larger-than-life wooden leaf connects me to the founding values of past conservationists, to a contemporary community dedicated to ecological “integrity, stability, and beauty,” and to the restorative work still ahead. By designating the Leopold Foundation as a beneficiary in my will, I proudly commit to fostering land health—and thriving wolves, mountains, and ecology students—for decades to come.
Julie Dunlap, PhD, teaches wildlife ecology for the University of Maryland Global Campus, and writes about natural and environmental history for children and adults. Her latest book is I Begin with Spring: The Life and Seasons of Henry David Thoreau (Tilbury House Publishers, 2022).
You may be interested in reading Julie’s Leopold Outlook article “Camp Greatest Good: The Yale Forest School Camp of 1907.”