Those words and a firm handshake changed my life. The year was 1978, forty years ago. That year I had led the effort to plant a prairie — the first of what has become a nearly 140-acre prairie restoration project — at the Arboretum at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. After graduation that year, I stayed in town to continue work on the prairie. I was showing parents around the prairie planting during the fall Parents Weekend, and the visiting parent who introduced himself was Aldo’s son, Luna Leopold. Luna went on to tell me about a prairie restoration project started by his sister Nina and her husband Charlie Bradley around their home near the Wisconsin River in Sauk County, Wisconsin, and a Leopold Fellowship program started just that year by Nina and Charlie involving the larger reserve that included their home (what was then called the Leopold Memorial Reserve). Luna encouraged me to invite myself to stay with Nina and Charlie, to see the prairie restoration firsthand, and to apply to become a Leopold Fellow.
I thought that was a grand idea. I grew up in Sauk County and, more than anything, I wanted to put my newfound love of prairies, not to say my college education, to good use in the county that had been my boyhood home. I took Luna’s advice. I applied to be a fellow, and my proposal was accepted.
I knew Aldo Leopold loved pines, but I love oaks. I wanted to begin an oak savanna restoration on the Leopold Reserve surrounding Aldo Leopold’s Shack — oak savannas having once been among the most common of Wisconsin’s native plant communities and now being one of its most uncommon. But as Charlie told me when I started my work, “You first need to understand what was before you can plan for what could be.” As a result, my project morphed into a study of the land use and vegetational history of the Leopold Memorial Reserve, with the project extending over four seasons and resulting in two publications. (Read one of Konrad’s papers here.) I was able to do what Charlie suggested. I documented the vegetation that graced the area at the time of European settlement and how that vegetation changed from the 1840s to the 1970s. While I never did restore an oak savanna there, I did document the oak savanna that occupied nearly a third of the reserve at the time of European settlement. And thanks to my good work and the good work of other fellows that followed, today a restoration of oak savanna, much more extensive than I could ever have imagined, has been initiated on the Leopold Foundation property, now part of a larger conservation effort the Leopold – Pine Island Important Bird Area.
While I did not know it at the time, I don’t think I could have chosen a better opportunity for starting a career in conservation. The experience? What can I say? My years as a Leopold Fellow gave me the opportunity to learn about the world around me in an intimate and meaningful way. It gave me the chance to put a research proposal into practice, to gather data, analyze results, and present my conclusions in presentations at the Shack and in peer-reviewed publications. While doing my work, I lived on the Reserve in a cabin without electricity that dated back to the 1800s among the company of similarly enthusiastic fellows (see top photo, left to right: Bob Gibson, Scott Freeman, Susan Leopold, Konrad Liegel) and under the mentoring of faculty advisors and fellowship directors with a lifetime of conservation experience. I saw what it meant to live the land ethic, and I witnessed how to make that land ethic the guiding principle in my own life.
Some years later, I left my Wisconsin home to get a law degree at Cornell University, but my experience as a Leopold Fellow was not lost on me nor forgotten. For the last 30 years, I have practiced law in Seattle, Washington and have been privileged to work on conservation projects throughout the United States and Canada. Some cases involved dam removal and salmon stream restoration, and others the preservation of mountains, islands, seashores, redwood forests, ranches and historic gardens. All have given me the opportunity and satisfaction to practice the land ethic in my own life’s work and to leave a legacy of protected landscapes for others to learn from and enjoy. Looking back over the years to the experiences that shaped and made me into a conservation lawyer, I give the most credit to that firm Leopold handshake, for it was the years of researching and summarizing the land use and vegetational history of the Shack area as a Leopold Fellow that were the most influential.