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What Does it Mean to Build a Land Ethic?

One year ago, I launched this blog as a new communications tool for the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Like many non-profits, we are lean on staff and thick on program ideas, so plates are always full. While at times I have questioned my own sanity in creating a new weekly item on my to-do list, the last year of growth and evolution in our programming has given me some clarity about some goals and values that all of our efforts to build a land ethic—on the blog and beyond—share in common.

The foundation’s mission is quite broad: fostering a land ethic through the legacy of Aldo Leopold. We often translate that by saying we are building a land ethic. But what does that mean? How do we do it? Clearly, to be successful in achieving our mission to promote a respectful relationship between people and the Earth, our handful of staff here in Wisconsin cannot work alone. It’s always been clear to me that to be successful, we must do this work in partnership with others.

Build a Land Ethic Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council

Our newly formed Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council is a great example of one of the ways we reach out to others to gain both insights and capacity for our work.

Aldo Leopold didn’t articulate his expression of what he called a “land ethic” as doctrine; he recognized that his dream of a widely accepted and implemented set of values based on caring—for people, for land, and for all the connections between them—would have to “evolve… in the minds of a thinking community.” So to build a land ethic then, we must take off our blinders, get off of our pedestal, and recognize that we are standing shoulder to shoulder with countless people and organizations—across cultures and geographies, throughout history and into the future—who care. There are many bright stars in the constellation of leaders for a land ethic that that have led the way, shone the light, and continue to do so in myriad ways.

Build a land ethic Sylvia Earle

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle is one of my heroes. As a woman in conservation and a passionate defender of oceans, she inspires me in more ways than one. Go see her amazing film Mission Blue (available on Netflix) and you’ll see what I mean.

So when I started the blog, I figured it would not be a big effort at all! We know there are amazing people working to build a land ethic all over the world. Right now as I type this, I can only imagine the number of muddy kids being taken out on early spring environmental education adventures, volunteers being engaged to clean up local waterways, and landowners carefully considering the best ways to care for their newly purchased acres. When I developed the first draft of the blog submission guidelines, I envisioned recruiting guest bloggers from the front lines of everywhere, sharing stories that would spark discussion about land ethics in action. Each week for the past year, we’ve shared those posts with you. We have hosted great content written by not only Aldo Leopold Foundation staff, but also our associate and senior fellows, speakers who visit us here, gifted writers, conservation professionals, business leaders, and educators. All of them serve as ambassadors, bringing the land ethic idea to bear and wrestling with the challenges and opportunities that come along the way as they engage others in their own contexts and communities. Now, it’s your turn.

I’ve taken this anniversary as an opportunity to reflect, but I think it’s also a chance to look ahead to the kinds of content we’d like to feature here. With that, I’d like to formally welcome your submissions and voices to the conversation. Initially I had organized our contributor guidelines into categories of content, but I quickly learned that just like Leopold’s legacy, stories about a land ethic in action defy easy categorization. So instead, I’m reshaping our guidelines to talk more about the core values we are after—not just on the blog, but in all the work we do as an organization. Each title below links to a blog post from this past year that serves as a model for each value, though you will surely see overlap. I should also note there is much more content that could have been linked here than there was space, so I encourage you to explore the archive fully!


Recognizing the limitations of categorization, we welcome posts that highlight the value of interdisciplinary approaches. Just as Leopold broke down divides (between science and art, environmentalism and hunting, private lands and public lands, agriculture and wilderness), we seek to explore the space between. Interdisciplinary approaches are where boundaries come down, assumptions are dropped, respect and an open mind lead the way, and real learning begins.

Build a land ethic interdisciplinary


As humans, we learn in context. There are a number of ways to learn something. You can be told what to do, you can read it in a book, or you can learn it by rolling up your sleeves and taking a shot at doing it (mistakes and all) yourself. Leopold saw great value in hands-on learning (and mistake-making) in both his personal life and professional career (which of course, blended and overlapped).

Build a land ethic hands on


When someone asks you a question, at times the best response is to simply provide the answer. But as many great educators know, engaging the question through the Socratic process of inquiry often yields deeper understanding and greater impact. Leopold was well-known for engaging his students and family in the inquiry-based process he called “reading the landscape.” Sometimes, our questions can be more powerful and informative than the answers themselves.

Build a land ethic inquiry


We all know what it feels like to be left out. We all also know what it feels like to be on one side of a debate about an extremely polarized and politically charged topic. At its core, the land ethic is about caring: about people, about places, and about all the connections between (and within) them. The simple idea of fostering this kind of engaged caring has the potential to cut across generational, cultural, professional, gender, and class divides, and bring us together in conversation rather than argument about the values we share.

Building a Land Ethic Inclusive

President Barack Obama meets with the Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Honoring the past, investing in the future.

Looking to the past, we find both uncomfortable truths and vital inspiration. We learn about painful legacies and about positive progress within our human and natural communities. By understanding this history, we gain important context for the way forward. While hope can be hard to come by in a “world of wounds,” leaders like Leopold and so many others saw the value of investing in the future’s unforeseen returns. We look to the past because it shapes us and is essential to understanding. We look to the future with hope and determination to leave our own legacies.

Build a land ethic legacy

We welcome posts that address and explore one or more of these key values, sharing your story with others in the spirit of mutual learning, dialog, understanding, and respect. It’s my hope that the blog format has the unique ability to not have our content be a one-way flow of information, but rather a conversation. Because it’s only through listening to one another in dialog that we will create the space in which to foster a true thinking community.

I feel fortunate to be a part of an organization and a world that is full of so many inspiring leaders. Being busy on a daily basis is something you can all probably relate to. I am lucky that my work is fueled by the inspiration that comes from being a part of this thinking community with all of you. Together, we are building a land ethic. What a hopeful, beautiful thing.