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Practicing Ecological Restoration

Welcome back for the 3rd and final installment of our virtual Shack tour series. In part 1 we looked at how Aldo Leopold’s life experiences prior to 1935 influenced his land ethic and affected how he thought about land health. In part 2 we explored how the family transformed the Shack and was transformed by their time there. This time we’ll analyze how the Leopold family transformed the landscape, taking a worn-out farm that was “corn stubble and cockleburs as far as the eye could see,” and turning it into a healthy ecosystem.

Aldo Leopold purposely bought a run-down and overused farm to test his ability and theory that he could rebuild health in even the most overworked piece of land. To build up the health of the land, Aldo Leopold and his family conducted a series of plantings of various native prairie plants and three types of pine trees.

Aldo Leopold’s prairie, seen here, is the 2nd oldest prairie restoration in the world. The oldest prairie restoration is actually the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, where Aldo Leopold served as a founding member and their research director.

The Shack Prairie spring of 2020.

To restore the property’s cornfield into a native prairie, Aldo Leopold used some unconventional methods. At that time there was no manual, guidebook, or internet that could serve as a reference for those interested in prairie plantings. Leopold had roughly three different methods of starting native plants in the field.

In the 1930s and 40s, native prairies were quickly disappearing off of the North American landscape. To piece together his prairie, Leopold would look in the corners of graveyards and along county roads (both places no one was building on or farming) and along railroad tracks (where the sparks helped the life-cycle of these native plants). To start a section, Leopold would travel around Wisconsin looking for those prairie remnants, cut a chunk of the sod, strap it to the top of the car, and drive it to the Shack where he would then throw it on the sand and let it grow.

He would also try and dig up a single plant (depending on the type and abundancy at an area) to replant at the Shack as opposed to cutting a whole chunk of sod. This way Leopold could retain the whole root and select the exact plant he desired. However, native prairie plants have notoriously long root systems, so even Aldo Leopold occasionally failed to dig one up. He even documents one such experience in the “Prairie Birthday” section of A Sand County Almanac. He describes his attempt to gain a Silphium plant,

“It was like digging an oak sapling. After half an hour of hot grimy labor the root was still enlarging, like a great vertical sweet-potato. As far as I know, that Silphium root went clear through to bedrock.”

In the event that this occurred, Leopold would have to wait until fall to collect the seeds and plant them later.

However, simply growing seeds and plants is not enough to maintain a healthy prairie, and Leopold knew this. During his time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Leopold was able to experiment with fire as a management tool for the prairies there, and he took those skills up to the Shack with him by introducing fire to the landscape.

Aldo Leopold burning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum

A key part of our work is ongoing stewardship of the pines, prairies, and floodplain forests that make up the historic Leopold Shack property and surrounding 600 acres. The way we do this is rooted in the Leopold family’s own ambitions for the worn-out farm they acquired in the 1930s alongside the Wisconsin River.

As they worked to restore the property, Aldo Leopold and his family didn’t focus on recovering any specific piece of nature, such as pine trees or the soil. Rather they aspired to bring back overall “land health,” defined by Leopold as the capacity for self-renewal in the soil, water, plants, and animals that together make up “the land.”

The land consists of soil, water, plants, and animals, but health is more than a sufficiency of these components. It is a state of vigorous self-renewal in each of them, and in all collectively.” –Aldo Leopold

We continue to emphasize ecosystem health to this day as we care for this historic landscape. Moreover, because Leopold’s conservation vision called for a shift from managing small, separate parcels to partnering with neighbors, we also help steward the Leopold-Pine Island Important Bird Area (IBA), a 12,000-acre preserve for rare bird species.

In addition to his work turning a worn-out cornfield into a flourishing prairie, to improve land health, Aldo Leopold and his family planted roughly 3,000 pine trees a year at the Shack. They planted three types of pine trees here (red pine, white pine, and jack pine), but today you can only find white and red pines on this part of the property. The jack pines didn’t thrive nearly as well, and the last of the jack pines were harvested to build the Bradley Study Center (Nina Leopold Bradley and Charles Bradley’s hub of ecological research conducted in cooperation with the University of Wisconsin located around 1 mile from the Shack).

In the first 5 years, the Leopolds observed 95-99% mortality rates among the pines. The land was overworked, the soil was sandy, and being the Dust Bowl era, there wasn’t much rain for the trees. However, once the weather pattern changed, so did the mortality rate, and more and more of the pines survived. Now we get to enjoy the fruits of their labor!

White pines with Shack in the distance

View of the Shack through Leopold pines (2020).

A lot of people ask us, why pines? The landscape pre-European settlement would have been oak savanna and Leopold could have planted the whole property with prairie plants, so why did he plant pines? The answer to this question lies in the November section of A Sand County Almanac, “Axe-In-Hand.” I recommend everyone read this section (it’s one of my favorites), but the essential point is that Aldo Leopold says here,

“I love all trees, but I am in love with pines.”

Today, we carefully manage this stand of pines and Aldo Leopold’s prairie to ensure that generations to come can still visit and be inspired by the same land Leopold loved. In recent time we have conducted a timber harvest to improve stand health among the pines. We also continue to bring fire into the prairie during prescribed burn season.

Two sawyers work on cutting up a cedar.

Our team working to cut trees encroaching on the prairie.

With our temporary closure to the public, we’ve taken this opportunity to stop woody encroachment on the prairie. Our team has been working tirelessly to stop the spread of trees into the prairie, which has been shrinking its size.

The property looks quite different today than it did in Leopold’s time, and that is a direct result of Aldo Leopold and his family’s efforts to restore the total land health. Luckily for us and all those who visit the site, we get to enjoy the fruits of their labors and marvel in the magnificence of the landscape.

Thank you for joining us as we explored the multitude of transformations that occurred both on this “sand farm in Wisconsin,” and throughout Aldo Leopold’s life. The culmination of these experiences led to Leopold penning one of the greatest pieces of conservation literature, A Sand County Almanac, which continues to inspire thousands to consider their relationship to the land. We encourage all who visit this site (both our Wisconsin and virtual site) to further consider the lessons they’ve learned from Leopold and pass those on to members of their community. After all, couldn’t we all use a little more Leopold logic in our lives?


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