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Leopold Shack photo by Tim Eisele

The Time Has Come for Generational Shack Upkeep

Baraboo—The Leopold Shack, which stands as the holy grail for thousands of conservationists who care about land and natural resources, is the focus of a new effort to preserve its stability.

Now a landmark on the nation’s Register of Historic Places, the Leopold Shack was originally a dilapidated chicken coop, located on a small acreage along the Wisconsin River, bought by Aldo Leopold in 1935. Leopold, then professor of game management at UW-Madison, brought his family up to the Shack almost every weekend where they modestly fixed up the chicken coop into an abode for the family, and set about healing worn-out agricultural land with plantings and land management.

The family planted ~30,000 trees (mostly pines) during their years at the property and restored native prairie. Leopold went on to record observations of natural events, many of which later appeared in his famous book, A Sand County Almanac, now published in 15 different languages.

As Leopold’s daughter Nina Leopold Bradley once observed: “Learning about the land soon became loving the land.”

Tim and Nina Leopold Bradley

Nina Leopold Bradley (daughter of Aldo Leopold) shares a light reflection with the author several years before her death. Photo by Deb Spencley

The Aldo Leopold Foundation has now started a funding campaign, called “Writing its Next Chapters Together,” to help restore and preserve the Shack. The project also aims to bring Leopold’s “land ethic,” where people realize they are a cog in the environmental wheel, to more people.

“Leopold is still inspiring readers, thinkers and actors to care about the natural world,” said Buddy Huffaker, executive director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation. The foundation gives the Shack TLC annually, but now major physical work needs to be done.

The project’s first chapter includes ensuring the Shack will be there for another 100 years, through such work as installing a French drain to solve drainage problems, replacing the roof, and restoring the Parthenon (otherwise known as an outhouse), pump, and benches. Significantly the facility is in need of updating security to discourage vandalism. These all need to be done with care, so that the end result, as one observer noted, retains its same “stable disrepair” and humble Shack elegance.

Leopold Shack photo by Tim Eisele

The Aldo Leopold Shack is a focal point for people who care about natural resources. Photo by Tim Eisele

When the Leopold family was at the Shack they recorded many observations that are written in journals, and the project will take the more than 1,000 pages of hand-written notes and, with the help of volunteers, transcribe the writings so that they will be entirely searchable and digitally available to the public.

Chapter two includes needed work on the land, such as controlling invasive species, restoring the Shack prairie and a nearby “sand blow,” where the Leopold family found and later wrote about the small plant: draba. Equipment used to manage the land and woodlands, needs to be upgraded, including a plan to acquire a truck powered by electricity.

Chapter three includes sharing Leopold’s message with future generations and people not able to physically visit the shack. “We’ve been asked for years by educators for the ability to have a virtual access to the Shack and its stories,” Huffaker said. This includes creating virtual Shack tours, and holding Shack-focused events.

The entire project is estimated to cost $750,000, and already $296,000 has been pledged. Volunteers will be needed to help type some of the journals, and people can send an e-mail to archives@aldoleopold.org and indicate they are interested in helping with transcriptions of material, or email to mail@aldoleopold.org if interested in working on the prairie.

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Donors can leave their environmental signature by donating at aldoleopold.org/donate or mailed to: Aldo Leopold Foundation, E13701 Levee Road, Baraboo, WI 53913.

For people who haven’t been to the Shack to see the new exhibits, self-guided tours are available Monday through Saturday. Fridays and Saturdays guided options are available.

This article first appeared in Wisconsin Outdoor News in 2022.

To learn more about the author, Tim Eisele, an outdoor writer and photographer in Southwestern Wisconsin, visit his website.