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Elder of the Tribe: Aldo Leopold

How the last green glint in a dying wolf's eyes changed a man--and ultimately changed our country.

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Sometimes it is possible to identify intellectual turning points in individual lives. Occasionally these pivots have far-reaching import for history as well. One of the great moments in the evolution of American thinking about man-land relationships occurred by a river in the White Mountain region of a territory shortly to be established as the state of Arizon. The years of 1909 or 1910. Aldo Leopold sat eating his lunch on rimrock several hundred feet above the river. Suddenly, an animal appeared, fording the stream. At first Leopold and his companions mistook it for a doe. But when it emerged from the water and shook the water from a three-foot tail, they saw with a start that it was a huge wolf.

Leopold knew little about the wild wolves. His boyhood experiences included hunting ducks and geese on the Mississippi flyway in Iowa. Then was off to the elite Lawrenceville School in New Jersey and then Yale. In June, 1909, Leopold received a master’s degree in forestry and accepted an appointment in the recently organized U.S. Forest Service. His first assignment took him to the White Mountain and the rendezvous with the wolf.

Given the time and place, the reaction of the men on the rimrock was instinctive. “In those days,” Leopold recalled later, “we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf.” Scrambling for their rifles, the group began pumping lead down the hill. The wolf fell while some pups, which had joyously greeted its emergence from the river, ducked for cover among the rocks.

The party reached the female wolf just before she died. The greenhorn forester and his friends watched “a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” Leopold recognized at once “that there was something new to me in those eyes.” He felt a pang of regret–probably one of the first for the death of a wolf in America. When he turned away from the riddled carcass, he sensed that something superbly alive and fundamentally important to the ecosystem had been unwisely removed from the natural order of things on the Arizona mountain.

Within two decades Leopold’s sensation flowered within him into a full-blown understanding of the value of wolves and other predators in maintaining natural balances of game animals useful to man. In time the memory of the green fire led Leopold to transcend utilitarianism and arrive at an environmental philosophy–he called it a “land ethic”–according to which wolves were valuable as wolves. And this perception led to Leopold’s radical redefinition of conservation as the protection of the health and integrity of the total ecosystem. The green wolf fire, catalyst in Aldo Leopold’s mind, helped energize the recent environment movement. What it amounted to, Leopold explained, was encouraging people to start “thinking like a mountain.”

Significantly, Leopold’s personal turning point toward wolves and all they symbolized occurred in wilderness. When he arrived in Arizona and New Mexico in 1909, fresh from Yale, he found a country technological man hardly altered. There was not a car in the territory, he recollected, and there were “grizzlies in every major mountain mass.” The birds and muskrats he had admired as a boy along the Mississippi had stimulated his interest in nature. But the southwest had wilderness, and Leopold defined that term in 1921 as a roadless area large enough to “absorb a two weeks’ pack trip.” Gradually the wilderness of the Southwest moved the young midwesterner. He began to realize that “all my life I had seen only sick land, whereas here was a biota still in perfect aboriginal health.”

Wild places, in a word, were models. Leopold regarded the wilderness of Arizona and New Mexico, and (in the 1930s) of northern Mexico, as “a base-datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism.” This wilderness-inspired idea of land as an organism constituted a key intellectual underpinning of the modern science called ecology, which Leopold was helping develop. It implied that dynamic interrelationships existed between living things and between life and the environment. The wolf, for example, was as important to the land organism as the stomach or liver was to the single living thing. Remembering his moment of illumination below the Arizona rimrock, Leopold told University of Wisconsin wildlife ecology classes (he accepted a professorship there in 1933) that “when we attempt to say that an animal is ‘useful,’ ‘ugly,’ or ‘cruel,’ we are failing to see it as part of the land. We do not make the same error of calling a carburetor ‘greedy.’ We see it as part of a functioning motor.”

Wilderness held other lessons for human beings, preeminently the fact that nature can get along quite well without them. Full understanding of this concept was vastly humbling and led Leopold to the belief that man was a dependent member in, not the master of, the community of life. Restraint of technological power became imperative. On these axioms rested the major portion of Leopold’s philosophy and the rationale of the entire environmental protection movement.

Aldo Leopold began his campaign for wilderness preservation in the early 1920s with the argument that the existence of wild places contributed to the quality of American life. For three centuries, he readily admitted, the reverse had been true. It had been necessary to reduce the once-total wilderness character of North America. “A stump,” he acknowledged, “was our symbol of progress.” But times and environments change, and the civilizing process could be carried too far. Leopold created an analogy to explain the point. “What I am trying to make clear,” he wrote, “is that if in a city we had six vacant lots available to the youngsters of a certain neighborhood for playing ball, it might be ‘development’ to build houses on the first, and the second, third, fourth, and even on the fifth, but when we build houses on that last one, we forget what houses are for. The sixth house would not be development at all, but rather, stupidity.”

In terms of American wilderness, Leopold felt the fifth house had already been built, perhaps in 1890 when the U.S. Census officially pronounced the frontier at an end. Thereafter, as he saw it, the new challenge was to preserve, not develop, wilderness. But paradoxically the scarcity would help. At first Americans had had too much wilderness to appreciate it. As with most things we prize, “Only when the end of the supply is in sight do we ‘discover’ the thing is valuable.”

A realist when it came to policy, Leopold knew that recreation would be the most readily accepted justification for saving wild country. In 1924 he told President Calvin Coolidge’s National Conference on Outdoor Recreation, “Wilderness is the fundamental recreational resource.” One could, of course, backpack through a suburb. But a quality outdoor experience depended on the availability of wilderness. It was true, Leopold pointed out, with camping, hunting, fishing, and hiking. This realization prompted one of his best known remarks: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

Wilderness, however, attracted Leopold for more profound reasons than recreational fun. Time and again, beginning in the early 1920s, he pointed out the cultural importance of wilderness. Values as well as land were at stake in wilderness preservation. It was a matter of American roots. Wilderness shaped Americans and their ideas and institutions. If people valued those social and intellectual constructs, Leopold asked, should they not also value the wilderness environment “which produced them and which may now be one of our effective means of keeping them alive?” Without wilderness, pioneering became the sole concern of history books and “Frontierlands.” This argument figured prominently in the successful campaign Leopold led to designate a half-million acres of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest a wilderness reservation. For the traditionally utilitarian minded U.S. Forest Service, the 1924 action was a revolution.

Near the end of his life–he died fighting a brush fire in Wisconsin in 1948–Leopold’s advocacy of wilderness rested increasingly on its ability to remind human beings of their real relationship to the natural world. As he put it in 1941: “Civilization has so cluttered [the] elemental man-earth relation with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.” Contact with wilderness was a corrective. It emphasized people’s dependence on their environment and removed the fatal illusion that human welfare and even survival were distinct from the whole of the ecosystem. Humility and dependence–qualities modern man needed in abundance–could be readily derived from the wilderness.

Wilderness also strengthened a capacity for restraint. To travel in wilderness in the spirit of wilderness meant acceptance of primitive means of moving and living. People who exchanged the speed of jets planes and freeways for a rate of progress perhaps 15 miles per day through the land were demonstrating capacity for personal restraint which could not fail to carry over to other aspects of their lives. Those who deliberately turned from the mechanized conveyances were likely to be those who could limit their reproductive ability, their consumption of energy, and the richness of their entire lifestyle.

Additionally, Leopold believed that the existence of wilderness was a sign of social acceptance of restraint based on an environmental ethic. A policy of protecting wilderness became “an act of national contrition” on the part of a people who had been so careless in the past. As a remnant of the stable, healthy land, what was preserved was “a token of things hoped for.” In this sense the wilderness preservation movement was “a disclaimer of the biotic arrogance of Homo americanus.” Leopold saw preserved wilderness as “one of the focal points of a new attitude–an intelligent humility toward man’s place in nature.”

Leopold advocated wilderness as a recreational, cultural, scientific, and, finally, educational resource. Its value would rise as civilization became more extensive and more intensive. So Leopold could say that “the richest values of wilderness lie not in the days of Daniel Boone, nor even the present, but rather in the future.”

Thanks to leaders like Aldo Leopold, wilderness has a chance for a future in an increasingly civilized world.

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