Friday, November 18, 2011

Force of nature

Aldo Leopold’s wilderness message quietly interpreted across the valley

Express Staff Writer

Aldo Leopold’s journals from his life as a scientist, ecologist, forester and conservationist were made in 1949 into “A Sand County Almanac,” which today is a vital part of the dialogue about land ethic and wilderness preservation. Courtesy photo

Aldo Leopold was an eloquent dissident. From the ranks of the first graduating classes of Yale's School of Forestry in 1908, he began a career in conservation, embracing the land-use ideas of then President Teddy Roosevelt and first Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot, as delivered by the professors of the school that Pinchot's family had endowed.

But after a short time in the field, Leopold chafed under their ideas that conservation was, as Pinchot described it, "the art of producing from the forest whatever it can yield for the service of man."

Leopold's land ethic emerged from his experience and his lifelong aptitude for observation, the details of which he dutifully scribbled in journals. He created the first designated wilderness, in Arizona.

"There are two things that interest me," he said, "the relation of people to each other and the relation of people to land."

Today, he is considered a leading conservationist of the 20th century. His congenial approach to unifying what seem to be conflicting bedfellows and brokering them to his vision with little fanfare or controversy is modeled locally by the Wood River Land Trust in Hailey.

"Leopold's ideas haven't been embraced until more recently," explained the organization's executive director, Scott Boettger. "Much of our conservation policies are based on the original public lands movement from Pinchot and Roosevelt, which were basically that we need places to shoot animals and cut timber.

"But Leopold recognized that these places have a function all of their own once they are appreciated as truly wild and embraceable. As a professional in the field, I feel this is the most significant point of view for a sustainable future. People will protect what they love. We abuse land because we view it as a commodity, but once we start to see it as part of our community, as something we love, we can begin to protect it.

"That's the mantra of the future, and that's what the land trust is all about."

The organization is hosted a free screening of a film of Leopold's life on Sunday, Nov. 20, at the nexStage Theatre in Ketchum. Boettger is hopeful that the event will give the public a better understanding of the land trust's work, which is protection of the land, and create a new legion of supporters when they see how simply Leopold's approach is in its application, and how they can contribute.

"It's one of those generational shifts," Boettger said. "This is not something you can say, 'This is what you should believe now,' because for this to work, you have to engage those people for whom mining or timber is a job."

But Leopold proved that it could be done by getting into the trenches with Midwestern farmers and Southwestern ranchers, students, scientists and hunters.

Leopold was sensitive but not naive about the need for growth. He was born where the river met the railroad in Iowa and was witness to monumental change.

"We, the pioneers, have killed our wilderness," he wrote. "Our tools are better than we are and grow better, faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it."

Leopold's change in approach to conservation as he'd learned it came about during an encounter early in his career.

"We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I was young then and full of trigger itch. I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer that no wolves would mean hunter's paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

The ideas are not anti-anything, Boetgger said, which is how Leopold was able to find middle ground with seemingly opposing forces.

It is the same diplomatic approach the land trust has used over the last decade to preserve land up and down the valley. Once people walk those lands, conservation becomes something we want to do with the same second nature we do anything we love, he said.

Knowing one's community includes a place like Lion's Park in Hailey, Boettger explained, which used to be a trash dump that was swept into the river each spring until the land trust secured ownership and spearheaded a cleanup. He likened it to owning your own riverfront property with eagles flying overhead and a gorgeous wild river beside it without spending anything but time.

"Our education is passive, through osmosis, through experiential learning," he said. "These places are more than just places to collect mushrooms or go fishing—it's a reason for people to recognize how lucky we are. It's these kinds of experiences that are unique to this valley—like the Big Wood River embraces the entire valley. That's what we want to represent."

Jennifer Liebrum

"Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time"

Free showing of the documentary film, Sunday, Nov. 20, at 6 p.m. at nexStage Theatre in Ketchum.

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