Aldo Leopold

Can humans really exist as an intrinsic part of nature? Is it possible to enjoy all that nature has to offer without causing harm? American ecologist Aldo Leopold seemed to think so. In this article, we'll introduce Aldo Leopold, learn about his contributions to the science of conservation and examine his legacy. We will also look at his concept of wilderness and explore some of his most significant quotes.

Aldo Leopold Aldo Leopold

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Table of contents

    Who was Aldo Leopold?

    Aldo Leopold was an American forester, ecologist and author. He influenced and encouraged the development of modern environmental ethics and is considered the father of environmental protection management in the United States.

    Environmental ethics is a branch of ethics which studies the relationship between human beings and the environment from an ethical perspective. Environmental ethics starts from the founding belief that humans live in a society that is inclusive of other living beings such as animals and plants.

    Ecology is the science that studies the relationships between all living beings, including humans, and their environment.

    Born in Burlington, Iowa, he grew up in contact with nature. Before attending Yale University School of Forestry, he attended the prestigious Lawrenceville High School in New Jersey. Leopold obtained his master's degree in 1909 and then served 19 years in the U.S. Forest Service in the Southwest (New Mexico and Arizona). In 1928, he left the Forest Service to work independently, working mainly on environmental monitoring. In 1933, he became a professor in the Agricultural Economics Management Section of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in 1935, he founded the Wilderness Society.

    Aldo Leopold Aldo Leopold on a hunting trip in northern Mexico in 1938 StudySmarterFig. 1 Aldo Leopold on a hunting trip in northern Mexico in 1938

    What are Aldo Leopold’s contributions?

    Aldo Leopold is considered the father of American wildlife ecology, conservation, and management. He revolutionised the way human beings interact with nature through the development of several concepts which set modern environmental ethics in motion.

    Environmental ethics has multiple competing paradigms, including anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. He considered the environmental system and its components as a whole.

    Anthropocentrism is the philosophical belief that humans are supreme and take precedence over all other living things in the world.

    Ecocentrism is the philosophical belief that considers nature as a whole, placing equal value on its elements, including humans.

    Leopold embraced an ecocentric approach toward the land, advocating a system of nature-centric, rather than human-centric, values His holistic approach made him value each part of the environmental system without discrimination.

    Holism is the philosophy that considers the whole as made up of deeply interconnected parts that cannot be understood independently of each other.

    During his career with the National Forest Service, Leonard expanded the field of conservation. When Leopold joined the Forest Service, the National Park Service had not yet articulated the ecological conditions for maintaining wilderness. His concept of wilderness contributed to the preservation of places such as the Grand Canyon and the Gila Wilderness Area and is the origin of America's national park system.

    Thanks to him, in 1924, the Gila River in western New Mexico was designated the first wilderness area in the United States National Forest System - a great victory for conservationists.

    Aldo Leopold and his Concept of Wilderness

    Early in his career, Leopold hunted and killed large predators in rural New Mexico on behalf of local ranchers. These predators included bears, wolves and mountain lions, all of which threatened local livestock. However, over time, Leopold developed an affinity for his prey as well as a more profound understanding of their role and purpose in the natural balance of the ecosystem. He realised that culling these animals negatively impacted the balance of nature. Leopold's ethic developed from one that emphasised the dominion of humans over nature into one that centred around ecological preservation. This newfound personal ethic also helped shape his concept of wilderness.

    For Leopold, wilderness, was a healthy ecosystem in its natural state, and one that needed to be preserved by humans. This opposes other definitions that saw wilderness as a blank slate for humans to shape as they wish, through hunting or agricultural settlement.

    One of the foundational principles of his concept was the belief that it is much easier to maintain wilderness than to re-create it. Over the ensuing decades, Leopold provided scientific and ethical arguments to support this claim, rejecting the utilitarian approach of other conservationists at the time.

    Leopold viewed Theodore Roosevelt's approach to conservation as self-serving and one that prioritised man's interests over nature. Leopold rejected the political perspective that nature is merely a commodity and that conservation policy should be driven purely by economic need.


    The eponymously named Aldo Leopold Wilderness is part of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, USA. This territory, which spans nearly 820 square kilometres, was incorporated into the forest in 1980 and was named in honour of Leopold himself.

    Aldo Leopold Bibliography

    Leopold greatly contributed to natural sciences through his numerous works. Let's look at the most influential of these.

    A Sand County Almanac (1948)

    A Sand County Almanac is considered one of the most influential environmental books of the 20th century. In this book, Leopold writes about the 'Land Ethic', the intertwined relationships that exist between people and the land. For Leopold, the land ethic serves as a moral code of conduct that extends out of these interconnected relationships. He argues that taking care of people cannot be disassociated with caring for the land. In A Sand County Almanac, he reflects on a hunting trip where his party fatally wounded a she-wolf, and introduces the concept of trophic cascade.

    Trophic cascade describes the set of indirect consequences for an ecosystem when one element is removed - in Leopold's example, the consequences of removing top predators such as wolves. The concept of trophic cascade shows us the deep level of interconnectedness of all living beings within an ecosystem.

    Eliminating wolves might have seemed like a good idea, as they often feed on farm animals. However, in the wild, top predators such as wolves keep the numbers of herbivores like deer or elk in check, which, in turn, preserves plant life. Without wolves, the number of herbivores would grow disproportionally. This would lead to an overconsumption of plants, which would lead to herbivores having to fight each other for access to food and potentially dying in large numbers. It could also affect soil health and lead to desertification and land slides.

    Aldo Leopold Trophic Cascade StudySmarterFig. 2 Trophic Cascade

    This book revolutionised the science of conservation by creating the discipline of wildlife management. Through this book, Leopold earned the title of Father of Wildlife Management by showing how to approach this discipline from an ecocentric perspective. He prioritised the conservation of species' reproductive capacity through merging existing knowledge on population dynamics, habitat protection and food chains.

    What is Aldo Leopold’s legacy?

    Although Leopold died in April 1948, his ideas remain relevant and influential today. His works, especially A Sand County Almanac, greatly influenced the environmental movement.

    The Environmental movement is a political movement that focuses on environmental protection.

    Several organisations have been created in his honour and on behalf of Leopold’s legacy and life’s work. Most of these organisations, foundations and initiatives hold his name and continue pursuing his mission. Here is a list of the most relevant ones:

    • The Aldo Leopold Wilderness in New Mexico's Gila National Forest (1980).

    • The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (1987).

    • The Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute at the University of Montana, Missoula (1993).

    • The Aldo Leopold Legacy Trail System (2007).

    • The Leopold Heritage Group.

    • The Aldo Leopold Neighbourhood Historic District.

    • The Aldo Leopold Foundation of Baraboo, Wisconsin.

    Aldo Leopold Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute at the University of Montana Missoula StudySmarterFig. 3 Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute at the University of Montana, Missoula

    What are Aldo Leopold’s most famous quotes?

    Millions of people admire Aldo Leopold for his views on nature and his advocacy of the relationship humanity should have with it. Leopold has left some unforgettable quotes through his work on wilderness, nature conservation, and ethics. Let's look at some of them:

    On Nature Conservation:

    “Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.1

    “Man always kills the thing he loves. And so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to.1

    “Conservation is not merely a thing to be enshrined in outdoor museums, but a way of living on land.2

    “Land is not merely soil, it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals.1

    “There can be no doubt that a society rooted in the soil is more stable than one rooted in pavements.3

    “Civilisation has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen, that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.1

    On the Wilderness:

    “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of those who cannot.1

    “Wilderness is the raw material out of which man has hammered the artefact called civilisation.1

    “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow... creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible.1

    “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf.1"

    On Doing the Right Thing:

    “My favourite quote: The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land... In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.1

    “Nonconformity is the highest evolutionary attainment of social animals.4

    “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.1

    “Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.1

    Aldo Leopold - Key takeaways

    • Aldo Leopold was an American ecologist, forester, and environmentalist.
    • Aldo Leopold influenced the development of modern environmental ethics and the environmental movement.
    • Aldo Leopold is most known for his concepts of “land ethics”, and wilderness conservation.
    • Aldo Leopold’s concept of wilderness is the origin of America's national parks.
    • Aldo Leopold’s most famous book is A Sand County Almanac.
    • Several organisations continue Leopold's mission, such as the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the Leopold Heritage Group, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.


    1. Aldo Leopold A Sand County Almanac 1948
    2. Aldo Leopold Game Cropping in Southern Wisconsin, Our Native Landscape, 1927
    3. Aldo Leopold, Susan Flader, J. Baird Callicott The river of the mother of God and other essays 1991
    4. Aldo Leopold Round River 1972
    5. Fig. 1 Aldo Leopold on a hunting trip in northern Mexico in1938 ( by Pacific Southwest Region 5 ( licenced by CC-BY-2.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    6. Fig. 2 Trophic Cascade ( by Ccarroll17 ( CC-BY-SA-4.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    7. Fig. 3 Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute at University of Montana Missoula ( by Djembayz ( licenced by CC-BY-SA 3.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Aldo Leopold

    What did Aldo Leopold say about ethical behaviour?

     “Ethical behaviour is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”

    Who was Aldo Leopold?

    Aldo Leopold is an American ecologist, forester and environmentalist. He influenced the development of modern environmental ethics and the environmental movement. 

    • Aldo Leopold is considered the father of environmental protection management in the U.S.A.

    What is Aldo Leopold most famous for?

    Aldo Leopold is most famous for his concepts of land ethics and wilderness.

    Where did Aldo Leopold go to school?

    • Yale School of the Environment
    • The Lawrenceville High School

    Who is the father of wildlife management?

    Aldo Leopold

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Aldo Leopold approach environmental conservation from an anthropocentric perspective.

    Which of Aldo Leopold's books gained him the title of Father of Wildlife Management?

    Which of these are top predators?


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