Aldo Leopold’s Conservation Legacy

It was an epic road trip: three days and a thousand miles of small towns, road construction, and stunning scenery, with a five- and two-year old in tow and only brief interludes of backseat bickering. My family and I were headed to the Wisconsin landscape that inspired one of America’s most pivotal conservationists.

Forester, wildlife biologist, ecologist, and outdoor enthusiast, Aldo Leopold is best known for the 1949 classic A Sand County Almanac. I was introduced to Leopold in college many years ago, and his writings have continued to inspire me during my time as a forester at VLT. My family and I were going to visit the Leopold family property known as ‘the Shack,’ the site of a remarkable conservation experiment.  

From the road, I found the Wisconsin landscape familiar, yet different. Remnants of prairie, flood-control levees, sand hill cranes: these were foreign. But sugar maples, winding rivers, rolling hills, and the patchwork of farms and forests reminded me of Vermont. And so did the white and red pines, that range from eastern North America to the Midwest.

Aldo Leopold's "shack"

Aldo Leopold’s “shack” outside Baraboo, Wisconsin

Inspiration at “the Shack”  

When we arrived at the Shack, we took refuge from the summer heat in the shade of these 100-foot pines, some of which had been planted by Leopold and his family. Every year, thousands visit the Leopold Center just outside Baraboo near the Wisconsin River to explore his legacy. In 1935, Leopold bought this run-down farm and, with his wife and five children, began to restore its forest, prairie, and wetlands. They worked weekends and vacations over a 12-year period, planting 40,000 trees. Their time together rebuilt the capacity of the land. It also brought them closer as a family.  

It was at the Shack that Leopold found much of the inspiration for his writings. In A Sand County Almanac, he wrote about the land and people’s relationship to it. Concerned about the risk of mistreating natural resources when they’re viewed purely as commodities, he proposed instead a “land ethic” that expands the idea of community to include not only humans but also soil, water, plants, and animals; in other words, the land. An ethical relationship to land thus means caring about, and taking care of, land.  

Leopold also believed that direct experience of the natural world is vital for this relationship. He wrote: “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.”  

His framework of ‘observation, participation, reflection’ has inspired a movement that seeks to promote people’s connection to the land.  

I joined a small group of Vermonters for a Land Ethic Leaders training with staff from the Aldo Leopold Foundation. The group explored what a land ethic means to us and how to connect more people to land in Vermont. As we reflected, I couldn’t help but feel fortunate to live in a place where many people already hold a land ethic and put it into action.  

Bob Hoffman standing by woodpile on his property

“I love my land,” says Bob Hoffman, summing up the spirit of his land ethic. He carefully examines each tree on his VLT-conserved land, selecting the healthiest ones to continue their growth.

Bob Hoffman: Managing his Land with Care

Bob Hoffman is one of many VLT landowners who exemplify a land ethic. He has owned a 65-acre forest in Barnet for over 30 years. A decade after the Leopolds began planting pines in Wisconsin, the pines in this Vermont woodlot were just emerging from abandoned pasture, and Bob was a boy exploring the bottomlands of Ohio. A trained forester, Bob knows there is much to consider in the selection of trees for harvest. Paint gun in hand, he patiently weaves his way between the young red oak and the towering white pine, using a stripe of blue to mark each tree that his logger will fell. Bob’s pines are special to him; he carefully examines each one for signs of disease such as blister rust and needle cast, selecting the largest and healthiest trees to continue their growth.     

Bob’s property is in an area where an invasive, and very destructive, beetle known as Emerald Ash Borer has been found. During the recent timber harvest, Bob sought advice on the best way to manage the ash in his woodlot. He modified his approach to keep healthy white ash with vigorous crowns that could, according to new research, show some resistance to the pest. He altered the cutting pattern to create gaps in the forest canopy that can allow young ash to regenerate. All this in the hope that his grandkids may find healthy ash trees there someday. “I love my land,” he tells me, summing up the spirit of his land ethic.  

Community Effort

Like Bob, many of us have been crafting our own land ethic, though we may not call it that. At VLT, we work with our partners in the spirit of a land ethic by protecting places where people can connect to the outdoors and by reaching out to the next generation of land stewards. We work with landowners and communities to help them meet their goals for their land, while addressing the challenges that can arise in long-term land management. Through our land restoration program, we work to maintain a healthy landscape for the benefit of people and the land.  

As we packed up the car for our trip home from Wisconsin, my family and I knew that we’d look back fondly on the memories we’d made. The drive home, and the years since, have provided time for reflection on why and how we care for the land. I believe success lies not in defining a land ethic but, rather, in having the discussion of what a land ethic means to each of us. As Leopold wrote, “nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’,” instead it evolves “in the minds of a thinking community.”  

Like all community efforts, this will be good, hard work. It will take time. At VLT, we plan to help facilitate discussions about a land ethic. For me, it means reflecting on my relationship to the land and what it gives me, working to understand how I apply my own land ethic. It also means creating opportunities for others to fall in love with the land, something I am able to support in my work at VLT. We can all participate. A recent quote I heard about land sums it up well: “It’s not ours, it’s just our turn.”


Dan Kilborn is a forester with the Vermont Land Trust.

Photo of Aldo Leopold at “the Shack” outside Baraboo, Wisconsin, courtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation,; photo of Bob Hoffman by Caleb Kenna.