Some of the most important conservationists in the nation have called Illinois and Wisconsin home. Get to know local luminary Aldo Leopold and meet others who’ve championed our wildlife throughout the generations.
When it comes to producing environmental champions, no U.S. region tops ours. Scores of local luminaries, including Aldo Leopold, John Muir, George Fell, Gaylord Nelson and Sigurd Olson, have improved humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
Here, we take a close look at Leopold and meet more members of the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame, as well as a few Illinois counterparts. Each inspires a new generation to press forward, no matter what, for love of the land.
A Bridge Between Eras
Seventy years ago this fall, Aldo Leopold’s collection of essays titled A Sand County Almanac was published with little fanfare. Not many 1949 readers were interested in observations about a run-down, sandy-soil property in Sauk County, Wis.
That would change.
Today, millions of copies have been sold worldwide and the book is required reading in many college classes. Along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, A Sand County Almanac is a cornerstone of the modern environmental movement.
“We’ve seen a remarkable number of influential environmentalists in Wisconsin, but in the 20th and 21st centuries, they all hang on the legacy of Aldo Leopold,” says Matt Blessing, state archivist at Wisconsin Historical Society. “He’s the one to understand. I find something important every time I revisit Leopold’s writing.”
“Not many texts remain relevant and readable 70 years after their publication,” says Curt Meine, senior fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation and adjunct professor at UW-Madison. “A Sand County Almanac does. Leopold lays out a foundational land ethic – the idea of understanding the land as an interacting community of soil, water, plants, animals and people. Leopold reminds us that we eat and drink and take what we need from the land, but we also have an obligation to care for it, to give back.”
His message was transformational, if not entirely new, and by the 1950s and ’60s, Americans were ready to hear it.
“In a way, Leopold was a bridge between the conservation movement of the early 1900s and the mid-century environmental movement that he anticipated,” says Meine.
To be sure, his land ethic echoed longtime Native American sustainability values and European ideals about balancing the greater good against individual greed. But Leopold also brought cutting-edge science and a moral imperative to the discussion of land use, moving it far beyond the turn-of-century conservation movement. He fueled the ecology and environmental advocacy movements and dared economists to think longer-term.
“The reckless use of mechanization to exploit natural resources as quickly as possible had been the American way from the post-Civil War onward,” says Blessing. “The making of modern America took a terrible toll.”
When East Coast Americans and new immigrants began flooding into Wisconsin in the 1840s, about 86 percent of the land was covered by forest. The state became a world leader in lumber production but killed off 90 percent of its old-growth forest by 1900. By the 1930s, virtually all of northern Wisconsin’s timber was gone, along with much of the wildlife it had supported.
The forest cutover led to many serious problems for residents, including a wave of devastating forest fires. The 1871 Peshtigo, Wis., fire alone incinerated 12 communities and 1.2 million acres of land. It remains the deadliest wildfire in U.S. history, with a death toll as high as 2,500 souls.
As a youth, Leopold witnessed the high price ordinary people and local economies were paying for land exploitation.
“Unfettered mechanization had stripped forests, depleted soil, wiped out wildlife populations, polluted water and contributed to Wisconsin’s 1930s Dust Bowl, in which 25 percent of subsistence farmers went bankrupt,” notes Blessing.
The state’s once-thriving wheat industry had long since been driven West by nutrient-depleted soils.
“Leopold came of age at the turn of the century, during the conservation movement championed by President Theodore Roosevelt,” says Meine. “But in time he came to believe that protection alone was not enough. Preserving islands of land was good and necessary, but inadequate.”
His thinking evolved to conclude that both the public and private sectors would have to change their relationship with the land in order for a sustained, healthy future to be possible in America.
The Wilderness Victory
The son of a prominent furniture manufacturer, Leopold grew up hunting with his father on the Mississippi River near his home in Burlington, Iowa. Long before game populations were protected by law, his father taught him ethical hunting practices, such as never hunting during nesting season. But commercial hunters ignored ethics. Some 250 million game birds were slaughtered for market on the Mississippi Flyway between 1880 and 1930.
“There were no native wild turkeys left, for instance; turkeys had to be re-introduced to Wisconsin decades later,” says Blessing. “By 1930, it was a big deal just to see a white-tailed deer in many parts of Wisconsin.”
After graduating from the new Yale Forest School in 1909, Leopold went to work for the U.S. Forest Service in the Arizona and New Mexico Territory. He championed the setting aside of designated wilderness areas untouched by mechanization. People could enter them on foot and enjoy the wildness, but no roads, chain saws or other machinery would be allowed. Until the past few years, that ethic largely has been maintained.
Despite heavy opposition, his idea prevailed. The U.S. Forest Service in 1924 set aside 755,000-acre Gila Wilderness, the first designated wilderness in the world. Today there are 760 wilderness areas in the U.S., although many are under threat, including the most popular one – Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota.
In September 2018, the U.S. Department of the Interior reinstated lease renewal applications for a mining company from Chile that hopes to mine sulfide-ore copper on Boundary Waters public land despite stringent objections from residents and small businesses in the region who note that this type of mining has a dismal track record of water contamination; groundwater has already been contaminated in 13 of 14 U.S. sulfide-ore copper mines. Since the mine would be almost wholly automated, it would bring few long-term jobs to the area.
When he signed the Wilderness Act of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
Today the U.S. Forest Service describes designated wilderness areas as “Places where people like you, with an appetite for adventure, can find a sense of true self-reliance and experience solitude. They are final refuges for a long list of rare, threatened and endangered species forced to the edges by modern development. They are the headwaters of critical, life-infusing rivers and streams.
They are places where law mandates above all else that wildness be retained for our current generation and those who will follow.”
Currently, however, some 13.5 million acres of public lands are in the process of being removed from protection – the largest removal in U.S. history.
80 Acres and a Shack
Tension among stakeholders of public land is especially high right now, but it isn’t new.
In his day, Leopold watched the government struggle, with mixed results, to enact public policies like the New Deal, dam building, conservation and resettlement of depressed farmers. Conservation efforts were often at cross-purposes with one another. Leopold advocated for better strategic coordination and a core ethic for guidance.
He wrote, “Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient.”
After winning the 1924 wilderness victory in New Mexico, Leopold moved his family to Madison, where he helped to lead the U.S. Forest Products Lab. In 1933, he became the first-ever Professor of Game Management at UW-Madison.
In 1935, Leopold purchased 80 acres of abandoned farmland with a shack, for $8 per acre. The degraded, sandy-soil property was in Sauk County, Wis., not far from Baraboo. There he spent weekends with wife Estella and their five children. Together they worked to restore the abused land as an ecological experiment. He wrote about his observations in a series of essays that were rejected by publishers year after year.
In the essays, Leopold wrote that we shouldn’t view land as something that can be parsed into “valuable” or “disposable” parts; we should understand that all parts have a purpose and work together.
“Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left,” he wrote.
As an example, he said we can choose to view a farm as a factory or as a valuable ecosystem.
“Leopold understood that farms yield more than the produce that we buy and sell,” explains Meine. “A farm can send soybeans to market but it can also sequester carbon, provide wildlife habitat, filter water. We need to recognize and reward private landowners for choosing good practices that help everyone. Failing to do so leads to expensive problems we’ll all have to deal with: flooding, the loss of beneficial insects and pollinators, degraded water quality in our watersheds and aquifers.”
After years of rejection slips, Leopold learned in April 1948 that Oxford University Press planned to publish his collection of essays. Public interest in environmental issues was awakening!
But one week later, on April 21, Leopold was helping a neighbor of his shack property to fight a grass fire and collapsed from a fatal heart attack. He never knew how profoundly his work would influence new generations or that he would be called “the father of wildlife ecology and the U.S. wilderness system.”
Among countless people who followed in his footsteps were his three sons and two daughters, all of whom made their own remarkable contributions to science. Three were elected to the National Academy of Sciences, including youngest daughter Estella, who pioneered the use of fossilized pollen and spores to understand how plants and ecosystems respond over eons to climate change and other phenomena.
“No family since has seen three siblings inducted into this prestigious academy,” says Blessing.
Lessons from Leopold
Leopold was as practical as he was philosophical and worked hard to reconcile ecology with economics.
“He held that human beings can maintain a high quality of life on the land only if their economic system works with and not against the characteristic diversity and dynamics of the land,” writes environmental economist Qi Feng Lin in the journal, “Minding Nature.” “The environmental complexity that ecology was beginning to reveal meant that human action, which and been driven primarily by short-term economic policies, would need to be more measured and circumspect than before.”
Along with Leopold’s insight into management, biology, economics, writing and philosophy, he also had a keen understanding of people.
“He’s an example of a person who was learned but not preachy,” says Meine. “He understood human nature as well as he understood the land. He believed that positive experiences with the land itself and instilling a sense of wonder could advance his ideas most effectively. He said, ‘Learn to read the land – it tells a story.’ He was confident that, if we do this, the land itself will transform us and our way of relating to it.”
Leopold’s life inspires those who may be discouraged about the direction of current environmental public policy.
“We have to remember that times were very hard when Leopold bought his shack property during the Great Depression and the Wisconsin Dust Bowl,” says Meine. “It was an abused landscape, like so much of the upper Midwest at that time. There wasn’t much reason for optimism.”
But Leopold didn’t collapse in despair.
“He was always fascinated by the drama of the natural world and created these evocative little word portraits that still move people today.”
He also set forth a clear moral imperative about our relationship with the land.
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community,” he wrote. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
A Bipartisan Movement
In today’s polarized America, it’s easy to forget that the mid-century environmental movement was bipartisan. The federal Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973), Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) and the 1970 formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce these Acts were approved with near-unanimous Congressional support.
In his prime during the 1930s, Leopold influenced young adults who would someday lead the mid-century environmental movement. Among them were future back-to-back Wisconsin governors Warren P. Knowles and Gaylord Nelson.
A Republican and passionate conservationist, Knowles championed Wisconsin’s Outdoor Recreation Plan, which funded public park acquisitions and pollution cleanup by taxing a penny per cigarette pack.
Nelson was a Democrat who would become a U.S. Senator and the founder of Earth Day, in 1970, from which grew momentum for the environmental protection laws listed above and the EPA.
“Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions,” said Republican President Richard Nixon in his 1970 State of the Union speech, after he had signed into law the formation of the EPA.
A perfect storm of factors has caused Wisconsin to be at the nexus of environmental progress for generations.
“This is where the action was during the post-Civil War years when technology was advancing fast and rampant exploitation of natural resources was transforming the landscape,” says Meine. “There’s a reason so many national parks are in the West – there wasn’t much left to protect here.”
Enormous exploitation in Wisconsin prompted enormous public response in Wisconsin.
Also, an enduring commitment to land stewardship among native tribes has influenced Wisconsin, says Meine. Dr. Patty Loew explores this in her 2014 book, Seventh Generation Earth Ethics, a collection of biographies from 12 Indian nations that impacted sustainability in Wisconsin.
In addition, many European immigrants brought with them a respect for science and a belief that government can be a force for good.
Every third person living in Wisconsin in 1850 was foreign born; Wisconsin developed at the peak of immigration.
“The fact that most people lived close to the land in Wisconsin meant they keenly felt the negative impacts of resource exploitation,” says Meine. Too, Wisconsin was a vacation destination early on; aesthetic degradation was counterproductive to tourism.
Last, but not least, the UW has played a vital role in how the state evolved, encouraging science and environmental awareness.
“The state university system is known for ‘The Wisconsin Idea,’” says Meine. “It’s a belief that the university should serve the whole state and all the citizens and competing interests within it. And historically, having the university and capitol right down the street from each other in Madison has made it easier for people to work together on matters of public policy.”
E.M. Griffith (1872-1939)
As the first state forester in 1904, and a man with remarkable foresight, Griffith formed a coalition that included A U.S. senator, a lumber baron and a university president. Together they pieced together land into state-owned forest preserves and established the first state nursery.
Griffth implemented fire control strategies, sought to protect stream headwaters and developed the U.S. Forest Products Lab in Madison that Aldo Leopold would later lead.
Sadly, the public wasn’t ready for such innovation. County governments resented loss of land from tax rolls. Opposition from educators, lumber interests and northern legislators grew and the state’s supreme court invalidated Griffith’s work. He resigned in 1915.
Some of his reforms were implemented a decade later, when the public began to realize that even trees are finite in number.
Lorrie Otto (1919-2010)
Otto sought to make a difference in her own backyard and wound up changing the world. A resident of Milwaukee, she worked to preserve the Fairy Chasm, a coastal ravine along Lake Michigan with a remarkable diversity of birds and wild plants. “As she worked to preserve this small slice of nature in a suburb, she noticed a large number of dead birds and bats,” says Blessing. “She recognized that the DDT sprayed to kill mosquitos was killing the birds.” She was among a handful of activists who got the newly formed EPA to ban DDT in 1972.
We can thank Otto and her peers each time we see a bald eagle soar. Raptors and other birds aren’t out of the woods, however. In North America, the overall bird population has declined by 3 billion birds since 1970, according to a study this year from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Wilhelmine La Budde (1880-1955)
La Budde, of Milwaukee and Elkhart Lake, Wis., was a nature lover since childhood who, once her children were grown, devoted her energy to conservation. At first, male legislators laughed at her; in time they learned to respect her.
La Budde landed a seat on the previously all-male Wisconsin Conservation Congress in 1937 and served on the first board of directors for the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. She influenced nearly every conservation issue in her day and is best remembered for getting mandatory conservation education added to Wisconsin schools. She also encouraged the planting of native perennials along roadways, advocated for raptors and blue herons and helped to restore the Horicon Marsh.
“Horicon was a vast cattail marsh that had been very abused,” explains Blessing. “Drain tiles had been used and the dried peat that resulted kept catching on fire.”
Today the marsh holds international status as an important bird and wildlife area and is home to an education and visitor center.
Sigurd Olson (1899-1982)
“By saving any wilderness, what you are really saving is the human spirit,” wrote Sigurd Olson.
Born in Chicago, he grew up in Door County, Wis., and spent years fighting to protect Wisconsin wilderness and whitewater. He loved the canoe country wilderness of northern Minnesota and helped to establish the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the most popular wilderness in the U.S. (and presently under threat). For more than 30 years, he served as a wilderness guide in the Quetico-Superior area.
A UW-Madison graduate, Olson became one of most highly respected ecologists in the U.S. and loved writing about the sense of awe wild places inspire.
“He has a nuanced, lyrical style that conveyed the euphoria that sometimes comes with communing with nature,” says Blessing. Like Leopold’s, Olson’s writing was rejected until the nation began awakening to environmental issues in the 1950s, when he became one of North America’s favorite writers.
His nine books include The Singing Wilderness, a 1956 best-seller.
John Muir (1838-1914)
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” wrote Muir.
Although we tend to think of Muir in connection with the great western landscapes he fought to preserve, he grew up on a Wisconsin farm near Portage after emigrating from Scotland when he was 11 years old.
He attended UW and became a naturalist, explorer, writer and influential conservationist dedicated to saving wilderness areas and wildlife from commercial exploitation. Muir helped to convince President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside public lands including Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.
Increase A. Lapham (1811-1875)
Before there were terms like “environmentalism” or “ecology,” there was simply “conservation.” Lapham is regarded as “the father of the conservation movement in Wisconsin” and arrived in Milwaukee from the East Coast in 1836, the same year Wisconsin became a U.S. Territory.
“He was a self-educated engineer and naturalist and Wisconsin’s first scientist,” says Blessing. “He wrote the first book published in Wisconsin, made the first accurate maps of it, investigated its effigy mounds, native trees and grasses, climatic patterns and geology. He helped to found many of the schools, colleges and other cultural institutions that still enrich the state today.”
Lapham wrote 80 books, including Report on the Disastrous Effects of the Destruction of Forest Trees. Published in 1867, and way ahead of its time, the book accurately predicted the tragedies that would play out for humans and wildlife in decades to come as Wisconsin forests were decimated. In 1855, Lapham urged legislators to authorize a natural history survey “before any more of the native species become extinct.”
Lapham provided a broad foundation for successors like Leopold to build upon and Lapham, too, had role models. One was George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882), an American diplomat sent to Italy by President Abraham Lincoln who served there for 21 years until he died.
“While he was in Italy, Marsh saw and wrote about the totally denuded forests there and the negative impact this had on peoples’ lives,” says Blessing. “No one paid much attention.”
George Fell (1916-1994)
Rockford, Ill. resident Fell was a soft-spoken man absolutely determined to save landscapes across the world.
“To save land, George Fell built not just an institution but several of them, including The Nature Conservancy, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and The Natural Land Institute,” writes biographer Arthur Melville Pearson in Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement. “In doing so he sparked an entire movement to protect the most important lands left – no matter how small – from being destroyed.”
Fell foresaw the destruction of land that would result from the post-World War II building boom.
“… his life is proof that one person can make a difference in the world. … This is an encouraging thought in our disheartening times, when it’s easy to feel like our best efforts are lost in a sea of anger and conflict,” writes Pearson.
The Nature Conservancy works in 72 countries and all 50 U.S. states, with a global headquarters in Arlington, Va.
Stephen Packard (1943-)
This Harvard-educated scientist, conservationist, author and Chicago-area resident is the subject of a book titled Miracle Under the Oaks, by William K. Stevens. Stevens chronicles the effort led by Packard in 1977 “to restore what they assumed were degraded, misused, beaten-down remnants of classic tall grass prairie stretching along the North Branch of the Chicago River like a string of old pearls encrusted with grime.” In the process, a long-lost ecosystem that no one knew existed was discovered.
Packard was The Nature Conservancy Illinois director of science and stewardship from 1983 to 1999 and founded the Audubon Chicago Region chapter. He’s a founding member of the Society for Ecological Restoration, Friends of the Forest Preserves and the Chicago Wilderness “Mighty Acorns” program. He serves on the national advisory board for Wild Ones. Packard is author of The Tallgrass Restoration Handbook: For Prairies, Savannas, and Woodlands.
Milly Zantow (1923-2014)
This grandmother and citizen activist from North Freedom, Wis., helped to launch the national recycling movement by developing a number code inside a triangle to identify various plastics. It was adopted by the Society of Plastic Industry in 1988 and we’ve been using it ever since.
Zantow began this effort after a 1978 visit to Japan. She lobbied local governments and U.S. plastic industries to start recycling programs and find markets for waste.
Zantow helped to frame the 1990 Wisconsin Recycling Law that required municipalities to collect plastics, metals, paper and glass. At the time, it was the most comprehensive state recycling program in the nation.
Zantow was known for her motto, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!”
Recommended Reading & Film
A Sand County Almanac, 1949, a classic essay collection about the way nature works, by Aldo Leopold
A Wilderness Within: The Life of Sigurd F. Olson, 1999, by David Backes
Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, 1988, and The Driftless Reader, 2017, by Curt Meine
Silent Spring, 1962, the iconic wake-up call about pesticide dangers, by Rachel Carson
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, 1913, one of six volumes written by John Muir, “the father of our national parks.”
The Man from Clear Lake, 2004, about Earth Day founder Sen. Gaylord Nelson, by Bill Christofferson
The Singing Wilderness, 1956, one of several volumes of euphoric prose about nature, by Sigurd Olson
Force of Nature, 2017, about Rockford native George Fell, co-founder of The Nature Conservancy, by Arthur Melville Pearson
Seventh Generation Earth Ethics, 2014, a collection of biographies from 12 Indian nations that impacted sustainability in Wisconsin, by Patty Loew, PhD
Miracle Under the Oaks, 1995, about Steve Packard’s journey to restore Vestal Grove along the Chicago River, by William K. Stevens
Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, 2006, by Julianne Lutz Warren
“Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time,” a full-length documentary film available through the Aldo Leopold Foundation.