Arizona Wildfires and the Aldo Leopold Connection

This summer a wildfire in eastern Arizona has blackened over 450,000 acres and is still growing.

A footnote to the fires is a connection to Aldo Leopold, the pioneering writer and naturalist. Leopold is considered the father of wildlife management, as well as a conservationist, forester, philosopher, educator and writer.

Leopold was among the original employees of the U.S. Forest Service and spent his early career in Arizona and New Mexico and was instrumental in designation of the Gila National Forest as a wilderness area in 1924.

He later transferred to Madison, Wisconsin to become assistant director of the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory and later left the Forest Service to become a professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin, a first for the university and the nation.

In 1935, Leopold purchased a worn-out farm near Baraboo, Wisconsin and he and his family spent years at the farm, living in a rehabilitated chicken coop, nicknamed, “The Shack,” planting trees, restoring prairies and documenting changes on the farm. 

Leopold wrote about the farm in his book, “A Sand County Almanac,” which was published posthumously in 1948. The book includes essays about his early years in Arizona, including, “On Top,” a story about White Mountain, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” and “Escudilla,” all describing areas in this year’s wildfires.

In “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold recalled an incident when he and another forester shot into a pack of wolves. He wrote, “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 a hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

Leopold understood, long before many, the values of fire, predators and wilderness areas in the environment. While Leopold wrote many scientific articles, “A Sand County Almanac” was aimed at a more general audience. At the time of publication, the book drew little notice, but in the 1970s, a paperback edition turned into a surprise bestseller. The book has been translated into nine languages and is now considered one of the most influential environmental books of the 20th Century.

Aldo and Estella Leopold had five children, all of whom had significant careers in the natural sciences. A. Starker Leopold was a professor of Forestry and Conservation at the University of California-Berkeley. He died in 1983. Their second son, Luna Leopold, was the chief hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and also taught at Berkeley. He died in 2006. A. Carl Leopold was a plant physiologist at Purdue University and later dean of the graduate school at the University of Nebraska. In retirement he did landmark research on the tropical forests of Costa Rica. He died in 2009.

The older of two daughters, Nina Leopold Bradley did research in the 1940s on lead poisoning of waterfowl, decades before the problem became generally recognized and had a long career as a writer and teacher.  Her second husband, Charles Bradley, was a professor and administrator at Montana State University and one of the founders of the Bridger Bowl ski area. After his retirement, they moved back to Wisconsin to continue Aldo Leopold’s work, including establishing the Aldo Leopold Foundation.  In 1988 the University of Wisconsin awarded honorary doctorates to both Charles and Nina in recognition of their work. Charles died in 2002 and Nina died just last month, at age 93.

Estella Leopold, age 84, is the last of the remarkable siblings. She is a professor emeritus of botany at the University of Washington. During a 20-year career with the U.S. Geological Survey she was instrumental in establishing the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in central Colorado. During her academic career she did pioneering research with fossil pollen and seeds. She continues as an active leader in the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

Aldo Leopold was a pioneer in environmental thinking and through his writings, family and foundation, has an enduring, and yes, even a fireproof legacy.