Posts Tagged ‘Aldo Leopold’

Have you ever been in an urban forest and had the feeling that you were off in the wild because you could no longer hear any cars? Did you find yourself on a river trail and felt as Emerson did when he wrote, “In the woods, is perpetual youth”? Or have you been in state park, turned on a trail and thought, “Geez, I’m in the wilderness!”? I can answer “yes” to all three of those questions. Here in the Durham area we have Duke Forest, the Eno River, and Umstead State Park, respectively, to explore and escape to. I find being in the forest—and what feels like wilderness in this increasingly urbanized region—is often restorative, if not transformative.

Scholars will tell you there are both legal and cultural constructs of wilderness. While Duke Forest, Eno River, and Umstead State Park are not, by legal definition, wilderness, such places do give a sense of being in wilderness. In many ways, it comes down to perception, to paraphrase William Cronon from his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” These are places where I, too, experience what he calls “the sacred in nature”—places near my home.

Duke Forest, Umstead Parks, and the Eno River, where this was taken, are very popular with the Durham running community.

Duke Forest, Umstead Park, and the Eno River, where this was taken, are very popular with the Durham running community. During the 2012 Eno River Race, I experienced both “the sacred in nature” and the profane as I forded the cold river.

Wilderness, in all its many constructs, was celebrated around the United States on September 3, 2014, when its supporters commemorated how the legal construct of wilderness has been protecting the cultural one for 50 years. It was on that date in 1964 that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System, the most extensive system of protected wild lands in the United States. Since its signing, the law has continually inspired people to protect wilderness and enjoy it, too.

As someone who studies the history of forests and how humans interact with them for a living, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in and write about both legally designated wilderness areas in Montana and places that are wilderness areas in all but legal standing, like in Maine. So it’s more than a little ironic that as someone who enjoys running and hiking wooded trails, I’ve not visited any of North Carolina’s twelve federal wilderness areas. But it’s fine with me. I have Duke Forest, the Eno River, and Umstead Park, even though they aren’t on that list. It doesn’t alter my enjoyment of these places—if anything, it makes me appreciate them all the more because they remain wooded oases in this rapidly urbanizing area.

What these local places have in common with federal wilderness areas is how they came to be protected and cherished spaces. The history of each involves someone at some point looking at a landscape, whether it was abandoned agricultural fields in need of restoration (like Umstead) or a forested area in need of protection (like Joyce Kilmer-Slick Rock Wilderness in western North Carolina), and deciding that intervening on behalf of the public was a greater good for the land.

In the case of what would become federal wilderness areas, the effort was led in large part by Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and Howard Zahniser, whose story isWild_by_Law_(DVD_cover) the focus of the Academy Award­–nominated documentary film Wild By Law by Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey. All three men were leaders of the Wilderness Society, an organization formed in 1935 by Leopold, Marshall, and six other men to counter the rapid development of national parks for motorized recreation. The Wilderness Society supported projects like the Appalachian Trail but opposed others like the Blue Ridge Parkway because roadways like it were built at the expense of wilderness. (The tension between access to wilderness and protecting its integrity that led to the Society’s establishment is still a divisive issue today.) Zahniser, the executive secretary of the Society from 1945 until his death in 1964, carried forward the torch lit by Leopold and Marshall by writing the Wilderness Act and serving as its strongest advocate. The efforts of these and many other people have led to the protection of countless beautiful areas.

At just under an hour long, Wild By Law is a great introduction to this turning point in American history. Last September, a day after I addressed a community meeting in Wallace, Idaho, where people are struggling to make a living in a region surrounded by wilderness both protected and perceived, I hosted a screening of the film at the Durham County Library and a question-and-answer session. The discussions in both towns reminded me that passion runs high on the issue of wilderness protection, and that the issue is and will remain a complex one, but for good reasons. It means we still care.

I encourage you to seek out this film and any relevant history books (there are too many to list here) and then to reflect on 50 years of the Wilderness Act and all that it has done for what President Johnson called “the total relation between man and the world around him.” I also hope you’ll start visiting wilderness areas—however you wish to define them.

In large measure, wilderness is all a matter of perspective. Where do you think this was taken?

In large measure, wilderness is all a matter of perspective. Where do you think this was taken? On federal, state, or private land? In a designated wilderness area, or in my backyard? Does it matter?

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I’ve just returned from Connecticut, where I spent time at Yale University conducting research in the Yale Forest School papers and also visited Simsbury, birthplace of Gifford Pinchot, to see the world premiere of the new film, Seeking the Greatest Good: The Conservation Legacy of Gifford Pinchot. Produced for PBS, Seeking the Greatest Good effectively weds together two different films—a biography of conservationist Gifford Pinchot with an overview of the Pinchot Institute, the organization created to not only preserve but expand upon his legacy, and its outstanding conservation projects. It’s expected to air next year on PBS stations around the country in part to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Institute. Like the film Green Fire, which is about Aldo Leopold and his conservation legacy, Seeking the Greatest Good speaks to a national audience by looking at local environmental projects; these projects serve as reminders that the conservation work begun by Pinchot, Leopold, and others remains vital and help protect what’s at stake for all of us, regardless of where we live. Be sure to look for Seeking the Greatest Good, and if you don’t see it listed, call your local PBS station and demand they air it. Also keep an eye out for local screenings or try to organize one once the film is available.


With the trip coming just after Labor Day and the traditional end of summer, discussion turned to a forest history vacation bucket list—places to visit and things to do relating to forest history before going to that great forest in the sky. With this trip I was visiting two places I’d already checked off. The Eno home in Simsbury where Pinchot was born is now a B&B, so you can go inside, though when I did a few years ago the clerk was unaware of its connection to greatness. No matter. It’s quite lovely, as you can see.

The Eno house, birthplace of Gifford Pinchot, belonged to his mother’s family. It’s now the Simsbury 1820 House, and you can stay there. (Courtesy of the author)

The Eno house, now known as the Simsbury 1820 House. (Courtesy of the author)

The other box already checked was Yale, home to the oldest continuously operating forestry school in North America. The school was founded by the Pinchot family, and the original school building (Marsh Hall) still stands, as do the other subsequent homes to the school, including Sage Hall. Other Pinchot-related places on the list include Grey Towers NHS in Milford, PA, Pinchot’s estate and home to the Yale Forest School’s first summer camp site, now operated by the U.S. Forest Service, and of course the Cradle of Forestry in America historical site and Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC, where Pinchot started his forestry career. (Be sure to read the book by the same name before going!)

But the bucket list is about more than GP or the Forest Service, though many places on that list are certainly tied to Forest Service history. As we tossed around places to visit, the homes of other great conservationists and related sites quickly came up: Aldo Leopold’s Shack in Baraboo, WI, and his boyhood home in Burlington, Iowa; John Muir’s home in Martinez, California, and his boyhood home in Wisconsin (as well as Hetch Hetchy Dam in Yosemite National Park and Muir Woods); and Sagamore Hill, Theodore Roosevelt’s home on Long Island (along with his North Dakota ranch and his Manhattan birthplace.) Some bucket list sites we’ve already blogged about—like the Pulaski Tunnel and Mann Gulch—others, like the site of the New York State College of Forestry’s experimental forest near Tupper Lake, NY, we haven’t yet. And of course I work at one of these—Peeling Back the Bark Worldwide Headquarters in Durham, NC. These are all places I’ve been. But I’ve not yet been to the World Forestry Center in Portland, OR, and its outstanding Discovery Museum; or Smokey Bear Historical Park in New Mexico, where they found the bear cub that became the living embodiment of Smokey Bear in the 1950s; or the Sawmill Museum in Clinton, Iowa, for the museum and Lumberjack Festival. I think them worthy of a place on the list. I’ve been to a TimberSports competition, which is also on the list for things to do, but haven’t been to a forest festival or visited any of these Paul Bunyan statues to celebrate the contributions of the forest and wood products industries to forest history.

Paul Bunyan statue

Paul Bunyan statue, Bemidji, Minnesota. Fear the ‘stache.

We have lots of other places and events on the list. But I want to hear from you. What sites might be found on your forest history vacation bucket list? Please share them in the Reply section and tell us why we should go there—why is it so significant that those interested in forest history would want to see it before taking that great spiritual log drive to the great beyond? Perhaps if it’s intriguing enough, like driving on Cleveland’s woodblock-paved road, your idea may become a “History on the Road” column!

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On this date in 1887, author, forester, ecologist, and conservationist Aldo Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa. The founder of the science of wildlife management and a major influence on the wilderness movement, wildlife preservation, and environmental ethics, he is perhaps best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac (1949). In honor of his birthday, we’ve asked filmmaker Steve Dunsky to share his thoughts about the subject of his latest documentary film.

As one of the filmmakers of Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and A Land Ethic for Our Time, I was asked for my reflections on the occasion of Aldo Leopold’s birthday. January 11, 2012, marks the 125th anniversary of his birth. When he died suddenly in 1948, he was only 61 years old. He has been dead now for more years than he was alive.

A film about a person who died more than six decades ago runs the risk of being irrelevant. Particularly if that person is a conservationist and scientist; our planet, and our understanding of it, have changed so dramatically in the past half century. But Leopold’s ideas are so enduring, so far ahead of his time, that we find his story resonates with audiences across the United States, and in the seventeen other countries where the film has screened to date.

Green Fire posterGreen Fire has clearly struck a chord. More than 1,000 people turned up to the world premiere last February. Since then, screenings, both large and small, have been held in libraries, schools, nature centers, and independent theaters. We have seen audiences of 600 on college campuses, despite a distribution and marketing effort that is purely a grass roots effort and by word-of-mouth.

Making Leopold’s story relevant today was a major focus of our film team. My wife Ann and I, along with our Forest Service colleague Dave Steinke, directed and produced the film. With our partners the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature, we set out to tell both the story of Leopold’s life and his contemporary legacy.

Leopold biographer Curt Meine, the film’s narrator/guide, weaves together Leopold’s biography with the stories of people who are living Leopold’s land ethic today—from ranchers in New Mexico to environmental educators in Chicago. As the voice of Leopold, narrator Peter Coyote brings Leopold’s wonderful language to life.

In the film, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco says that Leopold’s land ethic (she calls it an “Earth ethic”) is more relevant today than it has ever been. As I write this, I am attending the Waimea Ocean Film Festival in Hawaii, where Green Fire has screened four times. It is so easy to make the connection to oceans because the land ethic is a universal concept.

Leopold’s legacy also includes the cutting-edge conservation disciplines of today: protecting biodiversity, restoring damaged ecosystems, growing healthy local food. Leopold’s concept of land health speaks directly to current notions of healthy ecosystems and their connection to healthy communities. Everyone gets it.

Aldo Leopold and "Flip" on the Apache National Forest in Arizona, 1911. (FHS4408)

One of the questions we often hear following our screenings is: What did you learn about Leopold during the making of this film?

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On this date in 1921, the U.S. Forest Service convened the first national conference on fire control at Mather Air Field near Sacramento, California. Virtually all the agency’s leaders and brightest minds came together for the conference, including six district (now regional) foresters and six forest supervisors, numerous Washington office people including Chief William Greeley, and others of various ranks. Leaders in fire research and policy such as S. B. Show, E. I. Kotok, Evan Kelley, and William Osborne attended, as did Aldo Leopold and future chief Lyle Watts. All seven districts were represented.

The two-week long conference, the first national conference held by the U.S. Forest Service on any topic, was organized to address the controversy surrounding the issue of allowing light burning on federal lands. California was chosen as the host site because that district was a leader in the development of fire control theory and practice, and because many of the problems there could be found throughout the country.

A major outcome of the conference was settlement of the debate between those favoring “let burn” and light burning and those like Greeley and Show who believed in aggressively attacking all fires. Policies varied from district to district and even forest to forest. The agency found itself in a quandary because it was letting some light burning occur on lands adjacent to national forests but demanded that fires on federal land be fought. Agency leaders felt that this contradiction undermined its authority and wanted to formulate a national standard. The debate over what to do had been raging for more than a decade and had become important enough to prompt a national conference on the topic. Greeley’s position was clear; in an article a short time before, he had derisively dismissed the use of light burning as “Piute burning.”

Not surprisingly Chief Greeley decided in favor of attack and control. The agency set forest fire control as a priority over other activities, established national forest fire control standards, and provided for cooperation in forest fire control between districts. This new attitude towards fire control is best exemplified by the “10 a.m. policy,” under which the Forest Service decreed that all fires on federal land would be attacked as quickly as possible and fought until extinguished. The Forest Service is still dealing with the fallout of that decision ninety years later because the resulting fuel buildups continue to create problems for fire control personnel and forest managers.

For Greeley, the outcome of the conference gave him the opportunity to shape agency policy as he had long hoped. As the district ranger in Montana during the 1910 fires, he had come away from that disaster convinced of the need for cooperative fire control and the elimination of fire from forests. After the 1921 conference, he unequivocally committed the agency to cooperative forest management and systematic fire control. His next major move was pushing for the Clarke-McNary Act of 1924, which strengthened and expanded the provisions of the Weeks Act, particularly in cooperative fire control. To achieve these goals, Greeley brushed aside dissent and further debate on the topic of light burning, which left those who favored it labeled as heretics for years.

To learn more about the conference and its impact, you may wish to consult Stephen Pyne’s Fire in America, from which much of this information is drawn. We also have oral history interviews with Kotok, Show, and Kelley.

1921 Fire Control Conference

Osborne is standing 2nd from left; Watts is 6th from left; Greeley is in the second row 7th from left; and Leopold is 3rd from left in the front row. (click to enlarge).

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Curt Meine reflects on the long journey that brought about the making of the new documentary film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. Curt worked with Steve Dunsky, Ann Dunsky, and Dave Steinke–the folks who brought you The Greatest Good documentary–on this project.

After five years of talking, imagining, brain-storming, fund-raising, partnering, writing, road-tripping, filming, re-writing, recording, editing, test-screening, re-re-writing, re-recording, re-editing—and occasionally eating and breathing and sleeping—the first full-length documentary film on the life and legacy of conservationist Aldo Leopold is now showing at a theater near you. (Or perhaps at a library, visitors center, classroom, or film festival.) Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time premiered in early February at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, and since then in Wisconsin, California, Iowa, and Washington D.C. Some 200 other local screenings are scheduled over the coming months in communities across the country and beyond. It has been shown in Sweden and Mexico, with Croatia, India, Turkey, Japan, Brazil, Canada, and other countries on the horizon. It will have its first screening before an academic audience this weekend, at the 2011 meeting of the American Society for Environmental History in Phoenix. All of this in response to a film that was only completed two and a half months ago.

In 1988 I published Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, the first full biography of Leopold. In researching that work, I became fully aware of the pent-up interest in Leopold, and the fact that there was a built-in audience for his story. The pressure was on, not to get published—the normal challenge aspiring writers face—but to not blow the opportunity. Fortunately, the richness of Leopold’s experience, thinking, and archival legacy carried the work forward. Similarly with Green Fire, the film production team felt confident that there was a strong existing core of interest in Leopold’s story and the land ethic; the challenge was to communicate the broader significance of that story in a compelling and coherent way.

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold on the Apache National Forest, Arizona, 1911. (FHS Photo Collection)

In our early editorial meetings, we debated at length the basic questions: Who is our audience? What is the main message of the film? How can we most effectively illustrate and share that message? What important themes and episodes from Leopold’s life and work should we try to show? We found ourselves hung up on an essential dilemma: Do we want to create a historical documentary that will tell Leopold’s fascinating life story, or are we more interested in contemporary expressions of his ideas and influence? It might have been easier to go down either one of those paths, but instead we chose to pursue both: to weave the historical and contemporary together. To do that most effectively, the producers decided they needed an on-screen narrator and guide to make the necessary connections. Thus was I kidnapped, taken out of the role of comfortable project advisor, and put in front of the camera.

I suppose I would have put up a greater fight on this matter if I hadn’t seen that I would be sharing the anxiety, and the opportunity, with others. Back in 1988 I thought that I had made my contribution with the biography, and that I was done with Aldo Leopold. I can now see, in retrospect, that I was only beginning—that my own work as a conservationist would continually draw upon history and Leopold’s story; that in the course of that work, I would constantly cross paths with people who are continually adding new meaning, content, and direction to the land ethic. Leopold himself saw the land ethic as an expression, not of any one individual, but of a “thinking community.” In making the film, we were able to draw upon diverse members of that community—conservation biologists and urban educators, students and historians, farmers and ranchers. In rolling out the film, we have evidently been able to tap into that large community.

That community is hardly of one mind. As I write this, emails are pinging in on my laptop, bearing comments about the film from our latest screening. One correspondent has weighed in with praise for the film, but also with concern that we did not confront directly or forcefully enough the political reality surrounding climate change and other critical global conservation issues. Another correspondent has commented from the opposite side, expressing thanks that the filmmakers decided not to make a more political “message” film, which would have driven her away, but rather gave her a new entry point through which to make vital connections. Our community is evidently ready to have meaningful conversations and to engage in effective action.

Conservation, a friend of mine has taken to saying, is not merely a set of policies or programs; conservation is a journey. So it was for Leopold. He provided a focal point, a summary of his own experience, in “The Land Ethic.” As we all make our journeys, we compare notes and share insights, bemoan losses and forge connections. We write essays… and we even make movies. Along the way, we in the “thinking community” continue to elaborate and explore the land ethic. The early response to the film encourages us to believe that another phase of exploration is just beginning.

Curt MeineCurt Meine is director for conservation biology and history at the Center for Humans and Nature, senior fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and research associate with the International Crane Foundation. His books include Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (reissued in a new edition in 2010), Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold, and Conservation (2004), and The Essential Aldo Leopold: Quotations and Commentaries (1999). Green Fire is a joint production of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the Center for Humans and Nature, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Information on the film can be found at www.greenfiremovie.com.

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