Aldo Leopold

Why is Sand County Foundation's work inspired by the ideas of Aldo Leopold?

Our founder, the late Reed Coleman, knew and was influenced by Aldo Leopold, and our name comes from Leopold’s masterwork book, A Sand County Almanac. We promote Leopold’s idea of a “land ethic” as the most effective motivation for conservation on private land. We share Leopold’s focus on private working lands because they comprise so much of the land in the U.S.


Who was Aldo Leopold? He lived from 1887-1948, a key period in American conservation history during which he was influential. Born in Iowa, he was a lifelong naturalist and hunter. He was trained as a forester but contributed to many conservation fields. The first half of his career was with the U.S. Forest Service (1909-1924), and his big ideas there were ecosystem management on public wildlands and wilderness protection.

The second half of his career was as a wildlife professor at the University of Wisconsin (1924-1948). There he expanded his focus from wildlife to “land” (Leopold’s less technical term for an ecosystem).

Aldo Leopold was challenged by how to achieve conservation on private lands and was always sifting through different ideas. Drawing from his experiences with conservation on public lands, he initially thought regulations were the solution, but thinking specifically about wildlife on private working lands he soon came to realize that, "…all the regulations in the world will not save our game unless the farmer sees fit to leave his land in a habitable condition for game.”

He was a principal leader of the nation’s first, heavily subsidized, watershed conservation project at Coon Valley, Wisconsin. That experience initially encouraged him to think conservation could be achieved via economic subsidies and incentives to landowners. Incentives are useful but he saw conservation practices abandoned when incentives were no longer attractive.

Leopold desk
“Conservation can accomplish its objectives only when it springs from an impelling conviction on the part of private landowners.”

“… the painless path of incentives and subsidies not only fails to lead us to land conservation, but sometimes actually retards the growth of critical intelligence on the whereabouts of alternative routes.”

Summing up those approaches, he concluded:

“We tried to get conservation by buying land, by subsidizing desirable changes in land use, and by passing restrictive laws. The last method largely failed; the other two have produced only small samples of success.”

He rightly concluded “Something new must be done.” And he observed that “We seem ultimately always thrown back on individual ethics as the basis of land conservation. It is hard to make a man, by pressure of law or money, do a thing which does not spring naturally from his own personal sense of right and wrong.”

Leopold tree 1
“Conservation means harmony between men and land. When land does well for its owner and the owner does well by his land, when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not.”

Finally, the year after his death, his 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, presented his strategic approach relying on the twin concepts of land health and a land ethic. His land ethic derives from the common understanding that we live in human communities with ethical restraints on behaviors that disrupt community function. Similarly, he reasoned we also live in ecological communities and need a moral compass to restrain behaviors that diminish land health.

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land.”

Land health was achieved when the land exhibits ecological resilience and integrity. He wrote, “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

In explaining how a land ethic works, Leopold suggested landowners should, “quit thinking about decent land-use solely as an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. 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.”

ASCA cover

Leopold realistically acknowledged that what he envisioned would not happen quickly.

“In such matters we should not worry too much about anything except the direction of travel… In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive…”

The Sand County Foundation encourages that striving for land health on private lands and believes a land ethic motivates good land stewardship and represents the best hope for moving in the right direction.