Aldo Leopold, Writings from the 1910s and 1920s, Managing the Commons

In 1909, Aldo Leopold earned his Master of Science degree and begins work in the US Forest Service in the American southwest, then the Arizona and New Mexico territories. His first jobs there included leading forest survey teams. Around 1915 Leopold became involved in the game management. By 1920, Leopold is actively involved in forest erosion and other land questions in the region. Throughout the later half of the 1920s, Leopold moves around taking a position in Wisconsin at the Forest Products Laboratory of the US Forest Service. By 1930 he is well known among game management workers, is on the cusp of publishing his major textbook on the subject and being published nationally. His field journals also show that he travelled to wilderness areas in Canada and the Midwest during these years.


There are few things we can say about Leopold’s early career from this summary. First, Leopold was closely tied to the Progressive-era conservation movement and its institutions, such as the US Forest Service. During the early twentieth century, the service became more focused on protected forests rather than its earlier role of measuring and doling out the government-owned forest resources. Another thing we notice is that Leopold moves toward his “land ethic” as early as 1930, which we see in his evolving interests. While first focused on the management of wildlife for human use (“game management”), he eventually began to see the land itself as fragile (his studies of erosion). By the later 1920s, although continuing his work on game management, started writing on the importance of protecting the wilderness.

Leopold was a state actor throughout these years as well. He responded to, and tried to shape, policy regulating forests. The most important question he grappled with the question of the commons. At least since Gerald Winstanley and the movement of the Diggers in 17th century England, the survival of the commons has been one of the most important questions facing revolutionary movements. As Peter Linebaugh argued in The Magna Carta Manifesto, the Charter of the Forest has been at least as important as the Magna Carta in ensuring our rights to the “common treasury.” It is not a betrayal of those rights to confess that the questions of the commons is vastly more complex now than it was in the time where it amounted to rights to hunt on the king’s land.

Apache National Forest: Leopold's workplace in the early 1920s.

Apache National Forest: Leopold’s workplace in the early 1920s.

I went through Leopold’s collected works from the 1910s and 1920s, consisting of essays, speeches, manuscripts, field journals and letters. We see that he was constantly concerned with the competing interests of different groups. Now while taking a deer or some firewood from the king’s land in medieval Britain did not have any impact on other people, Leopold was dealing with real competing interests in the national forests, between “game farmers” and “wild lifers,” and between humans and the wildlife itself. Leopold’s sentiment in this period seemed to be that these were not necessarily unbridgeable divides. The correct rules and the right policies are all that is necessary to prevent the overuse of one resources or preserve the wilderness for the use of all. The protection of access to all required some form of regulatory state. In a 1919 essay on this subject her wrote: “We can immediately draw one conclusion from the foregoing discussion of the proposed commercialization of game-meat and hunting privileges, and that is that to grant the wishes of the radical Game Farmers would be tantamount to adopting the European style of game management. A wide-open market, almost universal game farming, commercialized shooting privileges, and some incidental overflow shooting for the poor man – is this not the sum and substance of the European system? It is. And the European system of game management is undemocratic, unsocial, and therefore dangerous.” (202) Now, while the market seems to be dangerous to democratic access (which for Leopold includes sustaining access for even minority uses – such as wilderness hunting – not just the most popular use), he knows some broader understanding of market logic is necessary. If the state will protect some land for hunting, for instance, it will need to manage the wildlife populations there, according to some market logic. Ultimately, a state-regulated market is his stop-gap solution, because at least that would protect democracy and minority rights. This is all discussed again, with more foreboding, in “Goose Music,” a manuscript from 1922, in which Leopold predicts that majority recreations, like golf, will swallow up the wilderness from people who enjoy hunting and fishing. In another place, Leopold concedes a bit of seeing like a state when he argues that protecting wilderness is just another form of “land use.”

Superior National Forest, which Leopold visited in 1925.

Superior National Forest, which Leopold visited in 1925.

Does such “management” of forests, even if it means just keeping some places off limits, require a centralizing agency like the US Forest Service? This century has proven that the largest threats to the environment have come from external and relatively disinterested players. Carbon polluters in the global north who externalize the costs of climate change to the poor, corporations who strip-mine mountains for investors hundreds or thousands of miles away, or states committed to industrial development who destroy the lives of thousands for “development projects.” Centralized power may provide some force to conservation efforts, but it is more often much more damaging than a few too many hunters or tourists. I suspect local, vernacular control over resources might be better, but in even this area Leopold introduces an important, and very American problem: the booster spirit.

In an essay, “A Criticism of the Booster Spirit,” Leopold shows how indifferent local governments can be to their own environment during their quest for a loosely defined “prosperity.” The goal of boosterism is to attract capital, tourists, industries, and “growth” to your town using advertizing campaigns, speakers, favorable taxation policies, institutions and parks. While promoted by the local governments, it is almost always indifferent to the local needs (economic or ecological). “The booster is intensely provincial. A year ago he demanded a National Part for New Mexico. He did not know where or how, but he knew jolly well why: A National Park would be a tourist-getter of the first water, and tourists are to be desired above all things. They come, they see, they spend, and they are even known to come back.” (240) Leopold thought this was an American perversion, but the “booster spirit” is now global. In Taiwan, local “development” projects are often concerned with attracting Chinese tourists, conferences, or investment. Some are now calling for a free trade zone to compete with the recently-opened Shanghai free trade zone. Boosterism is interested only in the short-term, attracting this years tourists. What suffers, of course, is the local population, vernacular economies, and “sound economic reason.” As Leopold says, the booster, although provincial is completely oblivious to the land, the animals and the forests of the place they are promoting, unless they promote interest in the town.

I suppose the solution is not to focus first on the local or the national or the global causes to the systematic destruction of nature, but to move away from market-driven conceptions of nature.


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