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.

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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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Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac” (1949): Part Two

“Seeing Like a Mountain” in the second part of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac touches on the dramatic turn in his own mind about wildlife management. In earlier years, Leopold believed that the killing off of wolves would increase the deer population, thus ensuring the survival of deer (one type of wildlife) for the use of hunters. In a sense, this was seen in the early twentieth century as a mutually beneficial act, a way of mitigating the divide between the human need for outdoor sports and nature. “Seeing like a mountain” suggests the poverty of that view. Although he did look into the “green fire” of the eyes of the wolf, he did not need to in order to take the broader perspective. Leopold’s realization was that the mountain needed the wolves to prevent the destruction of the mountain ecosystem by uncontested deer populations. “I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn.” (116)

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The second part of A Sand County Almanac branches out from Sauk County Wisconsin and draws from Leopold’s experiences in wildlife management and conservation across the country, particularly the Southwest, where he worked for almost two decades after he earned his degree. While the first part are more impressionistic, in which he hopes to allow the dynamics of the woods around his farm to speak for itself. Starting with part two, he embraces a more polemical tone challenging many of the assumptions about conservation that he embraced throughout his career. Centrally, his idea is that wildlife management is fundamentally flawed because it requires an intrusion by humans. Managing the wilderness means the end of the wilderness. “Thus always does history, whether of marsh or market place, end in paradox. The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate. But all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” (89)

When reading this I was thinking of the consequences of this for human freedom. This goes beyond Leopold’s belief that human’s requires some relationship with nature to be free. What I considered was that even within human societies Leopold’s point about managing is true. James Scott’s books Two Cheers for Anarchism and Seeing Like a State argues about our preference for vernacular organizations rather that state-managed organizations. He shows how the vernacular order tends to look messy but work very well (the bartender providing mental health counseling or the local naming of roads to match their real purpose are two examples he gives), but state-run attempts at order (Stalin’s collectivization or general urban planning) tend to both destroy the vernacular order and make things objectively worse. We are reminded that dangerous, disorderly and often bizarre nature can teach us about the virtue of the vernacular in our own societies. A minor extension of “seeing like a mountain,” if you will.
A similar lesson about nature comes from “Cheat Takes Over,” an essay showing that “solidarity and co-operation among plant and animal pests” exists much like the human “honor among thieves.” While Kropotkin suggested that such mutual aid tended to exist only within species, Leopold sees it among entire subcultures of plant life, the “ecological stowaways.” (136—138)

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The third and final section of A Sand County Almanac, titled “The Upshot” is made up of four essays. The first of these “Conservation Esthetic” takes on the dilemma of humans in industrial societies seeking wilderness, while that quest rapidly destroys that wildness. Mass-use of these resources necessitates (it seems) a degree of artificiality, whether it is a road or a pier or a restroom. Mass-use also seems to destroy the reason humans seek the wilderness, solitude and communion with nature. Leopold could not fully answer the questions brought up by democratic access to the commons, although he was burdened by it his entire life. It may be one of his most important questions for free societies to grapple with, as we all know too well.

“Wildlife in American Culture” makes the same point but goes deeper into the American affection toward nature. “Wildlife once fed us and shaped our culture. It still yields us pleasure for leisure hours, but we try to reap that pleasure by modern machinery and thus destroy part of its value. Reaping it by modern mentality would yield not only pleasure, but wisdom as well.” (160)

“Wilderness” begins to propose a solution. Some wilderness needs to be sustained for “the primitive arts of wilderness travel” such as hunting and foot travel. This may be undemocratic but as most of the woods are already conquered by the “mechanized recreation” this amounts to minority rights. Another part of wilderness needs to be sustained for science, mostly untouched so that they can understand how the land sustains itself. Finally, humans needs to devote some part of their land to “permanent wilderness.” This is only a “rear-guard” action, however. However, if this is the best we can do, we will expect wilderness to slowly decline.
This leads up to Leopold’s famous “Land Ethic,” the final essay of the A Sand County Almanac. Its beauty is in its simplicity. The Land Ethic consists simply of including the land (and now we can add oceans and air) to our ethical decision making process. It does not require accepting any of the metaphysical baggage that comes with some aspects of deep ecology. For Leopold it was as simple as extending our obligations to one another to the lands that we have power over. “Obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land.” (176–177) Leopold does not fail to add that for many farmers at least (if not quite so much for the people partaking in “mechanized recreation”) this is in their self-interest anyway and an easy sell.

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A Sand County Almanac came at the end of Leopold’s life. It was accepted for publication just days before his death of a heart attack after helping his neighbors with a fire. The rest of the Library of America collection consists of his assorted writings, his journals, and some of his letters. In the coming posts, I will explore Leopold’s ideas with an eye to his changing values as well as take on some of the very practical issues of the management of the commons in free societies.