Building on the Land Ethic in the 21st Century

The loving legacy of Aldo Leopold


photo of a building in stone, solar panels in evidenceCourtesy of the Aldo Leopold Foundation

At first glance, the relationship between a chicken coop used as a vacation shelter and the multimillion-dollar new Leopold Legacy Center seems obscure. The notion of contiguous philosophies behind two such diverse shelters may be counterintuitive, but these structures are united by a value called the “land ethic” and by the writings and philosophies of Aldo Leopold.

In the lineage of conservation writer/activists, Leopold stands between John Muir and Rachel Carson. Many consider him America’s foremost conservationist, because in addition to his writing, he founded the educational fields of wildlife management and ecology, and is considered by many to be the founder of the National Wilderness System. In 1933 he was appointed chair of the nation’s first graduate programs in what was then called “game management.” At the University of Wisconsin, he created an educational curriculum that still stands at the core of conservation studies, a discipline that is an extension of the question to which Leopold devoted his life: “How do we live on a piece of land without spoiling it?”

This question drove the construction of the Leopold Legacy Center, and inspired Leopold’s experience in rewilding the Wisconsin farm where he turned an old chicken coop into a weekend cottage. Leopold recognized that an ethic is not merely a statement, it is an evolution in the ways of living of a thinking society. In his most famous book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes: “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.”

Passion for wilderness

The most dismal vacation property imaginable was bought in 1935, when Aldo Leopold marched his wife, Estella, and five teenagers through a February blizzard to see the dung-filled chicken coup he was presenting to his family. The optimistic Leopolds found consolation in the February temperatures as they chipped away at a waist-high accumulation of frozen cow manure and chicken droppings: At least it didnt smell. The scoopings would nourish a planned summer garden. The property near Baraboo, Wisconsin, was worn-out land, 80 sandy acres unsuited to farming, full of failed corn fields and cockleburs. The previous owner, a moonshiner, had set fire to the farmhouse and left the land that had nothing more to give him. The Leopolds purchased the land and considered how they might restore the fractured biota.

It’s surprising that the cold didnt dissuade the family from loving their Wisconsin home. The family had formed in the warm climate of New Mexico, where Aldo met Estella Bergere while serving in the US Forest Service. It was in the southwest that he petitioned to manage the Gila National Forest as a wilderness area, which became the first such officially designated area in 1924. Leopold began writing the book Game Management and cofounded The Wilderness Society in an effort to change the national practice of seeing land as commodity rather than as community. Leopold’s passion for wilderness was the core of family fun, adventure, and values. This was a family of hunters, archers, hikers, paddlers, and observers. A world champion of observation, Leopold described November geese on his sand farm: “The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing. When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding taps for summer.”

No one from the family imagined that on the same property where Leopold would die, just down the road from the shack, one of the greenest buildings ever built in a northern climate would rise up from the physical and spiritual fruits of the family’s labor and be situated in a forest where once there were only ruined fields.

Before recycling was cool

On April 22, 2007, the Leopold Legacy Center opened its doors to the public. According to Buddy Huffaker, executive director of the Leopold Foundation, “This building helps connect the movement of ecological restoration with green building and green design. It begins to connect our long history and tradition of conservation with some of the new techniques and technologies of sustainability. This building places the land ethic in the 21st century.”

The three surviving Leopold children spoke to the crowd at the center’s opening. All five children of Aldo Leopold contributed to the events that led to the Legacy Center. Starker, the eldest, a biologist and conservationist who died in 1985, is credited with coming up with the idea to establish the Aldo Leopold Foundation. Luna Leopold, the second oldest, a hydrologist and professor, who died last February, was a driving force in assuring that the Legacy Center would be planned, built, and maintained with a high degree of ecological intelligence.

Estella Leopold, the youngest child of Aldo and Estella and a professor of biology, was the first to speak. The crowd was much larger than expected; the Foundation had hoped for 300 people to attend the dedication, but 1,200 supportive neighbors, Leopold relatives, and Leopold fans attended. In the 80-degree sunshine of an unusually warm April day, Estella evoked her father’s April essay from A Sand County Almanac. “This is the season of high water,” she said, the season her father would gather wood washed from the Wisconsin River and read its history in the shape, wear, and weathering of each board. Each gift of lumber would be given careful consideration before being used to transform the old chicken coop into a vacation shack.

Carl Leopold, professor of botany and plant pathology, told the audience that since no windows washed up on the river bank, all the shack windows had come from the town dump. This was recycling when recycling wasnt cool. This was also building based on using locally available materials. What today is an emerging idea in sustainable building was common sense to the Leopolds 70 years ago.

Building with the forest in mind

Nearly all of the Center’s structural skeleton and finished materials were harvested from trees planted by the Leopolds in the 1930s and 1940s. Much in the same way Aldo Leopold and his family built and restored their little coop and outhouse from the wood that washed up on their land from the Wisconsin River, the Legacy Center contractors had to structure a building from available materials. Small diameter trees, thinned from a crowded forest, were used in the round, an innovative technique to use material that might otherwise be wasted. When wood was harvested for the building, foresthealth, not construction requirements, was the primary concern.

Maple trees, rampant in the old oak woods in the absence of fires, were thinned. The sun that now bathes the forest floor in the thinned oak woods will urge acorns to sprout and stimulate a biologically diverse understory. The soft maplewood, an undesirable building product often used for pulp, serves as ceiling paneling. In a happy accident, the rich swirls of wood grain in the maple complement the weathered pine trusses as if a designer had planned the timbered color scheme.

The 12,000-square-foot building, with its 192 solar panels, geothermal heating systems, radiant cooling and heating, and multiple passive energy savings features, is expected to have an annual energy consumption of zero. Huffaker is motivated to go further. “The model says we should produce 110 percent of the energy we use to run the building. Im optimistic we can do even better if we push ourselves to be frugal with energy use.”

The center’s attractiveness is founded on functional design, such as a series of troughs to catch rain runoff from the roof. The troughs’ placement and asolar pump create multiple waterfalls that spill into a series of rain gardens.

Nearly all of the wood used in the center came from trees planted by the Leopolds in the 1930s and 1940s.

Aldo, who regularly brought students and friends of his children to the shack, would certainly approve of the seventh- and eighth-graders who fashioned the rain gardens. Middle schoolers from the River Crossing Environmental Charter School in nearby Portage calculated the runoff from the roof and identified erosion cuts at the site to determine where to place the gardens. Eighteen students dug a 70-foot trench by hand and moved hundreds of tons of rock from neighbors’ properties to line the trench and direct the flow of water. The students decided on a two-bay rain garden where water would nurture wetland plants and, during times of higher volume water, spill into a second bay garden. This overflow would serve to recharge the aquifer with prairie-filtered water. Last year’s students collected prairie seeds, which will be planted and nurtured at the site. The students, dressed in their green River Crossing T-shirts, presented the project to the crowd, reminding them that practicing the land ethic involves “head, heart, and hand.”

The main building is divided into three parts. An interpretative wing houses a photo exhibit and educational materials where visitors may learn about Leopold, visit the bookstore, and prepare for a contemplative visit to the shack. A large office space houses the foundation staff. The room is bright, with carefully placed windows that maximize light and capture heat and breezes depending on the time of year. A computer system reminds employees when the temperatures and humidity are such that they should open windows instead of using energy-consuming cooling.

Conference space fills another wing. Two outbuildings, a three-season classroom, and a garage complete the campus. The Leopold Legacy Center will serve as a headquarters for the Aldo Leopold Foundation, house educational programming, and foster the land ethic. The Foundation’s immediate plans include digitizing and archiving Leopold papers and photographs and producing a documentary film on the impact of Aldo Leopold, tentatively titled A Green Fire. More information about the building is available at

The Leopold Legacy Center is expected to receive Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification for its environmental and energy saving design. This would be the first LEED Platinum building in Wisconsin, out of only 17 in the US.

Persistence, patience, and vision

As the center’s programs get underway, the Leopold Foundation will continue to demonstrate three concepts Huffaker says are essential to fostering the land ethic:


The Leopold family began planting in drought years and endured a near 100 percent loss of their first season of pine plantings. Leopold held and transferred an image of a healthy forest to his family and they worked without a short-term payoff except that they were in this together. The family planted 3,000 trees a year for four years. Seventy years later, the pines were too thick. Huffaker notes that “Likewise, the construction of this building required a great deal of diligence and persistence to be certain that we used all of those precious materials [pines] in the most robust and respectful way possible.”

photo of a modest rustic building in a forest clearing. a water pump is in evidence.courtesy of the Aldo Leopold FoundationThe same principles used by Aldo Leopold at this modest home were applied to the multimillion-dollar
Leopold Legacy Center.

Leopold never saw his trees grow up into a forest, and he never saw the prairie come to life. He never saw his five children grow up and carry on in his footsteps. In 1948 he suffered a fatal heart attack while helping a neighbor to fight a fire. Only a few hours earlier, he had recorded in his notebook the number of Canada geese seen near the river on their spring migration. It was less than a month since he learned that his manuscript had been accepted for publication. Luna would give the book its final editorial changes and approve the title: A Sand County Almanac, a classic that would serve along with Walden and Silent Spring as one of the main intellectual underpinnings of environmentalism in America.

In building the Leopold Legacy Center, the foundation’s patience sometimes eclipsed the parameters of a cost-benefit analysis. Some of the payback periods for clean energy investments are 14 years, longer than most businesses would justify. “These are the kinds of investments we make for the long term,” Huffaker says.


Leopold restored the land and refined his thinking about conservation while he worked and walked with his family. He didnt leave a formal management plan, but clearly he was a visionary. He understood what it was going to take for humanity to live in concert with the natural resources that support all life.

Susan Flader, Leopold scholar and Foundation board member, believes that the “Leopold Legacy Center can be a nerve center for the land ethic.” As the nation and world look to carbon neutral living, the values expressed in the philosophical and physical legacy of Leopold are more pertinent than ever. A Sand County Almanac has sold more than two million copies and still counting. This text, often called “the Bible of Conservation,” will remain relevant because of the essential truths every discerning reader will find there. Leopold wrote, “We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations, the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” In this statement, he has assured the relevance of his legacy.

The final dedication speaker

At the dedication ceremony, Nina Leopold Bradley – the middle child, who lives on the Leopold Reserve and, in an intergenerational duet of research, continues the phenology records (the study of the timing of recurring natural phenomena) her father began, spoke last. Huffaker and others have called her the spiritual leader of the Foundation. Eighty-nine years old, she spoke with a gentle authority. As a warm wind calmed, she reminded the crowd of the strength in these 70-year-old pines, both those in the forest and those inside the Leopold Legacy Center. She wished that all would feel the “curious transformation of courage” possible in the presence of the Leopold pines, and possible in the presence of any landscape that is loved.

AmyLou Jenkins holds an MFA from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in The Flint Hills Review, Wisconsin Academy Review, Inkpot, The Muir View, The Bennington Review, Florida Review, and Rosebud.

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