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Aldo Leopold: His Legacy Needed Now More Than Ever

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Aldo Leopold was perhaps the most influential conservationist of the 20th century. He died nearly 65 years ago, yet his life’s work continues to inspire us to love and respect our land, water and wildlife. Green Fire, the first documentary film about Leopold’s life and work, looks back at his extraordinary career and examines how his philosophy of ethical land use endures today. As this year’s debate over renewing the farm bill gets underway, policymakers would do well to learn more about Leopold and other pioneering conservationists to better understand the need to protect and preserve the land that will feed future generations.

Aldo Leopold was taught from an early age that what people do in the outdoors reflects their sense of ethics and responsibility for the world they live in. That belief helped Leopold develop his seminal “land ethic,” which inspired landowners and communities to make it a moral obligation to care not only for people, plants and animals, but also for the land that supports them. Leopold expanded the concept of “environment” to include the soil, making him one of the first to study erosion and promote innovative ideas for ecosystem management. With today’s industrial agriculture taking an enormous toll on our natural resources, his philosophy is needed now more than ever.

In Green Fire, Leopold’s biographer, Curt Meine, takes viewers back to the places and lush surroundings that Leopold loved to explore and restore, including his family shack and farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Interviews with family members, conservationists, biologists, farmers, historians and authors, along with old photographs and journal writings, yield rich insight into Leopold’s thoughts.

“[The land ethic] is not something that Dad all of a sudden realized. It took him a lifetime to understand how interrelated we are with the natural system,” daughter Nina Leopold Bradley explains in one interview.

The film describes how Leopold’s work led hundreds of farmers and conservationists in Wisconsin to create the first watershed-scale conservation project in the nation. In Chicago, an educator inspired by Leopold turned a 30-year-old illegal dumpsite into a living classroom to teach his students about urban gardening, prairies and wetlands. And Sid Goodloe, a New Mexico rancher, recounts how Leopold helped him improve management practices on his farm.

“I began to read about him and I thought, ‘Boy, if I just read this 30 years ago I could have saved a lot of time and effort,’ because he already knew all the things I was learning,” says Goodloe.

Conservationists, landowners and farmers share responsibility for keeping soil on the land and pollutants out of our water. Right now, however, the federal government is driving destructive fencerow-to-fencerow farming – just as it did in the 1970s – with misguided incentives to take advantage of high crop prices and accelerate production. In 2011, Environmental Working Group’s Losing Ground report showed that the midwestern Corn Belt is losing precious topsoil at alarming rates that are up to 12 times faster than government estimates. And as soil washes away, it carries fertilizers, pesticides and manure from the farm into local creeks and streams.

Leopold not only understood the importance of good stewardship, but also the value of rewarding only those who care for their land. It makes no sense to shower generous taxpayer support on profitable growers – with no conservation strings attached. Congress must cut this wasteful spending and reverse policies that foster harmful farm practices. Lawmakers can begin by drafting a 2012 farm bill that adequately funds conservation programs (see Environmental Working Group’s ad campaign) and requires producers to comply with a basic set of rules that protect our resources (read this column by EWG’s Craig Cox in The Des Moines Register).

Most Americans agree that this is the right step forward.

So would Leopold.

Click here for more information on how obtain a copy of Green Fire or host your own screening. Green Fire was produced by a partnership of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, the US Forest Service and the Center for Humans and Nature.


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