National Wildlife Refuge System

Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic

Aldo Leopold and his family spent weekends and summers at this cabin in Wisconsin, where he developed his ideas of a land ethic.
Credit: Karen Leggett/USFWS

Aldo Leopold, one of the great America conservationists and philosophers of the 20th century, wrote extensively about humans as part of the natural world.  Students could consider the relationship between humans and the rest of the environment, and our rights and responsibilities to protect our natural resources for present and future generations of Americans.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation has developed a body of resources for educators, including lesson plans, audio and video such as the Emmy-award-winning documentary Green Fire (available for educational licensing). The Foundation, in partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has also digitized the papers of Aldo Leopold and made them available to the public as the Aldo Leopold Archive. This could be an excellent base of primary sources for National History Day projects.

Aldo Leopold’s writings expanded the discussion about why and how we choose to preserve natural resources. Leopold questioned the assumption that the primary motive for managing natural resources was to benefit people. Instead, he wrote that natural resources have an inherent right to protection.

In his seminal book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold advocated a new land ethic, in which humans see themselves as part of a larger ecological community. He argued that humans have a responsibility to pursue actions which benefit the ecological community as a whole and not just the human elements of it.

His thinking was highly influential within the environmental movement, and helped lead to the passage of the Wilderness Act 15 years after his death.

Last updated: February 27, 2015