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Building Leopold's legacy: pines celebrated in a conservation classic have outlived the author and conservationist. As they age, they shape his legacy in a different way.

On the surface, an orange slash gives a simple order: Cut this tree and leave all that are unmarked. To a lover of trees, painting an orange slash on any tree, especially a 60-year-old pine planted by Aldo Leopold and his family during weekends at "the Shack," may seem like a blasphemer's shout in a cathedral.

In 1935 Leopold purchased 80 acres of land along the Wisconsin River near Baraboo; it became the core of the Leopold Memorial Reserve after his death. When he arrived, the land was a "worn-out sand farm"--overgrazed, separated from its topsoil during the Dust Bowl years, and then abandoned.

Leopold established a more respectful relationship with the land. He and his family turned a dilapidated chicken coop into "the Shack" by adding a new fireplace, tacking a small addition on the side, and putting in windows scavenged from a junkyard. The Leopolds regularly came up from Madison for weekend visits and hunting camps that were a "retreat from too much modernity."


Leopold's family and students also joined him in some of the first experiments in ecological restoration. Several acres were revegetated with sod and seeds from remnants of the tall grass prairie, while acres planted to pine started holding down the droughty, wind-ravaged soils.

The pines, celebrated in A Sand County Almanac, have outlived Leopold by 58 years now, and the trees stand high above the heads of his descendants--his surviving children Nina, Carl, and Estella, succeeding generations, and hundreds of foresters and wildlife biologists. The pines, which gave courage to the professor during the long winter of World War II, have stood through the first winter snows, while neighboring stands of tall yellow prairie grass bend under the white cloak of winter.

To a trained forester, the orange harvest markings on the Leopold pines look like a doctor's prescription against illnesses that could threaten the venerable trees. Many of the pines, particularly the red pines, show signs of over-competition, including poor canopy development and an extremely low annual growth rate.


In 2003 Dan Pubanz, then a consulting forester with Clark Forestry, concluded that many of the red pines were at a critical stage, stressed by intense competition for sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. An insect attack or drought, he warned, could kill a large number of them. He proposed a careful thinning that could lead to a slow but steady improvement in tree health.

Reconciling differences of opinion about how best to manage land is often portrayed as a give-and-take struggle between idealists and pragmatists. The decision to thin the Leopold pines was very much a process integrating different but not necessarily contradictory values: respecting the symbolic importance of the pines while actively managing the forest due to concerns about forest health and the trees' longevity.

The effort to find a balance was as often a personal process as it was a group one. Carl Leopold, professor emeritus of botany, plant pathology specialist, and Aldo Leopold's youngest son, perhaps best exemplifies the struggle.

Professionally, Carl Leopold understood the risk that disease poses to the pines, yet, when Aldo Leopold Foundation ecologist Steve Swenson described the proposal to thin the trees, Carl responded, "Well, alternatively, we could not cut any trees." After all, those were trees he had planted as a boy in the 1930s and 1940s.

A plan for thinning the pines eventually received the blessing of the Leopold children, partly out of concern for forest health and partly due to how the trees will be used. The logged trees will serve as the primary source of wood for posts, beams, and trusses for a planned Aldo Leopold Legacy Center, which is scheduled to be built this year.

The Legacy Center will demonstrate ecological design and construction, and provide the infrastructure necessary to house archival materials as well as increase the Foundation's educational outreach, land restoration and stewardship initiatives, and research.

Recognizing a growing interest in their father's legacy, Leopold's five children (two sons, Starker and Luna, have since passed away) established the Aldo Leopold Foundation in 1982. As a scientist and conservationist, Leopold founded the study of wildlife biology and made major contributions in forest management and wilderness preservation. He is perhaps most widely known for A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, a year after his death. Some of the articles first appeared in these pages.

In this seminal work Leopold identified the need for an ethical relationship between people and land. "Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient," he wrote in his definitive essay "The Land Ethic."

Leopold recognized that "nothing so important as an ethic is ever 'written,' " and he described the land ethic as the product of a social evolution, forming in the minds of a thinking community.

Today, the Aldo Leopold Foundation works to nurture that social evolution through education and by working with private landowners to inform their land-management decisions.

From the very beginning, the family and Foundation intended that the Legacy Center's construction and operation would meet or establish the day's highest standards in "green" building. The architect, Kubala Washatko Architects of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, also designed the green-certified Schlitz Audubon Center in Milwaukee. The Legacy Center's green features will be independently assessed using the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System.

LEED evaluates many aspects of construction, including site design, heating and energy efficiency, and the origin of building materials, crediting the project for each standard that is met. The Center has been designed to meet enough requirements to reach the top tiers of the rating system, and the architects expect it will join a select group of buildings around the country with that distinction.

One of the goals of LEED certification is to promote responsible use of resources. Each 2x4 or steel beam used in a building has some effect on the environment, often in ways that aren't apparent at the lumberyard.


"We classify ourselves into vocations, each of which either wields some particular tool or sells it ...; by such division of labors we avoid responsibility for the misuse of any too save our own," Leopold wrote in his Sand County Almanac essay "Axe-in-Hand."

By using pines grown on the Leopold farm, transporting them a short distance (two miles for the structural components and a 120-mile round trip for flooring, wall panels, and trim), and working with reputable local craftspeople, the Foundation will take responsibility for more of the production and environmental impacts.


A noticeable number of trees will be cut, primarily trees that show acute signs of stress or poor development and ones negatively affecting the growth of healthier neighbors.

All told, 500 trees are marked among the Leopold pines, including 225 white pine, 225 red pine, and 50 of various species, including black oak, ash, aspen, and red maple. The harvest is expected to yield approximately 25,000 board feet of lumber.

The harvesting company was chosen for its reputation for low-impact logging. It used low-impact equipment, like a processor that rides on tracks, distributing its weight, and using a long articulated arm to grasp and cut the trees, delimb them, and cut the logs to length. Transporting the logs out on a forwarder, rather than by dragging, greatly reduced soil disturbance in the forest.

At the construction site a local saw mill operator will cut the structural materials. The smaller-diameter pine logs, as well as oak and softwoods harvested from an oak woodland on the reserve, will go to a family-owned sawmill in Hancock, Wisconsin. There the lumber will be milled and dried, then turned into custom flooring, paneling, and trim.

Taking a more active role in the construction process meant spending more time and energy on strategic planning and seeking out businesses and individuals that could meet the Foundation's unique requirements. It also meant making some hard decisions on the ground.

"Working with trees from a thinning for forest health is a lot different from going into a forest to look for trees that meet the architects' specifications," notes Foundation ecologist Swenson. "Finding compatibility between a product list and trees is difficult. We need to make the most efficient use of the trees we have."

As the harvest date loomed, the architects and engineers produced a list of building materials. A large number of 15-foot-long 8x8-inch beams are required; these will come out of the harvest. But several searches for trees that can produce 24-foot-long 8x14-inch trusses have been in vain.


And so Swenson has been working with other partners, including the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Lab (FPL) in Madison, Wisconsin, on other ideas. FPL provided specs for using small-diameter red pine in whole log form, taking advantage of trees otherwise too small for structural lumber.

The Forest Products Lab also is working to develop paper-making processes that are environmentally sensitive and will partner with the Foundation to make a small batch of paper wholly from Leopold-planted pines and site-harvested hardwoods. A Sand County Almanac, printed on paper made from Leopold's own trees, will become the test vehicle to determine the archival integrity of paper made by this new technique.

Education has been an integrating theme for the project. Foundation members and the community were invited to field days over the winter to view the harvest in progress and later the milling process. After construction begins, there will be renewable energy workshops and public tours to demonstrate green-building techniques.

In the future, visitors will be able to learn how a building can literally be grown and designed to inform and inspire its residents and guests to achieve what Leopold described as the oldest task in human history: "living on a piece of land without spoiling it."

They will also be able to observe the changes to the forest's health over time, thanks to long-term monitoring locations established throughout the Leopold pines. The forest at these locations was photographed prior to the harvest to establish a visual record of changes.

Ultimately the Foundation wants to extend Leopold's vision of a land ethic to the 21st century by challenging individuals and society to better align our collective thoughts and actions--and thereby to leave a signature for which we can all be proud.

The Aldo Leopold Foundation has announced a comprehensive new initiative to expand the Land Ethic nationally. Objectives include: protecting the Leopold Shack and Farm; digitizing Leopold's archives for public use; and constructing the Legacy Center. More than $5 million has been raised toward the goal of $7.75 million. For information on the Land Ethic campaign, visit

Craig Maier is an ecological restoration intern at the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
"I have read many definitions of what is a conservationist, and written
not a few myself, but I suspect that the best one is written not with a
pen, but with an axe. It is a matter of what a man thinks about while
chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who
is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the
face of the land."
--Aldo Leopold, "Axe in Hand"
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Title Annotation:COMMUNITIES
Author:Maier, Craig
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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