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From the Archives: Aldo Leopold’s ‘Conservation Esthetic’

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Aldo Leopold’s “Conservation Esthetic” first ran in the March-April 1938 issue of Audubon. The essay later appeared in Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.  

Barring love and war, few enterprises are undertaken with such abandon, or by such diverse individuals, or with so paradoxical a mixture of appetite and altruism, as that group of avocations known as outdoor recreation. It is, by common consent, a good thing for people to get back to nature. But wherein lies the goodness, and what can be done to encourage its pursuit? On these questions there is confusion of counsel, and only the most uncritical minds are free from doubt.


Recreation became a problem with a name in the days of the elder Roosevelt, when the railroads which had banished the countryside from the city began to carry the city-dweller, en masse, to the countryside. It began to be noticed that the greater the exodus, the smaller the per capita ration of peace, solitude, wild life, and scenery, and the longer the migration to reach them.

The automobile has spread this once mild and local predicament to the outermost limits of good roads–it has made scarce in the hinterlands something once abundant in the back forty. But that something must nevertheless be found. Like ions shot from the sun the week-enders radiate from every town, generating heat and friction as they go. A tourist industry purveys bed and board to bait more ions faster, further. Advertisements on rock and rill confide to all and sundry the whereabouts of new retreats, landscapes, hunting-grounds, and fishing-lakes just beyond those recently overrun. Bureaus build roads into new hinterlands, then buy more hinterlands to absorb the exodus accelerated by the roads. A gadget industry pads the bumps against nature-in-the-raw; wood-craft becomes the art of using gadgets. And now, to cap the pyramid of banalities, the trailer. To him who seeks in the woods and mountains only those things obtainable from travel or golf, the present situation is tolerable. But to him who seeks something more, recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking but never quite finding; a major frustration of mechanized society.

The retreat of the wilderness under the barrage of motorized tourists is no local thing; Hudson Bay, Alaska, Mexico, South Africa are giving way, South America and Siberia are next. Drums along the Mohawk are now honks along the rivers of the world. Homo sapiens putters no more under his own vine and fig tree; he has poured into his gas-tank the stored motivity of countless creatures aspiring through the ages to wiggle their way to pastures new. Ant-like he swarms the continents.

 This is Outdoor Recreation, Model 1938.


Who now is the recreationist, and what does he seek? A few samples will remind us.

Take a look, first, at any Duck marsh. A cordon of parked cars surrounds it. Crouched on each point of its reedy margin is some pillar of society, automatic ready, trigger finger itching to break, if need be, every law of common-wealth or commonweal to kill a Duck. That he is already overfed in no way dampens his avidity for gathering his meat from God.

Wandering in the near-by woods is another pillar, hunting rare ferns or new Warblers. Because his kind of hunting seldom calls for theft or pillage, he disdains the killer. Yet, like as not, in his youth he was one.

At some near-by resort is still another nature-lover–the kind who writes bad verse on birchbark. Everywhere is the unspecialized motorist whose recreation is mileage, who has run the gamut of the National Parks in one summer, and now is headed for Mexico City and points south.

Lastly, there is the professional striving through countless conservation organizations to give the nature-seeking public what it wants or to make it want what he has to give.

Why, it may be asked, should such a diversity of folks be bracketed in a single category? Because each, in his own way, is a hunter. And why does each call himself a conservationist? Because the wild things he hunts for have eluded his grasp, and he hopes by some necromancy of laws, appropriations, regional plans, reorganization of departments, or other form of mass-wishing, to make them stay put.


Recreation is commonly spoken of as an economic recourse. Senate committees tell us, in reverent ciphers, how many millions the? public spends in its pursuit. It has indeed an economic aspect—a cottage on a fishing-lake, or even a Duck-point on a marsh, may cost as much as the entire adjacent farm.

It has also an ethical aspect. In the scramble for unspoiled places, codes and decalogues evolve. We hear of ‘outdoor manners.’ We indoctrinate youth. We print definitions of ‘What is a sportsman?’ and hang a copy on the wall of whosoever will pay a dollar for the propagation of the faith.

It is clear, though, that these economic and ethical manifestations are results, not causes, of the motive force. We seek contact with nature because we derive pleasure from them. As in opera, economic machinery is employed to create and maintain facilities. As in opera, professionals make a living out of creating and maintaining them, but it would be false to say of either that the basic motive, the raison d’être, is economic. The Duck-hunter in his blind and the operatic singer on the stage, despite the disparity of their accoutrements, are doing the same thing. Each is reviving, in play, a drama formerly inherent in daily life. Both are, in the last analysis, esthetic exercises.      


Public policies for outdoor recreation are controversial. Equally conscientious citizens hold opposite views on what it is, and what should be done to conserve its resource-base. Thus the Wilderness Society seeks to exclude roads from the hinterlands, and the chamber of commerce to extend them, both in the name of recreation. The game-farmer kills Hawks and the bird-lover protects them, in the name of shotgun and field-glass hunting respectively. Such factions commonly label each other with short and ugly names, when, in fact, each is considering a different component of the recreational process. As I shall show shortly, these components differ widely in their characteristics or properties. A given policy may be true of one but false for another.

It seems timely, therefore, to segregate the components, and to examine the distinctive characteristics or properties of each.

We begin with the simplest and most obvious: the physical objects which the outdoorsman may seek, find, capture, and carry away. In this category are wild crops such as game and fish, and the symbols or tokens of achievement such as heads, hides, photographs, and specimens.

All these things rest upon the idea of trophy. The pleasure they give is, or should be, in the seeking as well as in the getting. The trophy whether it be a bird’s egg, a mess of trout, a basket of mushrooms, the photograph of a bear, the pressed specimen of a wild flower, or a note tucked into the cairn on a mountain peak, is a certificate. It attests that its owner has been somewhere and done something–that he has exercised skill, persistence, or discrimination in the age-old feat of overcoming, outwitting, or reducing-to-possession. These connotations which attach to the trophy usually far exceed its physical value.

But trophies differ in their reactions to mass-pursuit. The yield of game and fish can, by means of propagation or management, be increased so as to give each hunter more, or to give more hunters the same amount. During the past decade a profession of wild-life management has sprung into existence. A dozen universities teach its techniques, conduct research for bigger and better wild animal crops. However, when carried too far, this stepping-up of yields is subject to a law of diminishing returns. Very intensive game- or fish-management lowers the unit value of the trophy by artificializing it.

Consider, for example, a trout, raised in a hatchery and newly liberated in an over-fished stream. The stream is no longer capable of natural trout production. Pollution has fouled its waters, or deforestation and trampling have warmed or silted them. No one would claim that this trout has the same value as a wholly wild one caught out of some unmanaged stream in the high Rockies. Its esthetic connotations are inferior, even though its capture may require skill. (Its liver, one authority says, is also so degenerated by hatchery feeding as to forebode an early death.) Yet several over-fished states now depend almost entirely on such man-made trout.

All intergrades of artificiality exist, but as mass-use increases it tends to push the whole gamut of conservation techniques toward the artificial end, and the whole scale of trophy-values downward.

To safeguard this expensive, artificial, and more or less helpless trout, the Conservation Commission feels impelled to kill all Herons and Terns visiting the hatchery where it was raised, and all Mergansers and otters inhabiting the stream in which it is released. The fisherman perhaps feels no loss in the sacrifice of one kind of wild life than for another, but the ornithologist is ready to bite off ten-penny nails. Artificialized management has, in effect, bought fishing at the expense of another and perhaps higher recreation; it has paid dividends to one citizen out of capital stock belonging to all. The same kind of biological wildcatting prevails in Europe, where wild-crop statistics are available for long periods, we even know the ‘rate of exchange’ of game for predators. Thus, in Saxony, one Hawk is killed to each seven game-birds bagged, and one predator of some kind to each three head of small game.

Damage to plant-life usually follows artificialized management of animals–for example, damage to forests by deer. One may see this in north Germany, in northeast Pennsylvania, in the Kaibab, and in dozens of other less publicized regions. In each case over-abundant deer, deprived of their natural enemies, have made it impossible for deer food-plants to survive or reproduce. Beech, maple, and yew in Europe; ground hemlock and white cedar in the eastern states; mountain mahogany and cliff-rose in the West are deer-foods treated by artificialized deer. The composition of the flora from wild flowers to forest trees is gradually impoverished, and the deer in turn are dwarfed by malnutrition. There are no stags in the woods today like those on the walls of feudal castles.

On the English heaths reproduction of trees is inhibited by rabbits over-protected in the process of cropping Partridges and Pheasants. On scores of tropical islands both flora and fauna have been destroyed by goats introduced for meat and sport. It would be hard to calculate the mutual injuries by and between mammals deprived of their natural predators, and ranges stripped of their natural food-plants. Agricultural crops caught between these upper and nether millstones of ecological mismanagement are saved only at the cost of endless indemnities and barbed wire.

We generalize, then, by saying that mass-use tends to dilute the quality of organic crop trophies like game and fish, and to induce damage to other resources such as non-game animals, natural vegetation, and farm crops.

The same dilution and damage is not apparent in the yield of ‘indirect’ trophies, such as photographs. Broadly speaking, a piece of scenery snapped by a dozen tourist cameras daily is not physically impaired thereby, nor does any other resource suffer when the rate increases to a hundred. The camera industry is one of the few innocuous parasites on wild nature.

We have, then, a basic difference in reaction to mass-use as between two categories of physical objects pursued as trophies.


Let us now consider another component of recreation which is more subtle and complex: the feeling of isolation in nature. That this is acquiring a scarcity-value which is very high to some persons is attested by the wilderness controversy. The proponents of wilderness have achieved a compromise with the road-building bureaus which have the custody of our National Parks and Forests. They have agreed on the formal reservation of roadless areas. Out of every dozen wild areas opened up, one may be officially proclaimed ‘wilderness,’ and roads built only to its edge. It is then advertised as unique, as indeed it is. Before long its trails are congested, it is being dolled up to make work for CCC’s, or an unexpected fire necessitates splitting it in two with a road to haul fire-fighters. Or the congestion induced by advertising may whip up the price of guides and packers, whereupon somebody discovers that the wilderness policy is undemocratic. Or the local chamber of commerce, at first quiescent at the novelty of a hinterland officially labeled as ‘wild,’ tastes its first blood of tourist-money. It then wants more, wilderness or no wilderness.

In short, the very scarcity of wild places, reacting with the mores of advertising and promotion, tends to defeat any deliberate effort to prevent their growing still more scarce.

It is clear without further discussion that mass-use involves a direct dilution of the opportunity for solitude; that when we speak of roads, camp-grounds, trails, and toilets as ‘development’ of recreational resources, we speak falsely in respect of this component. Such accommodations for the crowd are not developing (in the sense of adding or creating) anything. Quite the contrary, they are merely water poured into the already-thin soup.


We now contrast with the isolation-component that very distinct if simple one which we may label ‘fresh-air and change-of-scene.’ Mass-use neither destroys nor dilutes this value. The thousandth tourist who clicks the gate of the National Park breathes approximately the same air, and experiences the same contest with Monday-at-the-office, as does the first. One might even believe that the gregarious assault on the outdoors enhances the contrast. We may say, then, that the fresh-air and change-of-scene component is like the photographic trophy–it withstands mass-use without damage.


We come now to another component: the perception of the natural processes by which the land and the living things upon it have achieved their characteristic forms (evolution) and by which they maintain their existence (ecology). That thing called ‘nature study,’ despite the shiver it brings to the spines of the elect, constitutes the first embryonic groping of the mass-mind toward perception.

The outstanding characteristic of perception is that it entails no consumption and no dilution of any resource. The swoop of a Hawk, for example, is perceived by one as the drama of evolution, by another as a threat to the full frying-pan. The drama may thrill a hundred successive witnesses; the threat only one–for he responds with a shot-gun.

To promote perception is the only truly creative part of recreational engineering.

 This fact is important, and its potential power for bettering ‘the good life’ only dimly understood. When Daniel Boone first entered into the forests and prairies of “the dark and bloody ground,” he reduced to his possession the pure essence of ‘outdoor America.’ He didn’t call it that, but what he found is the thing we now seek, and we here deal with things, not names.

Recreation, however, is not the outdoors, but our reaction to it. Daniel Boone’s reaction depended not only on the quality of what he saw, but on the quality of the mental eye with which he saw it. Ecological science has wrought a change in the mental eye. It has disclosed origins and functions for what to Boone were only facts. It has disclosed mechanisms for what to Boone were only attributes. We have no yardstick to measure this change, but we may safely say that, as compared with the competent ecologist of the present day, Boone saw only the surface of things. The incredible intricacies of the plant and animal community–the intrinsic beauty of the organism called America, then in the full bloom of her maidenhood–were as invisible and incomprehensible to Daniel Boone as they are today to Mr. Babbitt. The only true development in American recreational resources is the development of the perceptive faculty in Americans. All of the other acts we grace by that name are, at best, attempts to retard or mask the process of dilution.

Let no man jump to the conclusion that Babbitt must take his Ph.D. in ecology before he can ‘see’ his country. On the contrary, the Ph.D. may become as callous as an undertaker to the mysteries at which he officiates. Like all real treasures of the mind, perception can be split into infinitely small fractions without losing its quality. The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture what may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring in the South Seas. Perception, in short, cannot be purchased with either learned degrees or dollars; it grows at home as well as abroad, and he who has a little may use it to better advantage than he who has much. As a search for perception, the recreational stampede is footless and unnecessary.

There is, lastly, a fifth component: the sense of husbandry. It is unknown to the outdoorsman who works for conservation with his vote rather than with his hands. It is realized only when some art of management is applied to land by some person of perception. That is to say, its enjoyment is reserved for landholders too poor to buy their sport, and land administrators with a sharp eye and an ecological mind. The tourist who buys access to his scenery misses it altogether; so also the sportsman who hires the state, or some underling, to be his game-keeper. The Government, which essays to substitute public for private operation of recreational lands, is unwittingly giving away to its field officers a large share of what it seeks to offer its citizens. We foresters and game managers might logically pay for, instead of being paid for, our job as husbandmen of wild crops.

That a sense of husbandry exercised in the production of crops may be quite as important as the crops themselves is realized to some extent in agriculture, but not in conservation. American sportsmen hold in small esteem the intensive game-cropping of the Scottish moors and the German forests, and in some respects rightly. But they overlook entirely the sense of husbandry developed by the European landholder in the process of cropping. We have no such thing as yet. It is important. When we conclude that we must bait the farmer with subsidies to induce him to raise a forest, or with gate receipts to induce him to raise game, we are merely admitting that the pleasures? of husbandry-in-the-wild are as yet unknown both to the farmer and to ourselves.

Scientists have an epigram: ontogeny repeats phylogeny. What they mean is that the development of each individual repeats the evolutionary history of the race. This is true of mental as well as physical things. The trophy-hunter is the caveman reborn. Trophy-hunting is the prerogative of youth, racial or individual, and nothing to apologize for.

 The disquieting thing in the modern picture is the trophy-hunter who never grows up, in whom the capacity for isolation, perception, and husbandry is undeveloped, or perhaps lost. He is the motorized ant who swarms the continents before learning to see his own back yard, who consumes but never creates outdoor satisfactions. For him the recreational engineer dilutes the wilderness and artificializes its trophies in the fond belief that he is rendering a public service.

The trophy-recreationist has peculiarities which contribute in subtle ways to his own undoing. To enjoy he must possess, invade, appropriate. Hence the wilderness which he cannot personally see has no value to him. Hence the universal assumption that an unused hinterland is rending no service to society. To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part. (Is my share of Alaska worthless to me because I shall never go there? Do I need a road to show me the arctic prairies, the Goose pastures of the Yukon, the Kadiak bear, the sheep meadows behind McKinley?)

It would appear, in short, that the rudimentary grades of outdoor recreation consume their resource-base; the higher grades, at least to a degree, create their own satisfactions with little or no attrition of land or life. It is the expansion of transport without a corresponding growth of perception which threatens us with qualitative bankruptcy of the recreational process. Recreational development is a job, not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.


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