Thoreau, Muir, Leopold: Three Inspirational Conservationists to Study

Many of our modern conservation principles stem from the teachings of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold. These early American conservationists each were instrumental in advancing preservation and restoration of nature in their time, and still today inspire us to be more appreciative of wildlife and wilderness.

Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard College and took courses in rhetoric, classics, philosophy, mathematics, and science. Upon graduation, he refused to pay $5 for his diploma, an early sign of his commitment to minimalism and simple living.

Thoreau is best known for his book “Walden,” a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. In order to better focus on his writing, Thoreau spent two years in a small cabin he built on the shore of Walden Pond. During this time devoted to wilderness philosophy, Thoreau developed a harmony with nature that still serves as a guide for the millions who have read Thoreau’s words.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” Henry David Thoreau wrote.

John Muir taught us to wander in both spirit and body. Muir was born in Scotland on April 21, 1838. His family immigrated to the United States in 1849. They settled near Portage, Wisconsin at Fountain Lake Farm. From there, Muir would strike out to traverse America.

Muir became an early advocate and political spokesman for the preservation of wilderness in the United States. He founded The Sierra Club, and millions have read his essays. Muir may be best known for his activism to preserve the Yosemite Valley. He walked about 1,000 miles from Kentucky to Florida in 1867, and wrote about the journey in his book, “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf.” In which Muir states, “I think that most of the antipathies which haunt and terrify us are morbid productions of ignorance and weakness. I have better thoughts of those alligators now that I have seen them at home.”

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt accompanied Muir on a visit to Yosemite. Roosevelt asked Muir to show him the “real Yosemite.” The duo took off camping in the backcountry. Conversing with the President of the United States around wilderness campfires, Muir emphasized the issues with state mismanagement and the exploitation of the valley's resources. He convinced Roosevelt federal control and management would be best. Today Muir is referred to as the "Father of the National Parks."

Aldo Leopold inspired wise use. Born in Burlington, Iowa on January 11, 1887, Leopold was exposed to the outdoors early on by his father, Carl, who taught young Aldo to be a woodsman. It stuck. Carl’s son would grow up to be one of the most influential conservationists of the 20th century.

Leopold graduated from Yale University School of Forestry. In 1909, he went to work for the United States Forest Service District 3 in the Arizona and New Mexico territories. He first worked at the Apache National Forest in the Arizona Territory, and then the Carson National Forest in New Mexico. Leopold left New Mexico in 1924 become an associate director with the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1933, Thoreau was appointed a Professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. This was the first such professorship of its kind.

"I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the deer nor the mountain agreed with such a view."

-Aldo Leopold, A Sand Country Almanac

Leopold purchased 80-acres in Sand County, Wisconsin where the landscape had been grossly mistreated. Heavily logged, over-grazed and too often burned, it was a desolate land. Leopold’s restoration efforts on his little personal paradise, laid the groundwork for his greatest work, “A Sand County Almanac.” The classic book focuses on Leopold’s idea of “land ethic” has sold more than two million copies.

“We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive,” Leopold wrote.