Wild at Heart


Conservationist Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, argued that land has an ecological value that exceeds the commercial value of the game or crops it can support. His successors at the Madison, Wisconsin–based Sand County Foundation say that, with a little effort, property owners can restore habitat for plants and animals that was lost when the land was first cleared.

"Aldo Leopold didn't believe that only the government can fix destroyed land," says foundation president Brent Haglund. "Individual landowners can make a difference."

Since 1980, Wisconsin farmers have abandoned more than 1.5 million acres of unproductive farmland. The foundation sees this unused property as an opportunity for landowners to reintroduce controlled natural processes of land restoration. Fire, predation, and pollination can replace the chemical pesticides and herbicides that often contaminate the area's shallow aquifers.

Merely restoring natural processes often enables rare plants and animals to re-establish themselves in the wild. On the 1,500-acre Leopold Reserve, which the foundation manages, some species of native flowering plants that haven't existed since Leopold's time are growing again. The sharp-tailed grouse almost disappeared from the area because it lived in the undergrowth that foraging deer have eaten; this bird is also making a comeback.

Each year, the foundation sponsors seminars that show business and institutional executives how to use Leopold's "land ethic" to restore natural processes on property that is either unused or has little commercial value. The foundation also hopes to demonstrate that ecological processes can restore wetlands more economically than the government's dredge-and-fill techniques. It has set aside sites in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin where it will conduct side-by-side tests to compare the methods.