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Aldo Leopold & the Wisconsin Idea

ALDO-PICBY Michael Mentzer

Change is in the air, in the angle of light, in our bones.

We feel it more than we understand it.

The feeling sends me to the bookcase to find “A Sand County Almanac” and the writings of acclaimed environmentalist Aldo Leopold.

Somehow it warms my insides to hold the old tattered book with the cobalt cover, the image of Canada geese beneath the title and little yellow post-it notes sticking out from key passages marked over the past 30 years.

It’s happened without fail for years — the need to read Aldo’s essays while realizing that winter is about to lose its grip on this part of the world. It may happen on a March night when the mercury plunges to zero or it might occur when the sun climbs a bit higher and warms the foundation wall on the south side of the house.

No matter how or when, it happens.

Honoring Aldo’s legacy
Years ago I promised myself that I’d honor Leopold’s memory and share his insights wherever possible these first days of March. Today the honor is here on these pages.

And so are some concerns about our state today in the wake of the governor’s proposed budget and what Leopold might think about threats to aspects of Wisconsin he held dear.

By proclamation signed in 2004 by the Wisconsin Legislature, the first full weekend in March is named in honor of Aldo Leopold. This year Aldo Leopold Weekend falls on March 7 and 8. Memorial events are scheduled throughout Wisconsin and in neighboring states as well.

Aldo Leopold Day was observed March 1 at a gathering at the Fond du Lac Public Library to kick off the week of Aldo.

For those who don’t know the significance of Aldo Leopold, he is a Wisconsin man and a Badger State legacy with roots as deep and vibrant in our state as prairie blue stem, an acclaimed author and scientific writer, natural scientist, “evangelist of the environmental movement,” hunter, maker of bows and arrows, forester in the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico, an educator who was appointed in 1933 as professor in the newly created University of Wisconsin Department of Wildlife Management, first chairman of the department in 1939, devoted husband of Estella, and father of five children who have distinguished themselves in the field of natural resources.

Changing the world
In the cause of environmental issues, Leopold virtually changed the world with his writings and teachings that land is not merely a commodity but rather a community. He stressed that people are citizens of that “land community,” not just users and abusers of what the land has to offer.

In brilliantly written essays throughout his career and especially in “A Sand County Almanac,” published in 1949, he pointed out that humanity’s responsibility is to conserve and preserve, not exploit and destroy.

Sixty-seven years ago, Leopold composed the Foreword to his Sand County essays. He didn’t live long enough to see his book in print, but his words ring true as they peal across the decades: “But wherever the truth may lie,” he wrote, “this much is crystal clear: our bigger and better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.”

Almost 50 years before Leopold’s words, President Theodore Roosevelt offered similar insights after viewing giant sequoias for the first time in his life.

Finding greater value
He saw greater value in the beauty of the “great monarchs of the woods” than in their so-called practical value as “house siding or decks or porches.” He said that “there is nothing more practical, in the end, than the preservation of beauty, than the preservation of anything that appeals to the higher emotions in mankind,” those aspects of life that can’t be enumerated with dollar signs.

In my estimation, Aldo Leopold had an eye for, and feel for, those higher emotions in mankind.

Teddy Roosevelt had those qualities too, I think, as they relate to the role of government, natural resources and interaction with the everyday citizen.

There’s an uplifting, cerebral, feel-good sense to Leopold essays such as “Thinking Like a Mountain,” “Good Oak,” “The Geese Return,” “Marshland Elegy” and “Back from the Argentine.”

I’d much prefer to write about those works and their significance in the long run, but there are topics much more pressing that deserve attention today.

They relate to natural resources in our state and the Wisconsin Idea that has formed the bedrock and guiding principle of the University of Wisconsin for more than a century, service to the state and its people, and the cornerstone of “sifting and winnowing” in search of truth that is part of our Wisconsin DNA.

Reason for concern
Gov. Scott Walker has submitted a proposed state biennial budget that raises the eyebrows of any clear-thinking citizen of this state.

Aldo Leopold must be figuratively sitting bolt upright in his grave as the potential impact of the budget plays out in discussions about the harm it could conceivably do.

I say “harm” because I don’t see any good in it for the regular citizen. Perhaps there is good for the governor in terms of more power for him and his supporters who focus their vision only on jobs, money and development at the expense of public service, research and betterment of the human condition.

A month ago in these pages we looked at the prospects for preservation of a number of prized parcels of Ledge property in Fond du Lac County to be saved in their natural state for posterity. The governor’s proposed budget would prevent such an effort by shutting down stewardship grants for more than a decade. Stewardship grants, named in honor of Gov. Warren Knowles (a Republican) and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (a Democrat) and other forms of state funding are crucial to the purchase of private land for the public’s benefit.

Erosion of power
In addition, the governor’s proposed budget would strip power from the state’s Natural Resources Board and make it an advisory body only, not the citizen policy-making board that it is today.

The origin of the Natural Resources Board can be traced to the Wisconsin Conservation Act of 1927 when a group of environmental giants of thought and action helped get a law passed that created a citizens’ board known as the Wisconsin Conservation Commission.

Among the leaders of the movement in 1927 and ’28 were Aldo Leopold; Haskell Noyes, who helped secure land for the Kettle Moraine State Forest; and William Aberg, who helped ensure continuation of timber growth and proper harvesting in the state.

As a result of their efforts and those of the legislature, citizens were appointed by the governor and served on the board as volunteers to establish policy for the state conservation agency. They served in the interests of fellow citizens and natural resources with no influence in the form of money, gifts, politics or votes. The name of the commission was changed in 1967 to the Natural Resources Board.

The governor already has the power to appoint the secretary of the Department of Natural Resources. That is power enough — some would say it is more than enough and such power should not be concentrated in the domain of just one person.

Prior to 1995 the Natural Resources Board selected the DNR secretary. The Tommy Thompson budget bill of 1995 took away the board’s ability to select the secretary. The post became a political appointment and provided the governor with greater political power.

It appears Gov. Walker’s budget proposal seeks even more power for the governor in the realm of natural resources and development related to business, land and mining to name a few.

What would he say?
I keep wondering to myself: What would Aldo Leopold do? What would he say about this?

Not only was Leopold a steward of the state’s resources, he was a UW professor and chairman of the university’s Department of Wildlife Management.

He knew firsthand what the Wisconsin Idea entailed and what it stood for. He taught it, he breathed it and he lived it.

The Wisconsin Idea is sacred to people of this state. In essence it says that the mission of the University of Wisconsin System is to improve the human condition, enhance people’s lives, search for truth for truth’s sake, reach out with knowledge to the people of the state, conduct research and provide public service.

A key aspect of the university’s mission statement is that the university extends beyond the classroom and the campus to include the entire state.

When I was a student I viewed the Wisconsin Idea as something even bigger — education and service to the nation and even beyond. I still see it that way.

A diminished Idea
Gov. Walker’s proposed budget includes a diminished view of the Wisconsin Idea. It includes changes in the “purpose and mission statement.”

The budget also includes a proposed massive cut of $300 million over two years to the UW System.

The governor’s budget apparently seeks to concentrate greater effort and less resources for the university in favor of the “the state’s workforce needs.”

It seems to me that interest in dollars sometimes overpowers the interest in concepts that matter more.

I know Aldo Leopold would agree.

In the weeks since Gov. Walker’s budget was unveiled, there has been an uproar of sorts about its potential impact on the state’s natural resources and the mission statement of the university system.

Walker eventually chalked up the furor about the Wisconsin Idea to a language drafting error by a subordinate.

In effect, he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. It was just a mistake by an underling. The language will be corrected.’

I find that really hard to swallow.

The proposed budget will be debated in the months to come. Changes will be made — hopefully changes for the greater good.

A need for respect
Aldo Leopold was an accomplished man of science and a respected man of letters. That is a rare combination in this world of ours.
We need more people like him.

And we need to respect what he and others accomplished and make sure those accomplishments aren’t cast into the waste pile created by unnecessary tax and funding cuts, excessive borrowing, over-development of land, fouled resources and greater political power at the expense of qualities of greater value in the long run.

Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.

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