3 min read

The retired “civic environmentalist” talks to Michael E. Hartmann and Daniel P. Schmidt about Aldo Leopold, the Land Ethic, and the Sand County Foundation he led for more than three decades.

One of us, who shall remain nameless, was seated in a shuttle bus from one point to another next to Brent Haglund many years ago. There were beautiful, majestic, snow-capped mountains next to the American West highway on which we were driving. The anonymous suburbanite one of us remarked that it would be nice to live by mountains, but that maybe it would get a little boring after a while, given that the view doesn’t really change all that much.

Haglund is far too nice a human being to ever say anything negative about anybody, but he looked—well, he looked like that was the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. Consistent with his innate kindness, he patiently explained how that mountain, as all land, changed every day. It was fragile and required care, preferably from a knowledgeable manager who, well, loved and respected it. So too all the animals that relied on its existence in various ways, including wildlife and we humans, who may derive economic benefit from the environment of which it’s a part.

It was a teaching moment, and Haglund—as always, gently—taught. The one of us learned, as did the other from Haglund, too, at different times in different places. Then the one of us and he had fun at the Sand County Foundation (SCF) reception to which were being shuttled. (The other wasn’t there.)

Haglund retired in 2017, after having served nearly 30 years as chief executive officer of SCF, headquartered in Madison, Wis. Now led by Kevin McAleese, SCF effectuates the thinking and teaching of environmentalist Aldo Leopold—the University of Wisconsin professor who authored 1949’s A Sand County Almanac, a classic text of the environmental movement. Through the book and throughout his life, Leopold led development of what he termed the Land Ethic, which focuses on the opportunities and responsibilities for human management and enhancement of healthy, viable, and self-renewing ecosystems of land, plants, and animals.

Adhering to the Land Ethic and describing some of SCF’s programs, Haglund’s 2005 book Hands-On Environmentalism—co-authored with Tom Still—overviews a “civic environmentalism” based on local control, personal responsibility, government accountability, and economic opportunity.

Haglund was kind enough to speak with us last week. The 13-minute video below is the first of two parts of our discussion; the second is here. In the first part, we talk about Leopold, the Land Ethic, and some of SCF’s specific projects.

Schmidt and Hartmann (top row) and Haglund (bottom)

“Leopold was a practitioner of science—that is, measuring things,” Haglund tells us. Leopold “reached out to community, which I would call civil society, and above all, he was committed to the individual—that is, one person responsible for improving the health of the environment. I’d say that's a package deal.” He also understood “that for people to stay on the land and to keep their families their and the community strong, they needed to make money.”

Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac “is one of the two most-influential books in the environmental field and the sales are going up. They’re in the several millions of copies,” according to Haglund. (The other book is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.)

There is no actual Sand County. It’s Leopold’s “use of a metaphor,” Haglund says. It

comes out of what were called the sand counties of Wisconsin. Wisconsin had been glaciated. There is a vast expanse that was sandy, because it had been a glacial lake, and it was bad farmland. It just was a place to go farm and go broke … So it’s a metaphor of bad country for farming that people with ingenuity, creativity, freedom, and ownership can bring back.

In the conversation’s second part, Haglund talks about the Green New Deal, some successes of conservative environmentalism, and the perils of polarized philanthropic funding of environmental activity.

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