Preserving the Local Legacy of a Conservation Icon

Do you know where the “Father of wildlife management” was born?

If you guessed right here in Burlington, Iowa, you’d be correct.

Did you guess right? If not, don’t feel bad. Most people get it wrong. After all, how would you have known?

The life and legacy of Aldo Leopold is not generally a big topic in history books. And aside from some displays at the local nature center, library, or welcome center, there are no permanently established or dedicated places around town to even go and learn about the man that, according to the Wikipedia page on him, “…had a profound impact on the environmental movement.”

Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace is a National Historic Site. Mark Twain’s birthplace is a Missouri State Historic Site. Heck, even Elvis’s birthplace is a museum, and he only lived there for the first few years of his life before his parents could no longer afford the place and had to move.

Granted, Leopold’s legacy is well preserved in Wisconsin where he spent much of his adult life studying, teaching, and writing about man’s connection to the land. Many of those essays were later published in the book, A Sand County Almanac, which has sold millions of copies.

But here in Burlington, the very place where he began to develop the philosophies that have influenced modern environmental ethics, there is no museum, no tourist attraction for those millions of students of Leopold’s “Land Ethic” philosophy.

Well, not yet at least.

But that will eventually change thanks to a local group of dedicated volunteers. They’ve formed a nonprofit organization called the Leopold Landscape Alliance (LLA) which will support Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic" by drawing attention to the Leopold childhood homes and natural areas in Iowa and Illinois that contributed to the development of his early years and later philosophy.

The group’s first mission is to acquire and preserve the historic Leopold estate high up on the bluff overlooking downtown and the Mississippi River. The estate consists of two adjacent properties, both of which feature beautiful houses. The LLA has acquired the first one, Leopold’s childhood home, through a mix of fundraising, bank financing, and a willing seller. The second property, the Leopold-Starker house, is where Leopold was actually born and where he lived from 1887 to 1890 and from 1900 to 1909. For that, much more fundraising is needed.

The Starker-Leopold house. Photo credit: Leopold Landscape Alliance
This project is a point of both personal and professional interest. One of my best friends from middle and high school grew up in the Leopold/Starker house (Leopold’s grandparents were the Starkers that are memorialized in various ways around town, most notably in Crapo Park), so growing up, I spent a fair bit of time there. My friend’s parents, who I still consider family friends, still own the place and are working with the LLA on this project.

Interestingly, it was my time spent there that first piqued my interest in the writings of Aldo Leopold, having at some point heard some of the history of the place while visiting. Thus, it was in middle school that I first read A Sand County Almanac which I would re-read often during my ultimate quest for a career in the conservation profession. Maybe it was a bit of providence that my days spent as a youth tramping many of the same acres that Leopold had many years before were a primary driving force for my ultimate career decision.

Now, as fate would have it, I have the great fortune of presiding over the very county conservation department that now holds in public trust some of the very same landscapes that helped Leopold begin to develop his “Land Ethic” philosophy. Not surprisingly, that philosophy is a key component of my department’s award-winning and extensive conservation education programming here in Des Moines County.

The acquisition of the Starker-Leopold House and the preservation of the broader Leopold estate would secure a phenomenal resource for interpreting both the historic and conservation roots of one of the nation’s most renowned conservation figures. The estate would serve as an interpretive nucleus, expanding Leopold’s Land Ethic philosophy from his native ties to the Burlington region into the working agricultural landscapes and river valleys of southeast Iowa and surrounding areas.

Fittingly, the LLA’s second goal is to enhance, restore or acquire land for conservation projects within the watersheds of Iowa and Illinois along Pool 18 and 19 of the Mississippi River. In other words, beyond just preserving the actual estate where Leopold was born and raised, they also hope to apply his philosophies to conserving some of the very lands on which he roamed in his youth.

For more information about the Leopold Landscape Alliance, or to contribute to the local preservation of the Leopold legacy, go to

This piece was originally published in The Hawk Eye as part of my monthly "Living Land" column.