Aldo Leopold and the Coon Valley watershed conservation project

Driving through western Wisconsin, you might come across the small town of Coon Valley. With its contour plowing, strip crops and woodlots, and cold brooks full of trout, the landscape looks healthy and happy today. But had you traveled through town 90 years ago, the picture would have been much different.

By the 1920s, farming methods that were poorly adapted for the steep slopes of the area led to massive soil erosion in the valley. The woodlots were heavily grazed. The cropping systems of the time left the soil bare for many months, and plowing methods created deep furrows down the slopes. Heavy rains came and washed soil downhill creating enormous gullies that tore up farmland.

Coon Valley in 1955

An entire team helped change the landscape of Coon Valley from one of destruction to one of conservation. Several hundred farmers, specialists and technicians, and young men from the Civilian Conservation Corps worked to implement a plan that would restore the valley. And one man in particular provided the vision that made such a revolutionary project possible – Aldo Leopold.

Leopold, often called the father of the American conservation movement, is best known for his work in wildlife conservation and his book A Sand County Almanac. Throughout his life, Leopold spread his conservation messages across the country as he witnessed the decline of wildlife and the destruction of landscapes, and as he interacted with landowners. As a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, his long-standing interest in watersheds and soil conservation was put to good use in Coon Valley. It was there that he was able to try out his ideas about watershed restoration and conservation on private lands, says Curt Meine, Leopold’s biographer and narrator of the movie Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time.

Leopold was born in Burlington, Iowa in 1887, and several factors during his childhood would prove important in shaping his lifelong passion for conservation. First, natural resources – including fish, wildlife, and forests – were being exploited and depleted across the Midwest in the late 1880s. Unsound farming practices would lead to many disastrous outcomes, including the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. As he experienced these detrimental changes around him, though, Leopold also found positive influences. His parents instilled in him a curiosity about the natural world, and his father taught him a love of hunting and the outdoors. Additionally, Theodore Roosevelt, noted for his efforts to make conservation a national issue, was sworn in as President of the United States.

“Leopold was 14 years old when Roosevelt became president. He really became an adult during the first wave of the conservation movement,” says Meine. “All of those things in his childhood contributed to his awareness of conservation issues.”

Aldo Leopold in 1942

After graduating from the Yale School of Forestry, Leopold joined the Forest Service and began working in the American Southwest. It was there that he first saw the effects human activity could have on soils.

“He witnessed a landscape that had gone through rapid change in a short time with intensive cattle ranching spreading into the Southwest and wreaking havoc on the watersheds,” explains Meine.

That period of overgrazing led to massive soil erosion and watershed disruption, and Leopold became consumed by the question of whether the erosion he was seeing was “normal” or was instead worsened by human activity. He decided that no matter what the cause, soil erosion was an issue that had to be recognized, addressed, and reversed.

After careful analysis of the streams and soils and their responses to human land use, Leopold began to put his observations to work. He collaborated with ranchers to find ways to slow the process of erosion and instead keep soils in place. In his efforts, he began to create a watershed consciousness shared by foresters, ranchers, and others in the area. He also wrote a landmark document, one of the first manuals to address soil erosion, the Forest Service’s Watershed Handbook.

“His work led to his becoming very conscious of watersheds and the interaction of soils, water, and vegetation,” says Meine. “He was a real pioneer, gathering data on the ecological history of the landscape, describing the effects of human use, and fostering ideas about how we could adjust practices to address problems.”

After his work in the southwest, Leopold undertook a wildlife survey throughout the Midwest. This survey gave him a regional perspective on the history of land use and agriculture, and he took that knowledge to Wisconsin and into Coon Valley. There he joined Hugh Hammond Bennett and others involved in the soil conservation efforts.

Bennett on farm 1946

Bennett, a soil surveyor with the USDA, had studied soils across the nation and overseas, and he had seen firsthand the destruction of soils and waterways. He believed that soil erosion was one of the most urgent problems of the time, and his crusade for soil conservation eventually paid off. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Bennett as director of the Soil Erosion Service, later renamed the Soil Conservation Service. (The Soil Conservation Service was the forerunner of today’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.) Bennett recruited a team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, including Leopold, and proposed Coon Valley as an ideal site for a conservation effort due to its location and the perception that the landowners would perhaps be more cooperative there than elsewhere. The first watershed project in the nation was born.

In Coon Valley, erosion had ruined much of the topsoil, and gullies were growing throughout the watershed. Grazing was pushed higher and higher up the hillsides, and crops were being grown in areas that were once used as pastures. The land use made it difficult for rainwater to absorb into the soil. Instead water ran down the hills, flushing out the soil, filling the valleys, and making Coon Creek wide, shallow, and too warm for the trout that once lived in it. These were the conditions facing the team as they began efforts to rescue the 92,000-acre watershed.

“Leopold’s great contribution was seeing the need to integrate different approaches to land conservation,” says Meine. “For him it wasn’t only a matter of keeping the soil in place. Also important was the role of water, the forests, the wildlife, the agricultural productivity, in addition to the economic and social factors.”

Leopold and the rest of the conservation team had a big job in front of them – they had to find a way to conserve the soil, water, and entire ecosystem while increasing farm income. This balance was necessary to get the farmers to buy in to the project and agree to the required five-year plan. While the government would provide free seeds, fencing, and other supplies along with much of the labor, getting farmers to sign an agreement with the government was difficult. Leopold fully recognized the need for their cooperation, and through the efforts of Bennett and the rest of the team, 418 of 800 farmers signed up within the first year and a half.

“Leopold knew how important it was to have everybody involved in watershed restoration programs,” explains Meine. “The landowners, the farmers, all different groups had to be brought together to make it work.”

Bennet at Coon Valley site

Growing up in Iowa’s agricultural landscape, Leopold was comfortable working with farmers, and he was committed to involving the community. He was a firm believer in the idea that conservation could not be done simply by government agencies but instead had to be spearheaded by private landowners, especially ranchers and farmers. Throughout his career, Leopold worked to build bridges between the conservation and agricultural worlds. Coon Valley is a prime example of the benefits of partnerships with farmers and landowners, and the lessons learned there have led to continued success in restoration efforts.

“Leopold understood that farmers and ranchers were responding to different priorities, but that conservation involved shared values and shared benefits. Leopold believed that while agriculture had created problems, it also could – and had to be – an important part of the solution,” says Meine.

From the forests of the southwest to Coon Valley and beyond, a central message in Leopold’s work was the need to incorporate multiple interests and aspects to restore and preserve land health. Land health, as he described it, was “the capacity for the self-renewal” of soils, waters, plants, and animals. This concept was Leopold’s way of giving conservation an integrated view – incorporating all of the resources, together with people, to fully understand the interactions needed to restore lands.

In an address given in 1939 entitled “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” Leopold sums up the beneficial effects of such a strategy. “When the land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land – when both end up better by reason of their partnership – then we have conservation.” Ideas such as this demonstrate the lasting relevance of Leopold’s conservation efforts. His messages are as important today as they were in Coon Valley 80 years ago.

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