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Remembering and reinvigorating Aldo Leopold's land ethic in Riley, Wisconsin

April 13, 2011

Unbeknownst even to many Aldo Leopold enthusiasts, the small town of Riley, Wisconsin, played a key role in his promotion of cooperative community conservation.

Aldo Leopold stumbled upon Riley—about 20 miles southwest of Madison—in 1931 while on an expedition searching for a new place to hunt. After lamenting the lack of game with local farmer Reuben Paulson, who was likewise troubled by hunter trespass on his land, the need for game management in the community became more apparent. With the help of other Riley farmers and friends from the Madison area, the Leopold-Riley Game Cooperative was formed.

The cooperative served not only ecological benefits, but social ones as well. Summertime "tree planting bees" provided ground cover for pheasants and an opportunity for conversation over a shared meal. In the wintertime, city members reciprocated and hosted a meal for farm members. Leopold even involved graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who conducted censuses and experiments and helped to supervise plantings. The co-op continued until the 1960s, when it faded away and was almost forgotten.

Personal Connection

Janet Silbernagel, chair of the Nelson Institute Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development Program (CBSD) and associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental studies at UW-Madison, grew up in Riley. But it wasn't until a few years ago, while reading Leopold's essay "For the Health of the Land," that she learned of his work with the Riley Game Cooperative.

Aldo Leopold at Riley Game CooperativeAldo Leopold with dog Flick at the Riley Game Cooperative. Image courtesy Aldo Leopold Foundation.
Intrigued, Silbernagel began digging into the history of Riley and making contact with residents. Hope was born from these discussions that the old game cooperative could become a contemporary model of cooperative conservation and that the legacy of Leopold's work could be revived in the community.

Silbernagel would have her Spring 2011 CBSD graduate student seminar focus on Leopold's work, she decided—specifically, Leopold's work at Riley. The course objectives were two-fold: provide students with an opportunity to learn about community conservation while spreading awareness of Leopold's work among Riley community members and promoting dialogue.

The chance to screen "Green Fire," a recently released documentary about Leopold's career and environmental legacy, provided the perfect backdrop.

Igniting the Fire

On March 6, Riley residents Bill and Karen Weber, joined by Silbernagel and her CBSD graduate students, hosted a community screening of "Green Fire."

UW-Madison Professor Emeritus Stanley Temple, a Nelson Institute affiliate and senior fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, provided a brief introduction to the film and shared insights into its production. (The Aldo Leopold Foundation, the Center for Humans and Nature, and the U.S. Forest Service, for whom Leopold worked early in his career, produced the film.)

Green Fire showing at RileyJanet Silbernagel, left, and Stanley Temple, second from left, speak with Riley residents at the "Green Fire" showing. Photo credit Ryan Marsh.
Gene Roark, 2010 Wisconsin Land Conservationist of the Year recipient and advocate for the Leopold-Riley landscape, was also in attendance. He recounted personal stories of his father's friendship with Leopold and a memorable hunting experience with the naturalist at the Riley Game Cooperative.

In a post-movie discussion, several community members expressed interest in re-establishing community conservation and restoration projects in and around Riley. Local landowners suggested conservation easements and proposed restoration workdays to continue to protect the integrity of the ecological communities.

Reflecting upon these new prospects for the future of Riley, it seems that the film "Green Fire" accomplished what it set out to do: sparking a synergy for a land ethic and the need to continue these ideas in today's world.

Ultimately, the screening was a great success, paying tribute to Aldo Leopold while also bringing together members of a community he once brought together himself.

Our thanks to the students of Environmental Studies 976 for preparing this report: Brittany Bovard, Tiffany Grade, Ariel Larson, Ryan Marsh, Kristina Nixon, Megan Pulver, Amanda Reichertz Goetsch, Holly Robertson, Myles Robinson, Kristin Marie Russo, Catherine Sieffert, Stacy Taeuber, Zachary Voyles and Rebecca Zulueta.