Conservation center harkens back to Aldo Leopold
BURLINGTON, Iowa — One year ago, a group of local conservationists bought Aldo Leopold's childhood home with the hope of turning it into some sort of education center.
Now the group has its eye on the neighboring Starker House, and its plans have grown much larger. The group envisions the two houses as a home base for conservation, non-government organizations and wildlife agencies across the country — the kind of place Leopold would have worked at if he lived in the modern era.
"Since most of Leopold's activities in Burlington have to do with his childhood and teenage years, this is where we can have a new understanding of him," Steve Browersaid.
Brower, Jerry Rigdon, Dave Riley and Cliff Reif — all of Burlington — formed a nonprofit group called the Leopold Landscape Alliance when they purchased Aldo Leopold's childhood home, 111 Clay St., last year, and they have three clear visions for the property and the adjacent Starker House:
• An environmental studies and research residency program used for studying the natural sciences and the humanities, which would be accomplished by using Leopold's writings to study the relationship between humans and nature in today's society. The residency program will be open to individuals, colleges, agencies and non-governmental organizations.
• To interpret the Starker-Leopold family conservation legacy on the home grounds and in the region where Leopold began to realize the importance of the biotic community to include people.
• A collection center for information and conservation help for private land owners in the region.
He stressed the property will be more than a museum. It will be a center for workshop activities that educate children and young people about Leopold's significance in the conservation movement.
"We formed this group around the idea of celebrating Leopold in his birth city while advancing his philosophy," Rigdon said.
Leopold, who was born in 1887 in Burlington, was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation.
His essays about nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the environmental movement, and he was a founder of the science of wildlife management.
Although Leopold is a nationally recognized figure now, that wasn't always the case. His work only recently hit the spotlight, thanks in part to a U.S. Forest Service documentary detailing his life and growing renown for his seminal book, "A Sand County Almanac."
"We could use it (the house) as a historic site for interpretation of Leopold and his land ethic," Brower said. "We've had a lot of visitors from outside Burlington who have come and looked over this idea, and they thought it was a good time to make it happen. In addition, we could use the house as a guest facility for researchers and artists — people who are working on Leopold projects."
Leopold lived at 111 Clay St. from its completion in 1889 until the 1900 death of his grandfather, when, according to Curt Meine's biography, the Leopolds moved into the Starker house next door.
But the house remained in the family until after the death of Frederic Leopold, Aldo's brother, in 1989. It was where Fred, youngest of the Leopold children, would practice his own, local efforts as a naturalist.
"Because Aldo was such an influential historical figure in conservation," Meine wrote, "we sometimes forget that Fred and so many others in the family were every bit as much a part of the family legacy in Burlington."
As Aldo Leopold's writings have become more widely known, the house has received more attention.
About 70 biologists with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and representatives from the National Resources Conservation Service recently stopped in Burlington to take a look at the properties.
"Much of the basis for his (Leopold's) concern about wild places and human values grew from childhood discoveries in the Burlington area — the bluffs, rocky ravines, islands, bottom lands on both sides of the Mississippi and the sand prairie-black jack oak savannah of Illinois," Brower said.
It's not just the Leopold Houses that are a national resource. Even the trees that stood in the yard are a valuable teaching tool.
Members of the Leopold Heritage Group, which was formed well before the Leopold Landscape Alliance, have coined a new term for the massive trees that used to decorate the yards of the Leopold homes in Burlington.
They call it "legacy wood" and are quick to point out God isn't making any more of it.
That's because the famed conservationist planted one of the trees himself, and he died more than 65 years ago.
"I keep telling people this is a non-renewable resource," Brower said.
The trees toppled during a severe thunderstorm two years ago and were hauled to the defunct ice house on Osborn Street during the citywide storm cleanup.
The Leopold Group thought the trees had too much historical value to be mixed with the other lumber and invited Leopold's great-nephew, Nelson Smith, to Burlington to help saw the timber.
The U.S. Forest Service already has purchased a log that measured 5 feet in diameter, and the Leopold Group has received queries from local woodcarvers.
The Tallgrass National Preserve in Kansas bought an 11-foot long piece of Leopold wood that weighed 10,000 pounds, and pieces of the wood have been sent to Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute in Montana and the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
"They (the Forestry Service) were really tickled with it," Brower said. "They're going to make a cookie slice, so you can count the rings. They're going to cut one for us as well."