John Weiss: Winona family is guided by Aldo Leopold's passion

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Tex Hawkins and his niece, Piper Donlin, talk about Arthur Hawkins, his dad and her grandfather, before Donlin gave a talk in Rochester about saving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

On June 4 at Forager Brewing Company in Rochester, Piper Donlin of the Twin Cities gave an impassioned plea to hunters and anglers to help save the Boundary Waters Canoe Area from sulfide mining.

In the audience — smiling, proud and agreeing totally — was her uncle Art "Tex" Hawkins of Winona. He said his father — Donlin's grandfather, Art Hawkins — would have been proud of her, too. In fact, he would have been right there in the middle of the fight, because his dad was a pioneer, a giant in the conservation field. Protecting things wild and beautiful was what his life was all about.

Art was one of the first graduate students of the famed Aldo Leopold, who wrote THE conservation classic "A Sand County Almanac." Art worked directly with Leopold, was his friend and together they did some of the basic work that shaped conservation today.

In this area, his claim to fame was being at Silver Lake on a bitter winter day in 1962 when he and others discovered that the giant Canada goose subspecies, thought to be extinct for 30 years, was alive and flying around Rochester.

Three generations


On June 4, before the talk, I chatted with Tex and Piper about Art. I got a snapshot of American conservation history since the 1930s. It's a story more of us should know about, not only to recognize the names but also to know more about the pioneers. We have made gains in wetland protection because of people like Art. We will keep making gains because of people like Piper.

Let's start with the grandpa.

Tex said his dad, who died in 2006 at age 92, went to Canada when Tex was a baby and spent several summers there studying waterfowl, a study that that would become his life's work.

He, Leopold and Al Hochbaum founded Delta Waterfowl , an organization that has become a leader in waterfowl research. Art and others came up with the system of using transects and aerial surveys, along with ground surveys, to count waterfowl. These methods were first employed about 65 years ago and are still being used.

"His huge, huge mark was the flyway system for managing waterfowl," Tex said. "It was based on science." They used foot, cars and airplanes to do that work that is the basis for setting limits we hunters have every year for ducks and geese. "It is the largest and probably the most long-standing wildlife management program in the world," he said.

Fulfilling Leopold's vision

What drove his dad, other wildlife pioneers and people like Tex and Donlin today, is nature. "Like so many other naturalists, he was driven by an intense love of nature and outdoors," Tex said. "He was driven by the need to fulfill Leopold's vision," because Leopold died much too young in 1948. "It was an emotional time for all the biologists," said Tex, who was too young to recall knowing Leopold.

"The nice thing about grandpa was his ability to simplify ecology and phenology," Piper said. "He was so passionate about teaching. He taught us to read signs (in nature) so early." For example, what does a wing print and a drop of blood mean in the snow? It could have been that a hawk had made a meal of a mouse.


He would interrupt a meal when he would see something outside and just had to comment on it, teach something about it, she said.

"Every instance was something new," Tex said.

Two unusual habits were putting milk on ice cream and his love of stale cookies, Donlin said. About the cookies, she explained, "He didn't like to waste food."

When Tex drives around today and sees wetlands, he thinks about his father. "He fought to save wetlands and waterfowl," he said. In fact, one of his toughest battles was preserving a marsh near his Twin Cities home from development. Despite lawsuits, he won that battle.

He had a passionate interest in the wilderness, Donlin explained. He helped start the first Earth Day.

In a Vimeo video, Art talked about his career, how he grew up in New York and later came to the Midwest where he met Leopold and others, and developed his love of all things wild. He agreed that developing the system for estimating the number of ducks and geese was a milestone in his long career. He also helped develop the first wood duck boxes, he said.

"All things considered, I guess I have contributed," he said.

A federal Waterfowl Production Area was named in his honor near the town of Herman in west-central Minnesota "on the edge of the agricultural desert," Tex said.


Human rights and conservation

Tex and Donlin are following in the Art's steps.

Tex has done extensive work consulting on environmental projects in Central and South America and later worked for the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Winona; he has since retired but has continued to be active in environmental, peace and human rights. That's where the environmental area is heading, "merging into peace, human rights and climate justice movements," he said. "There seems to be convergence around ecological awareness and shared values."

"I have found it impossible not to continue going back to wild places I love," he said.

Donlin is deeply involved in the Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters that is fighting to stop a proposal to mine copper in the BWCA watershed and create sulfide. A spill could contaminate the BWCA and the nearby Quetico and Voyageurs National Park.

She was the main speaker at the June 4 meeting, laying out the problem and calling on people in this region to get involved. "We need voices," she said. She called on people to look at what the giants like Sigurd Olson did years ago and continue the fight. "It's our turn," she said.

She said it was her grandpa who inspired her. "I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for grandpa," she said.

Her grandpa "would have been really proud of Piper," Tex said. "She is our hope. It's up to the next generation."


Join the fight

If you want to see and hear more about the life of Arthur Hawkins, there's a good vimeo video at

An update on the BWCA battle. The U.S. Forest Service announced this week that it is considering denying Twin Metals' request to renew two expired mineral mining leases on the edge of the BWCA, according to Scott Hed of Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters.

The final decision won't be made until there is a chance for public input. The group is calling on hunters and anglers to contact the forest service to make the denial permanent. Go to the group's web site and you can sign the petition.

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