March 01, 2016

The Back Page: The Report on Huron Mountain Club

Jonathan Scoll

The year was 1937, and the elite Huron Mountain Club was concerned about declining wildlife in its 15,000-acre old-growth forest bordering Lake Michigan. It sought the help of a fifty-year-old professor of game management at the University of Wisconsin named Aldo Leopold.

Leopold’s Report on Huron Mountain Club (1938) remains unpublished but can be found in the University of Wisconsin’s online Leopold archive. Beyond occupying a landmark place in resource management history, it resonates more broadly even today as an instructive example of innovative thinking and a call to citizen initiative, coalition-building, and fact-grounded environmental advocacy.

The problem at the Club, Leopold saw, was that dense climax stands of maple and hemlock had shaded out sunlight for food plants, wildflowers, and songbirds. But even this outwardly “virgin” wilderness had already been altered by pine logging, fauna extermination, and non-native fish introduction. Because its ecology was no longer purely “wild,” Leopold believed only active management, not hands-off “preservation,” would augment its animal and plant species.

Any plan, he contended, must consider the wilderness beyond the Club’s own boundaries. “The ‘deer fortunes’ of the Club,” he wrote, “are linked with those of its neighbors to an unpredictable but important extent.” Beyond such management cooperation, practical politics also counseled outreach to public-sector allies. The Club’s forest should become “a combination club and scientific area,” open to study by government agencies and regional universities.

One faction of Club members advocated killing wolves to increase the deer herd; another, with more “naturalist” inclination, favored artificial game feeding and strict forest conservation. A hunter and naturalist, Leopold sympathized with both, but his solution displeased each. He recommended selective logging to open up terrain in designated buffer tracts along the Club boundary, while a reserved interior area remained uncut. And to the consternation of some hunters and fishermen, his plan banned the killing of wolves and otter.

These were bold ideas, particularly as to predators. Long a supporter of wolf eradication, Leopold had come to recognize his mistake. In wilderness, wolves were essential to what he later termed “land health:” the capacity of a landscape for biotic self-renewal. By reducing deer browsing, they assisted natural sapling growth and forest reproduction.

Beyond his immediate task, Leopold saw informed citizen groups with soundly documented backing, not politicians or government agencies, as the drivers of change to predator policy. “By ‘backing,’” he wrote, “I do not mean abstract arguments, or sermons on ecological theory. I mean measured facts on deer and wolf populations . . .”

Leopold’s recommendations were implemented by the Club, which pursues them to this day. But his “measured facts” on predators met resistance by the wider hunting and farming public for years, before finally becoming wilderness management canon. Report on Huron Mountain Club makes useful reading for those engaged in today’s seemingly intractable environmental controversies.

Jonathan Scoll

Mr. Scoll is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment . He may be reached at jonscoll@gmail.com.