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Visitors savor a rare peek into ecologist’s home

Susan Montoya Bryan
AP Writer

Tres Piedras, N.M. — The pitter-patter was nonstop and the children were almost breathless as they raced across the wooden floors, up the stairs and from room to room, poking their heads into every nook and cranny. They wanted a good look because this wasn’t just any old house.

It was designed and built nearly a century ago at the edge of the Tres Piedras ranger district by famed ecologist Aldo Leopold. The father of the modern conservation movement, Leopold is known for helping to establish the nation’s first wilderness area and for changing the way people think about their relationship to the land.

The U.S. Forest Service on Friday opened Leopold’s home to the public as part of the 100th anniversary of his arrival in the Southwest. A busload of fourth- and fifth-graders was on hand along with conservationists, sportsmen and curious locals.

Anthony Anella, co-chair of the Aldo Leopold Centennial Celebration, said it’s a shame few people know who Leopold was, “because Aldo Leopold’s concepts, in particular his land ethic, are as relevant today as when he wrote them over half a century ago.”

Leopold died in 1948, just before publication of his landmark book, A Sand County Almanac, in which he called for a new land ethic to guide humans in dealing with nature. His ethic stemmed from his experiences with the Forest Service in Arizona and New Mexico in the early part of the 20th century.

After graduating from the Yale Forest School in 1909, he took his first job with the agency in Arizona and was later appointed supervisor of the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, home to the Tres Piedras district.

It was here at the base of a towering granite outcropping that a young Leopold decided to build a new forest supervisor’s house, which he and his soon-to-be wife would call “Mia Casita.” He placed it so the porch faced east across a valley of sagebrush that stretched to the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.

The view would be spectacular, but Leopold’s fiancee had a special request — a big fireplace to scare off the winter.

“So the love he had for her, he built her a huge fireplace,” Benjamin Romero, the current Tres Piedras district ranger, said during the open house.

The fireplace, along with the rest of the home, was refurbished a couple of years ago under Romero’s direction. Windows were replaced, the electrical wiring and plumbing were redone and decades of paint were scraped away until workers got to what they believed was the original color — a milk chocolate brown.

Patrick Webber, a Leopold aficionado and retired biology professor, proclaimed the home “absolutely wonderful” after his visit Friday.

“It’s important for the local people to appreciate this legacy that remains here, and I’m hoping that before long this really will be open to the broader public on a regular basis,” he said.

The house is closed to the public — with the exception of Friday’s celebration and the occasional private tour — but Romero has dreams of turning it into a place where writers, artists and others interested in conservation can stay and learn about Leopold.

In the meantime, Romero will continue to check on the house and enjoy the view from the porch. There, he said, he can dream about what it would have been like to be alive in Leopold’s time when the only options for getting around were train or horseback.

“I would have loved to have lived it, to have been a part of that back then because it was just really about the land,” Romero said.

Anella agreed.

“Today I think there is a disconnect,” Anella said, “and Leopold reminds us that in fact we are connected and we ought to take care of the environment out of self-interest, if nothing else.”

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