Leopold Shack: newest national landmark

Preserve and protect, or expand and improve? How hard it is to do all in the name of progress.

Call it human nature to take cherished places for granted until we feel their survival is endangered, but sometimes real or perceived threats become excellent catalysts to nurture and nudge plans into positive directions.

Forty places in Wisconsin are a National Historic Landmark, the highest U.S. honor bestowed on people-powered endeavors.

The newest, dedicated this spring, was nutrient-exhausted farmland 75 years ago, bought by a university professor as hunting grounds.

The land purchase ended up transforming the owner, the property and the way we think about the interplay between people and nature. We would begin looking at land as a community, not merely a commodity to be used and abused.

The man was environmentalist Aldo Leopold. The once-wasted farmland today holds thousands of pines and restored prairie habitat. The work molded the philosophy and principles for Leopold’s 1949 “A Sand County Almanac,” still regarded as a bible for conservationists.

The Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, 264 acres that border the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, “possess exceptional value in interpreting the American experience,” said Steve Adams of the National Park Service, during the site’s recent dedication as a national landmark.

It was here that Leopold realized restoration of land health would be his lifelong goal and legacy. It also involved family commitment. As daughter Nina Leopold Bradley explains, the Shack (a restored chicken coop) “was as close to nothing as you could get” but also “a place of great love and respect.”

The area “represents a pattern of plantings and series of significant decisions that Leopold made,” says Susan Flader, environmental historian. “This is a place of extraordinary integrity … of visions, of processes … and family investment over time.” Thousands of family photos and pages of writing document the transformation of this land.

Distinction as a national landmark “puts conservation on the same playing field as liberty and justice as a value” to uphold, notes Buddy Huffaker, Aldo Leopold Foundation executive director.

Work to designate the area as a national landmark kicked in during planning for the Leopold Legacy Center, which houses administrative offices, workshop spaces and a visitor center.

“It all correlates to the configuration of this facility,” Buddy explains. “We wanted to be respectful of the area’s character” and create “a gateway to the Shack” that would “help mitigate overuse of a pretty exceptional site that has undergone only minimal changes, physically, since Leopold’s time.”

Sandy soils and a lack of paved trails have made it hard to maintain areas near the Shack. “We want to keep it rustic and original in character,” Buddy says, but it’s been a challenge to both welcome and monitor travelers who are unsure of what to do upon arrival.

The Leopold Legacy Center, which opened in 2007, helps visitors learn more about the conservationist in a modern building that is made of Leopold pine trees and, fittingly, certified at the highest level – platinum – that the U.S. Green Building Council allows through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.

The new building was deemed greenest in the nation when LEED certification was announced.

“Green Fire,” a documentary about Leopold’s life and how his legacy continues to inspire conservation, next year will be shown at film festivals and aired on public television stations around Earth Day.

The title refers to a Leopold tale where he described the eyes of a dying wolf that he regretted shooting as a young man in Apache National Forest, Arizona.

Combined tours of the Leopold Shack and Leopold Legacy Center, E13701 Levee Rd., Baraboo, occur 1-4:15 p.m. Saturdays, May 29 to Oct. 23, unless a private event is scheduled. The cost is $15 (less for children, senior citizens); reservations are recommended.

Free, self-guided touring also is possible, as are self-guided tours with in-depth materials ($7 per person). For more: www.aldoleopold.org, 608-355-0279.

In Madison is another story of preservation efforts that accelerated in conjuction with a need to change and expand. Frank Lloyd Wright was among the early members of my faith community, First Unitarian Society, whose original Meeting House was designed by the wily architect and completed in 1951.

By the turn of this century, it was clear that we were outgrowing our church, because of a significant and constant growth in membership, so discussion began about whether to expand or relocate. Friends of the Meeting House hastened work to ensure the integrity, preservation and future of the original structure, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2004.

And the expansion? It’s LEED certified at the gold level because the congregation kept as its priorities Wright’s love of organic architecture – structural design that blends respectfully with nature – and the desire to be authentically sustainable.

Plants fill our roof. Low-flush toilets save water. Geothermal heating and cooling systems cut energy costs. Huge windows lessen the need for artificial lighting. Everything – ventilation systems to dish-washing practices – involves eco-deliberate design.

First Unitarian Society, 900 University Bay Dr., Madison, is among the largest Unitarian-Universalist congregations in the world. For more: www.fusmadison.org, 608-233-6079. Tours occur at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. daily, May to Oct. 31. The cost is a $10 donation per person; groups of 10 or more need a reservation.

Tours usually are offered all year on Sundays, after the 9 and 11 a.m. worship services.

Less than 2,500 sites nationwide are National Historic Landmarks. In Wisconsin, the list of 40 includes Taliesin, Spring Green, and the Pabst Theater, Milwaukee. Look for more details at www.nps.gov/nhl, the National Park Service website.