Conservationist Aldo Leopold honored in full-length documentary ‘Green Fire’

Jessica Cabe

Imagine an NIU without trees, fluffy little squirrels fattening up for the winter or a view of Eco Park out the windows on the west side of campus. It sounds like a sorry place to live but could have become a reality without the theories of Aldo Leopold andother conservationists.

A screening of the first full-length high definition documentary ever made about conservationist Aldo Leopold, Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, will be held 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Terwilliger Auditorium of Montgomery Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

Leopold, considered the father of wildlife ecology, was born in Burlington, Iowa in 1887. He earned a degree in forestry at Yale University then joined the U.S. Forest Service. It was his work in the Arizona and New Mexico Territories that inspired his concept of community in nature, which became one of his biggest contributions as a conservationist.

“We face many conservation challenges today, and so much of the discussion is couched in economic or utilitarian terms rather than in terms of our deeper values and ethics,” said Jeannine Richards, associate producer of Green Fire. “Leopold’s idea was that we need to take care of the land because it is the right thing to do, and we need to make decisions that are consistent with that value.”

In 1924, Leopold was transferred to Wisconsin, and four years later, he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin. He wrote two books, Game Management and A Sand County Almanac before dying of a heart attack while fighting a wildfire on his neighbor’s property.

The idea for Green Fire sprouted from another documentary about the Forest Service, Richards said. During the filming of that documentary, interest grew in Aldo Leopold’s story.

“They realized that the Leopold story was rich enough to be its own film and approached the Aldo Leopold Foundation to see if there was interest in collaborating on a future documentary project,” Richards said.

A team was assembled to start working on the Leopold documentary.

“We spent about two years filming, traveling all over the country, talking to people and organizations who have been inspired by Aldo Leopold’s idea of a land ethic,” Richards said. “The final film weaves those stories together with Leopold’s own history.”

Melissa Burlingame, program coordinator for the NIU Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy, said bringing the film screening to the college was a group effort.

“I first heard of it last spring when Kishwaukee Community College showed it,” Burlingame said. She worked with a member of Citizens for a Sustainable DeKalb County who has a license to show the film.

Burlingame believes the screening is an important event for college students.

“It’s a very good documentary that shows how ideas from 70 to 80 years ago are still relevant today,” Burlingame said.

While the environment became a hot topic years ago with the growing research in climate change, Richards believes fewer people are truly in touch with nature as they were in Leopold’s time.

“Many people have no direct connection to the natural world on a daily basis, and that makes it harder to engender the kind of caring and love for the land that was the basis for Leopold’s philosophy,” she said.

Groups like Citizens for a Sustainable DeKalb County and the NIU Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability and Energy are fighting that disconnection from nature through unique projects and events such as this screening.

“It’s inspiring to see conservation becoming a community-based effort in so many places,” Richards said.