Sometimes we need a new voice to remind us of the things we already know - somebody who will put it into a story that can inspire and motivate us. I felt that way this winter when I heard Bill Sproul speak to a group of landowners and farmers at Arlington.
Sproul and his family own and operate Sproul Ranch near Sedan, where the Flint Hills give way to the Chautauqua Hills of southern Kansas. When they purchased the land, the tallgrass prairie was overgrazed and quickly being overtaken with invasive tree species.
Sproul, his wife, Peggy, and their kids worked hard to restore the prairie grass and control the trees - sometimes in partnership with state and federal agencies, but usually on their own dime and with hard management choices that gave results down the road. Their curiosity and interest in learning led them to participate in a breeding-bird survey with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. Their willingness to try new, progressive practices led them to implement patch burning, where only a third of the pastures are burned annually, on a rotational basis, to maintain wildlife habitat and spur vigorous grass growth.
All this thought and work was the basis for recognition the family received in 2015 when they became the first recipients of the Kansas Leopold Conservation Award. This award comes with a $10,000 cash prize and “celebrates extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation by private landowners.”
When Sproul spoke to these landowners in early February, he noted the writings of Aldo Leopold, the namesake of the Leopold award. Aldo Leopold was a conservationist, philosopher, writer and landowner who initiated his own restoration project on a worn-out farm in Wisconsin back in the 1930s. Leopold is perhaps best known for his call for a “land ethic” – a sort of social conscience that guides us in relation to our land and other living things.
In particular, Leopold inspired Bill Sproul and others to see the natural world “as a community to which we belong.” Sproul noted that his ranch management didn’t go so well when he was focused solely on profit. When he began to implement management that considered the entire community of species on the ranch, his work became stronger and more effective. And life was more enjoyable.
But not only did Sproul talk about appreciating “the community”; he called on other landowners to go beyond the minimum that needs to be done regarding conservation. As Leopold said, “We asked the farmer to do what he conveniently could to save his soil, and he has done just that, and only that.”
This is why I wince when I hear the hackneyed phrase “Farmers are the original environmentalists,” as if by making our living from the land we are automatically good at caring for it. That’s like saying all parents are the best advocates for children. We know there are mothers and fathers who have done terrible things to their kids. Sometimes farmers, who might otherwise be good people, do terrible things to their land. It might be because we don’t know a better way. Sometimes we think we just can’t afford to do it right. Sometimes we’re not willing to open our eyes to new ideas. That’s why it’s important to recognize and celebrate people like Bill Sproul.
So here’s to Aldo Leopold and to Bill Sproul and to the next winner of the Kansas Leopold Award. Nominations are being taken now. If you aren’t worthy of a nomination, what’s the barrier? I look forward to the day when we are all “extraordinary” conservationists.
Lisa French is project coordinator for Cheney Lake Watershed Inc.