Akshay Warrier (2018)

Photo by James Burbank

Photo by James Burbank







When I was younger, I used to lay on my father’s lap on our green recliner chair, listening to the stories of his childhood. He told me about his life in India: running through the sea of paddy fields on the way to school, splashing barefooted through puddles filled with cool, clean, water, riding elephants during festivals and parades, and climbing coconut trees that kissed the sky. Every story was different, and they were all fantasies to me; worlds in which I could feel the pure bliss of nature – ones free of the oppressive weight of the modern world. At that age, the stories served me the same purpose as listening to bed-time stories or watching a movie, but now, these stories illustrate to me the reason that my father is so enamored by nature and its phenomena. His bond with nature was born of his experiences and upbringing in a world that emphasized a close connection to the environment. 

Today, if he is not working, helping me and my brother, or sleeping, my father is out in our garden. Whether he is under the intense gaze of the sun during the summer, or even the savage cold of the winter my father loves to go out into the garden and tend to his plants. He is constantly visiting nearby nurseries, department stores, and websites for information to optimize the plants’ conditions despite the weather. Even when he is not tending to our garden, his love for nature is evident as he is always the first person to point out the beauty of the New Mexican landscape or various household plants wherever he goes. However, despite all of his actions and the product of his work, his bond with nature is most accentuated by the attitude with which he interacts with nature. Every time I see him in the garden or among nature during hikes, or vacations, I see the pure joy he garners just from experiencing the environment. Every plant, animal, and insect he looks after or observes receives undiminishing love and care. Even as he illustrated his childhood to me, every detail was oriented around his sentiment for nature. My father’s relationship with nature is unique and ineffable, but it is one of mutuality, adoration, and care.

Aldo Leopold described a land ethic leader as one who has an “ethical, caring relationship” with the environment. His message is commonly interpreted to describe someone whose actions are well-renowned and evident in the community. While this person can definitely be a land ethic leader, Leopold’s message was meant to refer to a much larger crowd. This crowd consists of members who are devoted to nature not only through their actions but an untainted view of nature’s beauty and an understanding of its import. My father is my local land ethic leader - he sets an example for me, and those around him, to look at nature through a new lens in order to rewrite the human relationship with the environment.

Listen to Akshay Warrier, a 2018 Leopold Writing Contest winner talking about his experiences (forward to 8:20).

Craig Martin (2018)

Photo by James Burbank

Photo by James Burbank







In 2000, the Jemez Mountains changed forever. Beautiful forests turned to ash in the Cerro Grande fire and with them went trails, animals, and ecosystems. While many Los Alamos residents lost hope of ever enjoying the mountains again, Craig Martin, a local trails expert, realized the landscape could be healed, and with it, the community. When the Forest Service turned to him to lead the restoration efforts, Martin’s awareness of the deep connection between human beings and the land led to a success many residents thought impossible. 

When Aldo Leopold wrote about the land ethic, he expressed that people with a strong land ethic have a “conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.” After the Cerro Grande fire, Martin knew the Jemez Mountains were ailing, and he began a healing process which quickly gained momentum in Los Alamos. He got hundreds of residents out and working in the mountains; planting new trees and repairing trails. As a result, he strengthened the community that encompassed both people and the soil on which they were working. Through the work, many of the volunteers found a deeper connection with the mountains. Slowly, the scar of the fire faded. 

In 2001, Martin helped found the Los Alamos Youth Conservation Corps (YCC), a trail corps whose members became dedicated admirers of his principles. His sayings soon appeared on YCC t-shirts (a favorite was “You can’t burn snow”) and he became a local legend. In recognition for his service, Martin was named a Los Alamos County Living Treasure in 2012.

Working with Martin for three years, I too came to admire his land ethic. I joined YCC in 2015, a few years after the Las Conchas fire, triple the size of Cerro Grande, tore through the mountains as fast as an acre a second. Watching the smoke plume from my house, little did I know that four years later I would be a part of the burn restoration effort, working alongside Martin to mend the widespread damage. 

Martin led the way to heal the land by connecting the community with nature, taking volunteers to plant trees, and helping the YCC rebuild flooded trails. His compassion was endless. “I think I’ve tackled every mile between here and the rim of the Valles Caldera, some of them twice,” he stated, referring to an area of more than 5,000 acres. Now retired, Martin is still passionate about building trails and connecting people with the outdoors, using the local nature center as his outlet.

The fires had an enormous impact on the Jemez Mountains and the surrounding community. But Martin’s impact on both was far greater. The seedlings he organized volunteers to plant after the Cerro Grande fire are now almost mature trees, visible on the mountains from all over town. When many community members thought the connection they had with the mountains was gone forever, Martin challenged them to go outside, rebuild, and revive that connection. 

Elijah Russel (2018)

Photo by James Burbank

Photo by James Burbank






When telling the story of a local land ethic leader, the person that came to mind was my grandfather, Benjamin Romero Rivera. My grandfather was born in Belen, New Mexico on Sep 24, 1926 from Indo-Hispanic parents whose ancestors settled in New Mexico in the early 1700’s. Land, farming, and a moral responsibility to the natural world was passed down to him from his father and grandfather, and now to my family.

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is based off of one idea, “A thing is right when it tends to preserved the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” My grandfather was a farmer and his land had been passed down from generation to generation. He owned his own property but he was also the President of a Spanish land grant association. While acquiring lands sound simple, it was not. It took many years of negotiations along side his brother to return the Sevilleta land grant back to the La Joya community.

My grandpa was raised with a strong responsibility that if you took care of the land, it would take care of you. Farming was essential to his upbringing and raising his children. He taught his children about wild plants in New Mexico especially near their farmland in San Acacia. He taught them the benefits and purposes of native plants. He used natural healing methods from plants. He said “All things were put here on Earth for a purpose.” He believed in protecting the land for farming, clean water sources and the balance of nature. As a farmer he did not believe in using pesticides and used natural deterrence instead.

As a farmer and president of a land grant he wanted his children to understand the significant purpose of man’s responsibility to care for the Earth that God gave us. Grandpa believed in preserving the stability of the land by not interfering with nature.

In conclusion, many times in grandpa’s life he had to fight for what he felt was going to preserve integrity of land. He believed in protecting and preserving his own farmland and water rights. In Socorro County my grandfather negotiated land disputes both for the land grant and his own farmland. He passed away in 2010 at 83 years of age, but his legacy lives on in his children and grandchildren.

Seth Almanzar (2018)

Photo by James Burbank

Photo by James Burbank







Aldo Leopold coined the term "land ethic" in his book A Sand County Almanac. He said "Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching--even when doing the wrong thing is legal." I like to think of the land  ethic as a set of right and wrongs in which we treat all plants, waters, animals and soil with respect. When one plant, animal, soil or water in the ecosystem is missing it can sometimes lead to the system collapsing.

When Aldo came up with this idea it changed everything. No one thought about looking at the whole picture and how harming one thing could affect everything else. Hence, Aldo is famous in New Mexico and throughout the USA.

Let me introduce another local land ethic leader in New Mexico.  Josh Nelson is a park guide at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. He has been interested his current job since he was little. Josh believes that we need to treat the land and animals with respect and keep the land, animals, water and  plants safe. Josh looks at his job as a opportunity. He believes that the land ethic is not only an ethic to follow sometimes, but an ethic to live by on a daily basis. He provides interesting facts and protects the animals from the tourists.

Josh had previously worked on an organic farm and as a guide for white-water rafting. As a child, he loved to visit national parks and to be outside. Josh is one of many people who are taking action and following the land ethic. Leopold's land ethic has been followed long after his death and it is a very influential ethic around the world.