The Leopold Legacy at Riley

A story of farmers, hunters, and cooperative conservation.


People all over the world are familiar with Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic,” but how many know about his work in Cooperative Conservation? In 1931 Leopold met a farmer  on the Riley landscape just west of Madison, WI.  They struck up a conversation about the farmer’s frustration with trespassers and Leopold dismay over the lack of wild game. Together they came up with the idea of a game cooperative – a partnership between farmer landowners and a group of hunters from Madison. A model for cooperative land conservation today, the Riley Game Cooperative operated under Leopold’s leadership through the 1930s and 40s, and continued after him into the 1960s. 

My role

I feel pretty special to have grown up in Aldo Leopold’s footsteps (literally in Riley, Wisconsin), yet knew nothing of Leopold’s work there until 2003 when I came across a book of his previously unpublished essays called, “For the Health of the Land,” edited by J.Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle. Leafing through the book’s pages, the name “Riley” jumped out at me. As I read further, I was surprised to learn that it was the same little crossroads of Riley, Wisconsin that I grew up in!  I bought the book and started a long-term journey to research Leopold’s work there, revive interest in protecting the legacy of the game cooperative at Riley, and sharing the story of cooperative conservation more broadly.

Together with my big brother Bob, we first wrote our story of “Tracking Leopold’s footsteps through the Riley landscape” for the Wisconsin Magazine of History in 2003. Through this article we told more of the history of the Riley Game Cooperative from archival research and first-person interviews with a couple people who were part of the cooperative. We compared to our experience growing up in the same landscape decades later, and to the landscape today.

One of those cooperative members, Gene Roark, became a close friend and ally in re-igniting interest in protecting the Riley landscape among current landowners and conservation organizations. Gene and worked together for on this mission for over 10 years.

Most recently I was honored to be able to help tell the story of Leopold’s work at Riley through this beautiful film hosted by Savage Arms Inc.  Huge credits to amazing filmmaker Joe DickieDouglas Duren, co-host Stan Temple, and Savage Arms Inc. for bringing this together! 


The Riley community

Groundswell Conservancy

Dane County Land and Water

The broader hunting and conservation communities

Tools Used

Community building


Serve the Land
A film about Leopold's work at Riley

Watch this 20 minute film about Leopold and the Riley Game Cooperative to learn more.  

One Sunday morning in the summer of 1931, while exploring the dairy country southwestof Madison, he stopped at the farm of Reuben Paulson and asked for a drink of water. The two men fell to talking, and something surprising transpired. "He needed relief from trespassers who each year poached his birds despite his signs," Leopold wrote in 1940 in theJournal of Wildlife Management. "I needed a place to try management as a means of building up something to hunt. We concluded that a group of farmers, working with a group of town sportsmen, offered the best defense against trespass, and also the best chance for building up game. Thus was Riley born." - Bob Silbernagel and Janet Silbernagel, 2003, Wisconsin Magazine of History.