At the time of his retirement from the Forest Service at the end of 1946, Leon Kneipp's career dated back more than 46 years, making him the oldest active Forest Service officer both in age and length of service. In fact, when Kneipp was first hired as a ranger on the Prescott Forest Reserve in 1900, Arizona had not reached statehood and the Forest Service was not yet established as an agency.
Throughout his career, Leon Kneipp showed an ability to adapt and play a number of roles in a number of different venues. Although he was born in Chicago in 1880 and attended public schools there, Kneipp spent the early days of his career as a ranger in rough-and-tumble territorial Arizona, then as a Forest Supervisor on the Pecos, James, and Taos Forests in New Mexico. In 1907, Kneipp jumped to a position in Washington, D.C., as Forest Inspector. By 1908 he was named chief of the grazing branch's Office of Control, a position he held until 1915 when he moved to Ogden, Utah, as head Forester of the Intermountain Region. In 1920 he returned to D.C., where he would serve his remaining years in the agency in the lands acquisition division - for more than a decade as Assistant Chief.
Leon Kneipp made a name for himself in the Forest Service not just with his longevity, but for his productivity and performance as well. He was a leader in the movement to preserve national forest lands as wilderness and played a key role in the development of a national recreation strategy. From 1924-1925, Kneipp took a leave of absence from the Forest Service to serve as executive secretary for the Advisory Council of the National Conference on Outdoor Recreation - an effort by 125 public and private organizations to develop and plan for outdoor recreation activities and manage the recreational resources of the country.
Kneipp devoted his final 26 years with the Forest Service to guiding the agency's land program. His efforts led to more than 24 million acres of land acquisitions - in total, the largest federal real estate deal since the purchase of Alaska. The bulk of these land additions, some 20 million acres, came as Weeks Act purchases in the eastern United States.
One of these acquisition decisions was later recalled by Clare Hendee, the former Deputy Chief for Administration of the Forest Service. In 1937, approximately 14,000 acres of old growth northern hardwoods were available in the Sylvania Tract in Michigan. The purchase price was $700,000-$800,000, which would have largely drained that year's allocation for land purchases. Recommending against Hendee and several other colleagues, Kneipp pointed to the "greater long-term values" of purchasing a larger quantity of cheaper, previously logged land in the region. Kneipp's views prevailed, and the Forest Service proceeded to buy 300,000 acres elsewhere.
Revisiting the decision forty years later, Hendee remembered Kneipp as a "very logical man, not swayed by emotion." With hindsight in the case of the Sylvania Tract, Hendee considered Kneipp's decision warranted and wise: the land remained intact and the Forest Service ultimately purchased 14,890 acres for $5.7 million in 1965 (land values elsewhere in the Lake States had risen substantially more during the same period). Kneipp's tendency to prefer larger acreages over existing high-quality lands earned him credit in later years as a long-term planner who expanded Forest Service holdings dramatically; at the same time, as Hendee recounted, these hard decisions and limited funds meant that many forest tracts were lost to subdivisions, excessive logging, or other developments.
In 1959, thirteen years after his retirement, Leon Kneipp became the first recipient of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual Organization of Professional Employees award. The honor cited Kneipp for "outstanding contributions to the public welfare through leadership and vision which helped bring about the protection and development of the National Forest System."
Leon Kneipp died on October 29, 1966, just 32 days shy of his 86th birthday.
- "Death of Leon Kneipp, FS Pioneer", November 7, 1966, photocopy of draft, Washington Office For Forest Service Personnel, No. 30, 1630, 1 p.
- Notes on Telephone Conversation Dec. 4 with Clare Hendee, Retired Deputy Chief for Administration, (by Frank Harmon, History Section, Washington Office, U.S. Forest Service, December 5, 1978), 1 p.
- "Write-up about Lee Kneipp and Sylvania Tract", December 6, 1978, by Clare W. Hendee, Former Deputy Chief for Administration, WO, U.S. FS, 2 p.
- "Lee Kneipp, Forest Service Land Expert, Retires; Howard Hopkins His Successor", U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, D.C., December 10, 1946 press release (for December 15 release), 2 p.