CONSERVATION IS A line of environmental thought and action that emerged in the United States during the last half of the 1800s. Conservationists are often seen as opposing growth, but this universal judgment is problematic. The underlying premise of the predominant branch of conservation's philosophy is wise use, that is, the preservation of the land's natural resources through efficient management based on science, strategic planning, and carefully-monitored extraction. This approach is dedicated to lessening polluting emissions into the environment and opposes growth in cases where there will be unnecessary environmental damage.
Another significant branch of conservation thought focuses on preservation of lands in their natural state as a haven for humans to recuperate from the stress and strains of everyday life. Land is viewed for its intrinsic value, rather than its economic worth. Proponents of this branch of conservation are clearly opposed to growth that threatens tracts of land that remain relatively untouched by human activity. Preservationists believe people need to recognize that there are limits to growth, which is causing widespread damage to the Earth's fragile ecosystems. Lands need to be left in their natural state, not only as havens, but also to filter the waste released into the environment.
approaches to conservation
Conservation, sometimes called the conservation movement, gradually emerged in the United States in the context of rapid population and industrial growth during the 19th century. It was a reaction to widespread, rapacious exploitation of what most people saw as seemingly limitless natural resources. The movement's leaders in the late 19th century included Theodore Roosevelt, the avid outdoorsman who later became president; Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service and a governor of Pennsylvania; and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.
From its beginnings, the conservation movement has been split into two major camps. Mainstream conservationists are pragmatic. They believe natural resources are for human use, for the benefit of everyone, not just a few. Conservation also has a strong element of stewardship. Natural resources need to be used efficiently now for the benefit of future generations. Conservation emphasizes the economic value of natural resources, based on efficiency in minimizing waste that occurs while extracting and processing those resources.
This was a major departure from the predominant path of development during the 19th century, which was based almost entirely on immediate needs, with no regard for the future. By the turn of the 20th century, Roosevelt and Pinchot's conservation views were ascendant, focusing mainly on forestry, which included soil and water conservation. Their approach was widely implemented by the U.S. Forest Service, which evolved in the 1870s and was established in 1891 in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This agency manages National Forests for multiple uses, such as timber-harvesting, mineral extraction, and recreation.
Muir led the alternative branch of conservation, focusing on preservation without use to leave vast tracts of land virtually untouched by humans. Human use of wilderness areas should be limited almost exclusively to recreation, which Muir believed was sorely needed for escape from a rapidly-urbanizing society. Muir, who was born in Scotland, successfully worked to preserve natural treasures such as Yosemite in California. His philosophy has been carried out, not only through the Sierra Club, but also through the National Park Service, whose charter makes it responsible for preserving land in relatively pristine condition.
Muir's preservationist ideas blended well with the New England Transcendentalism of Henry David Tho-reau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw human interactions with nature as a transformative experience that left people richer spiritually. Muir's activist emphasis on preserving the wilderness continues to create lively tension among environmentalists, eco-philosophers, social scientists, politicians, and business leaders. The preservationist stand is seen as opposing growth. The notion that the land has value in and of itself challenges the mainstream conservationist position of management for efficient human use.
Nature, in the mainstream view, has economic value related to its most productive use; it is not to be left on its own. Yet, the preservationist view can complement the utilitarian view. The burden for preservationists has been to prove the value of pristine land, and the needs to conserve it. Arguments for preservation of natural areas often rely on emotion and aesthetic values, although economic models developed in recent years now account for values such as carbon sequestration, watersheds, and recreation.
Given the environmental context of raiding natural resources during the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, Pinchot's conservation stand offered a compromise to balance the rapidly-growing economy with preservation for future generations. Scientific forest management allows for using forests and their products while conserving the country's forest base. Pinchot, a trained forester, understood the biological constraints on forest production and the possibility for conserving, or renewing, that resource by calculating the maximum sustainable yield. In this view, forests are an economic resource. Conservation assures an adequate supply of wood and wood products for production to keep the economy moving.
Despite these economic arguments, conservation faced considerable resistance. The idea was new to the United States, and not yet recognized as a way to increase corporate efficiency and profits. Proponents of laissez-faire capitalism argued that conservation represented undue government interference in business, which would stop profitable logging and damage overall economic growth. Pinchot believed government could, and should, play a role in managing natural resources for the good of all people, and to keep the economy moving. Muir, who also believed the government had a role in preserving pristine areas for the future, stretched the boundaries of thinking about conservation to include aesthetics and human needs; this approach would later be extended to include the economic value of preserved land for its role in cleaning the environment and for recreation.
Was this article helpful?