Conservation in question

Use of natural resources is essential to our survival. Every material element in our lives was processed from natural raw materials. Managing those resources contributes much to our quality of life.

What is “conservation”? Controversial. Ellusive. Dynamic. For some, the term triggers good emotions. Others claim that the word is outdated and does not really fit today’s environmental needs.

Most people seem to have a general idea of what conservation might be. Yet, how many are able to practice it on the ground? What would that look like?

Dictionary words associated with “conservation” of natural resources include such terms as protection, recovery, restoration, wise use, management, preservation, stewardship, renewing, sustainable and many others. Most of us would not argue about the values these words elicit. But many of us would argue about practices that are implemented in the name of conservation.

The conservation movement was born in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The primary triggers were losses of forests and wildlife populations, followed by detrimental environmental effects such as soil loss, massive wildfires and decreasing water quality and availability. Michael Williams’ “Americans and Their Forests” extensively reviews this historical geography from the woodland perspective.

Early leaders in the conservation movement included famous characters such as Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau and many others. Understanding the history of this globally original North American phenomenon will help flesh-out many of the dimensions of today’s issues and dilemmas.

Expansion and settlement of the United States did not include what we now label environmental sustainability. Forests were there to extract lumber. Many regarded them as an enemy to progress. Wildlife populations were decimated for food and pelts. The major tie to “nature” was to tame the wilderness into an idyllic notion of agrarian landscape. That did not happen. Not even close.

American concern about the downside of these encroachments was at the nucleus of the conservation movement. Most of the efforts focused on tree planting, fire-fighting and prevention, watershed protection and recovery of game species. The world’s first national park, as well as many of our national forests, was created during this period.

In the 1960s, conservation evolved into what became the environmental movement. Heavy industrialization and agriculture, at scales unimagined in the 1800s, together with widespread use of poorly-tested pesticides, were working against conservation ideals. Authors such as Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich generated popular concern. From this public pressure, benchmark federal legislation was enacted: the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. These policies represented a marked shift towards regulation, and they worked.

The focus had changed substantially from restoration and use, to protection and preservation. Today, some of these concepts conflict with each other, even though opponents may be operating from similar philosophical bases. Jim Sterba in his book “Nature Wars” outlines conservation’s evolution in an easy-reading, yet deeply probing, fashion.

So, what does conservation mean today? A concise definition satisfactory to all parties is impossible. But, any substitute term would be equally problematic. However, according to Michigan State University Extension, conservation incorporates a broad philosophical approach to the use of natural resources, with practices that enhance both nature and human welfare. Aldo Leopold’s “Land Ethic” may be the finest articulation of these ideas.

Huge strides in the conservation and restoration of natural systems have occurred over the last century. Forests have rebounded in an unprecedented manner. Many species of wildlife have recovered, most notably game species, but there are many others. Some have even recovered to a nuisance status. Water pollution in many of our lake and river systems has abated and quality is much improved since the 1960s. While many struggles continue, and new ones enter the scene, few can argue against these tremendous accomplishments, if they become aware of them.

What has changed more is our human demography, as it always does, over time. Most of us now live divorced from the land. What we understand is mostly shaped by social and entertainment media and from what we see on vacations. The role of this disconnect was a main topic in Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods.” Conflict and polarization has risen, largely from emphasis on single-issue conservation, rather than the more complicated relationships between humans and natural systems.

Yet, the term “conservation” continues to have a valid role in our language and management of the land. It harkens to the romantic roots of the movement, and suggests a balanced and communal approach to future challenges.

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