“Preservation” and “Conservation” What do These Words Mean?

By John Eberhart

Be careful when encountering these terms. A speaker may mean a word in a far different sense from what you understand the word to mean. Tricky differences exist between denotations (strict definitions) and connotations (what is implied, indicated, or involved as an attribute).

Do you send money to an organization that has “Wildlife” or “Conservation” in its name? If so, you especially need to disambiguate terms. Don’t pay for what you don’t want!

The best policy: ignore what a person or an organization SAYS; focus instead on what he or it DOES.

“Preservation” means to allow to remain intact or unchanged. This implies a saving from change (usually, human disturbance), e.g., a natural habitat threatened by urban development. It is accepted that nature is dynamic, not static; change occurs even without human activity. This is change via natural forces (such as erosion or windstorm) and ecological succession. Preservationists do not attempt to inhibit such natural changes The preservationist approach is biocentric. It protects species or landscapes without reference to natural change in living systems nor does it consider the human requirements or convenience of such changes.

A Chief Scientist of the National Park Service wrote:

[T]he National Park Service is not a conservation agency, but a preservation organization. …policies for natural areas of the National Park System…Management will minimize…changes in the native environment resulting from human influences on…ecological succession…reintroduction of extirpated species….a park’s basic objectives include reestablishment of the area’s natural ecosystems to the conditions that existed in 1790 or 1880 or whenever the first European first arrived…Timber production, game management, and species diversity usually are unused terms to Park Service scientists and managers. Our energy is directed toward other management objectives…natural systems preservation and species reestablishment./1

The President’s Council on Environmental Quality concluded in its Eleventh Annual Report, “Biological Diversity”:

Managing for the enhancement of yields or survival of one species invariably affects others, benefiting some, harming some. In contrast, the ecosystem approach intentionally preserves diversity rather than doing so incidental to maximizing one or a few kinds of organisms…The underlying idea is that an undisturbed ecosystem will permit a wide variety of organisms to exist in a quasi-natural balance with minimal human subsidies…Because human ecological knowledge is incomplete, there is a great virtue in letting nature take its course rather than intervening—action which may be well-intended but is sometimes misguided or even heavy- handed….Most species in well-designed ecological reserves will maintain abundant levels and escape extinction indefinitely without species-oriented help so long as they are not deprived of feeding, hiding and breeding places and are not polluted, hunted or harassed severely….Providing sufficient tracts of undisturbed land and fresh water obviates the need for heroic intervention to prevent extinction. A further advantage to the ecosystem approach is once land is purchased, administering ecological reserves is much less costly than managing species one by one.

“Conservation” can include preservation – but it does consider the value of managing the eco-system to the human community. Conservation is a catchall term loaded with euphemisms. Views of how to manage nature range from conscientious, through benign neglect,/2 to baldly anthropocentric.

The term “Conservation” implies protection and management of resources so as to ensure their efficient use and continuity of supply, while maintaining their quality, value, and diversity. Recreational and aesthetic needs are taken into account, while allowing for agriculture and “harvesting” of natural resources. This necessitates planning of what is “taken” from the environment in terms of the “yield” of animals, plants, and materials, while at the same time maintaining the most diverse gene pool, and as much natural habitat, as possible.

In the context of natural resources, four types of conservation have been recognized:

1. Species conservation involves the protection of species which are under threat from any form of exploitation.

2. Habitat conservation seeks to maintain representative habitat types over the full, ecological range.

3. Land use conservation seeks to balance competing forms of land use with natural ecosystems.

4. Creative conservation uses landscapes produced by society—from utility right-of-ways to brownfields and spoil banks./3

Gifford Pinchot was the first chief of the Forest Service. (Today the agency is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.) Pinchot’s words:

The object of our forest policy is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful or wild or the habitat of wild animals; it is to ensure a steady supply of timber for human prosperity. Every other consideration comes as secondary./4

The word “conservation” in its present meaning was unknown until 1907. It occurred to me that forests, irrigation, soil protection, flood control, water power, wildlife, and a host of other things that up to that time had been kept in water-tight compartments were all part of one problem. That problem was how to use the whole earth and all its resources for the enduring good of men.

Following the birth of that idea, we had to give it a name, and we decided on CONSERVATION./5

We might wonder what John Muir, the wildlife- and forest-preservationist, would think of what has become of the Sierra Club that he founded. A split between preservationists and conservationists dates to his time and continues to this day.

Careful readers of Muir’s writings saw that he was separating himself from those people in the conservation movement, like Gifford Pinchot, who had a utilitarian view of nature.

The utilitarians believed that natural resources were to be managed for human use and profit. They did not feel these resources had any intrinsic value, but rather that their value derived from their usefulness to people. They were willing to make compromises that Muir and other preservationists, those wishing to preserve nature, would not make. The utilitarian’s believed that we should manage forests so that we would have adequate supplies of lumber and other forest products. Unlike Muir, they did not see forests as sources of spiritual renewal and as home for wild creatures.

When Muir was in Seattle in the fall of 1897 on his way home from Alaska, he picked up a newspaper. There he saw Gifford Pinchot quoted as saying that sheep grazing would do little harm to the forest reserves. Muir was outraged. On the forestry commission trip, Pinchot had agreed with him that such grazing was harmful. Now he was saying what was acceptable to the sheep and cattle ranchers who had the political power in the Northwest. The break between Muir and Pinchot was part of the division between the utilitarian-conservationists and the preservationists. There would be battles ahead…/6

One modern definition of conservation is, the artificial control of ecological relationships in an environment in order to maintain a particular balance among the species present./7

Conservation implies USE—consumption—of a commodity, a natural “resource.” In our utilitarian culture, often it is felt that resources should be used. Non-use may sound lazy and wasteful. We all do use natural resources, e.g., water, paper, aluminum, minerals, soil. Rather than use up and discard these, we recycle and buy recycled products wherever possible. We conserve water, cellulose, metal scrap, yard trimmings, soil, and more. We are conservationists—up to a point.

However, use-and-recycle policy fails when applied to wildlife and public forests. Using living things entails taking their lives or some substance such as eggs, nests etc. which is necessary for their lives, comfort and reproductive success. The choice is to kill or not to kill.  Fence-sitters find little space for compromise between two conflicting positions.

John Gottschalk of the International Association of Game, Fish, and Conservation Commissioners, said:

It is easy to understand and explain our traditional preoccupation with harvestable wildlife. It is rapidly becoming more difficult to justify the tradition….if a particular species can be exploited we find ourselves studying it and attempting to manage it in order to expand its contributions to man’s welfare….one could characterize wildlife-management policies over much of the world, as a matter of fact, as being superficial. They deal largely with end products, and ignore the vast and complex matrix of plant and animal life which in the long run supports not only fish and wildlife but man himself….the use of wildlife resources is the measure of their value….this philosophy…has dominated public and political wildlife resources policy over the years. The “use syndrome” in its most material sense has become the cornerstone of our wildlife programs….that cornerstone may be on a shaky foundation./7

In The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation, naturalist John Livingston wrote:

For years I had been uncritically mouthing the conservation catechism; it was time to think it through…Many hunters, developers, planners, managers and others will proclaim themselves as being conservation-oriented in the most modern, aware and realistic way, by contrast with the old-fashioned, stubborn “preservationists” who squat sullenly and stupidly in the way of orderly progress. This…dichotomy is as useful to the production-consumption parade as it is destructive of wild nature…

With very precise (commercial) exceptions, the self-interest argument has not preserved, and cannot preserve, wildlife…The argument of self-interest is fundamentally contradictory to the wildlife preservation purpose, and in actuality works against that purpose. Its long tradition is one of the prime reasons for our failure./8

A Ducks Unlimited director was quoted:

[Former Interior Secretary James] Watt has helped conservation. He stuck his neck out a mile and got the stuffing kicked out of him. A lot of environmentalists crept out of the woodwork after Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. They got control of a lot of things. Then they figured that if they could not utilize the resources, then they did not want anyone else to be able to use them.

But I agree with Watt that there is nothing wrong with the development of public lands for the utilization of their natural resources. Nothing at all. That IS conservation, isn’t it?/9

Given the historical perspective of the two trends we, in the animal protection community, are solidly in camp with the preservationists when it comes to policies that regulate the management (or preferably the absence of lethal management ) of wildlife habitat.

Our opponents: the hunters, trappers and anglers on the other hand are advocates of the consumptive (and in their myopic view “sustainable”) use of nature. They are in the “conservation” camp.

The danger is that many humane people who oppose hunting and trapping will financially or politically support the efforts of organizations that make any reference to wildlife in their name, and in their glossy handouts and glitzy websites.

Before we endorse them, let’s scrutinize them a little more and look for give-away terms like “conservation,” “wise-use,” or “sustainable” in their self-descriptions.

But most importantly, let’s look at their actions and endorsements of agency actions that support management for human benefit rather than for nature itself. This shortsighted view is surely not sustainable for the duration of our suffering planet’s lifespan.

John Eberhart is with the Georgia Earth Alliance, Atlanta, GA.


1. Roland Wauer, “Management of Nongame Birds in Current Policies and Decision Making within the National Park Service,” at Symposium on Management of Forest and Range Habitats for Nongame Birds, Tucson, May 6-9, 1975. 2. benign neglect: an attitude or policy of ignoring an often undesirable situation that one is perceived to be responsible for dealing with. 3. Brian Goodall, The Penguin Dictionary of Human Geography. NY: Penguin 1987. ISBN 0-14-051095-8. 4. speech to the Society of American Foresters, in Frederick Turner, Rediscovering America: John Muir in His Time and Ours. 5. P.W. Chapman et al. eds., Conserving Soil Resources: A Guide To Better Living. Atlanta: Turner E. Smith & Co., 1950, p 224. 6. Sally Tolan, John Muir: Naturalist, Writer, and Guardian of the American Wilderness. Wilton CT: Morehouse Publishing 1990, ISBN 0819215406, P. 47–8. 7. Michael Allaby, A Dictionary of Zoology. NY: Oxford University Press 1999 2e. ISBN 0-19-280076-0. 8. John Gottschalk, Executive Vice President, International Association of Game, Fish, and Conservation Commissioners, keynote address at Symposium on Management of Forest and Range Habitats for Nongame Birds, Tucson, May 6-9, 1975. 9. John Livingston, The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart 1981. ISBN 0-7710-5336-3. 10. Dale Whitesell, Ducks Unlimited Executive Director, quoted in Atlanta Journal, Apr 21, 1983.


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