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Environmental Conservation and Preservation: Definition, Differences & Advocates

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  1. 0:44 Conservation of the Environment
  2. 2:45 Preservation of the Environment
  3. 4:32 Conservation vs. Preservation
  4. 5:53 Conservation and Preservation
  5. 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Margaret Cunningham

This lesson will explain two views on how land can be managed and discuss famous supporters of each view. We will also explore examples of situations where the views are opposing each other and when they can be combined for the common good.

How to Manage Public Land

As the human population grows and grows, natural resources are being used at a rapid rate, and large areas of forest are being converted for human use. How do you think public land should be managed to deal with these types of environmental issues?

Over the years, there have been many opinions on how to manage public lands. Two of the major points of view include conservation and preservation of the environment. People often use these two terms interchangeably, when in fact they are two very different views and methods for managing land. Let's explore these two terms and how they vary from one another.

Conservation of the Environment

Some people believe that public land should be managed by the method of conservation, meaning that the environment and its resources should be used by humans and managed in a responsible manner. These types of people see the value of the environment as the goods and services that it can provide to people.

This viewpoint requires that the environment be used in a way that is sustainable, and it ensures that the natural resources will be used in a manner that will meet the present day needs for the resource without jeopardizing the supply of the resource for future generations.

By using the environment sustainably, the environment and the natural resources it provides will not be depleted or destroyed permanently - and will be available for human use for a very long time. If people do not manage the land properly and the resources are not being used sustainably, then the environment can be destroyed, and the conservation method will have failed.

Gifford Pinchot, who lived from 1865 to 1946, was a leader in the conservation movement. As the United States expanded and more land was being converted for human use, Pinchot was bothered by the method used in transforming the land. At the time, most forests were being clear-cut, which is when all of the trees are removed at the same time. Pinchot did not like this method because he saw the forest as a valuable resource of timber. He thought that it should be managed in a way that enabled human development of the land but also ensured use of the natural resources.

He later founded the organization that would become the U.S. Forest Service and served as chief of the organization while Theodore Roosevelt was president. While Pinchot was in charge, the federal government adopted the conservationist method for managing land and drastically increased the amount of land managed by the government.

Preservation of the Environment

On the other side of the argument of how to effectively manage public land are the preservationists. The method of preservation is much stricter than the conservationist approach. Under preservation of the environment, lands and their natural resources should not be consumed by humans and should instead be maintained in their pristine form. Preservationists believe that humans can have access to the land, but they should only utilize it for its natural beauty and inspiration. They think that the value of the land is not what you can use from it, but instead that land has an intrinsic value, meaning that it is valuable in itself simply by existing.

One of the most famous preservationists in U.S. history is John Muir. John Muir was a Scottish immigrant who lived from 1838 to 1914 and had a large admiration for California's Yosemite Valley. Similar to Gifford Pinchot, Muir was motivated by the deforestation and destruction of land as the human population moved west across the country. Muir was a strong advocate for the complete protection of land and believed that people should only use the environment for enjoyment and not as a resource for goods.

Muir was involved in the creation of The Sierra Club in 1892, which is an environmental organization that advocates for the preservation and protection of public lands. The influence of John Muir is still evident today through the continuation of The Sierra Club and the establishment of the Muir Woods National Monument, a preservation area of land in Northern California that is home to an ancient redwood forest.

Conservation vs. Preservation

The two views (conservation and preservation) have been at the center of many historical environmental debates, including the debate over the Hetch Hetchy water project. The Hetch Hetchy Valley is located in the northwest corner of Yosemite National Park, and in the early 1880s, the valley was being considered as a potential site for a reservoir. At the time, the city of San Francisco was growing and faced a shortage of water. With the damming of the river and the creation of a reservoir in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, it would be possible to supply ample drinking water to the people of the San Francisco area.

The Hetch Hetchy water project spurred a large debate between preservationists and conservationists. Preservationists, including John Muir, were fighting to keep the Hetch Hetchy Valley pristine and persuade law makers that the valley and its wilderness were valuable in their natural state.

On the other side of the argument were conservationists, led by Gifford Pinchot. They fought to have the river dammed and the valley flooded to create the reservoir so that it could provide a large amount of water to people in areas with limited water. Eventually, the demand for water outweighed the desire for pristine habitat, and the dam was built in the early 1900s.

Conservation and Preservation

Although we just explored an example of conservationists and preservationists battling it out over land, do you think it is possible that there is a time or situation where both conservation and preservation are the answer to an environmental problem? An example of both conservation and preservation being needed to save a species is evident in the case of the woolly spider monkeys of Brazil.

It was originally thought that these monkeys required pristine old growth forests to survive, so the land they lived on was preserved and was not used for human needs. It was later discovered that these monkeys actually preferred secondary growth forests, which are forests that are re-grown after a disturbance, because these types of forests provide a wider variety of vegetation for monkeys to feed on.

In order to provide the monkeys with the type of food they needed to survive, certain areas of the forest were logged in order to create room for new vegetation to grow. In this example, the two views on land management worked together to ensure the survival of an endangered species. The conservation of the forest through logging made it possible to preserve the woolly spider monkeys within their natural and preferred habitat.

Lesson Summary

Now, let's review the two different sides of the land management argument. On one side, we have the conservation approach, where the environment and its resources are used by humans and managed in a responsible manner. On the other side, we have the preservation approach, where lands and their natural resources are not consumed by humans and instead are maintained in their pristine form.

Over recent history, these two approaches to land management have created heated debates between followers of each - including the famous conservationist Gifford Pinchot and preservationist John Muir. Although Pinchot and Muir believed in different land management strategies, they both had a passion for the environment and left behind long-lasting legacies, which still influence environmental legislation today.

While there are some examples of a balance between conservation and preservation, as was the case with the woolly spider monkeys of Brazil, for the most part, the debate between supporters of these two views is ongoing and factors into current land management decisions.

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