Conservation Vs. Preservation

waterfall in Yellowstone national park

At first glance, most outdoors people wouldn’t flinch at being called either a conservationist or a preservationist. For the majority of outdoor lovers, the distinction between the two is not relevant to their everyday lives and therefore uninteresting. However, because my own life is surrounded by wilderness to an extreme – the difference between conservation and preservation makes up the majority of arguments I find myself engaged in. I don’t seek out arguments but as a naturally argumentative and disagreeable person, I won’t back down from confrontation. 

As someone who is passionate about wilderness areas and preserving open spaces, I form close relationships with like-minded environmentalists. Air quality, water quality, and overall stewardship of the planet are all topics I believe in and act upon on a daily basis. I don’t use plastic bags, I ride my bicycle when I can, I even commute on a motorcycle through weather most people would call “suicidal”. (this is perhaps more an example of my extremist tendencies but it is nevertheless better for the planet than driving my truck to work.)

I’ll happily side with the hippiest tree-hugger to protect old-growth forest from logging but I also dearly believe in conservation. Whether I’m fishing, hunting, or cutting firewood, I care about using the resources of this great land and ensuring their existence into the future. My conservation tendencies overlap with many who favor resource extraction, depredation hunting, and even ranching. From an outside perspective, the difference between both preservation and conservation is small but from the front lines of the ideological split, I can tell you it is a contentious issue. 

What Is Preservation?

Legends such as John Muir mainstreamed the idea of preservation over 100 years ago. The North American continent was in the midst of a resource extraction-based economy, agriculture was expanding exponentially and urbanization was rapidly destroying ecosystems. It was this climate that catalyzed the modern-day preservation movement. From national parks to designated roadless areas in national forests, preservationists continued to protect beautiful landscapes. The fight to keep certain areas “untrammeled by man” was codified by the wilderness act in 1964. Many landscapes have been protected through this law, all thanks to the ideology of preservation. America’s most beautiful mountains and coastlines will forever be free from permanent settlements and enjoyed by countless future generations. 

Preservationists believe in isolating areas of the planet from the spread of civilization. The land and animals are perfect as they are and there is more value in leaving preserved areas alone than there is in developing them. And here is the underlying philosophy of preservationists – that certain regions and ecosystems are better off protected from and isolated from mankind. 

This world view is not wrong in specific situations and specific areas. Many alpine mountain ranges would have their water polluted permanently if permanent settlements were created. There are numerous endangered species that cannot survive the effects of landscape fragmentation – the woodland caribou is one such example. The philosophy of preservation is important and it must survive to continue as a voice within the outdoor community. However, it is not the only philosophy a person can have if they claim to respect and revere the environment and I push back at the notion that preservations are morally superior to other outdoors people. 

What Is Conservation? 

Conservation is the theory that natural resources exist to be used by civilization and need to be managed responsibly, ensuring future generations will have access to them. Examples include national forests, hunting, fishing, and even wind farms! Conservationists enjoy the outdoors and wish to see open spaces protected for future generations. Where the philosophy differs from preservation is the underlying belief of man’s relationship to the natural world. Conservation does not see natural ecosystems as separate from people, to the contrary, they see people as a necessary part of the natural world. It is our responsibility to manage, protect, and use resources wisely and ensure sustainability for lifetimes to come. 

Using the North American Conservation Model as an example, conservationists have brought back dozens of animals from the brink of extinction. And here lies one of the most contentious issues that divide preservationists and conservationists – hunting. It was hunters who brought the elk population back from extinction. State Fish and Game departments are funded 100% through hunting and fishing license sales. The average taxpayer doesn’t put a dime toward the programs and yet thousands of people enjoy these programs without paying for them. It was hunters who hired Game Wardens to prevent poaching. And it is hunters again who cheer the expansion of wolf and grizzly populations. 

Conservation Success Story Of The Gray Wolf

Currently, one of the hottest debates between preservationists and conservationists is the hunting of gray wolves. Extirpated nearly 100 years ago, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park was cheered by preservationists and conservationists alike. The wolf population has steadily increased and their population has spread into Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. In fact, the population is doing so well that wolf hunting is once again legal! This is a success story! Almost wiped out, the wolf population is so robust that conservationists can once again harvest and manage the population, just like with deer and elk. Many preservationists are shocked and don’t support wolf hunting but the facts are not on their side. Properly managed, the wolf population will never again be extirpated from the land. There are now people who enjoy hunting wolf and their voices combined with pro-wolf preservationists are enough to ensure the population will remain stable and continue to be a vibrant part of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem. 

Is There Room For Preservation and Conservation?

The debate rages on and that’s the good part! A healthy conversation between both sides acts as a stage for new ideas. It is from the eternal struggle of conservation and preservation where ideas for our wilderness and national forest areas began. Endangered species are reintroduced and protected until the population is sustainable enough to be managed by everyone participating in the outdoors. Conservationists need preservationists and vice versa. As long as you like the outdoors, everything else doesn’t really matter. 

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