Conservation vs Preservation

Health is the capacity of the land for self renewal.
Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

Aldo Leopold


Under the umbrella of environmentalism, there are two competing philosophies regarding long-term land use – Conservation and Preservation. This post will provide an explanation of both approaches and argue that one of the two is superior to the other.

Preservation is simply the idea that natural and wild lands should be preserved as they are. It is based on the view that we should keep our natural resources safe, free from harmful influences, and away from any potential intervening force. National Parks are a great example of the result of preservation. They are natural resources that are perpetually protected from all human use or intervention.

Conservation is the idea that we should find ways to sustainably utilize the land so that we can continue to reap benefits from it while also ensuring its long-term health. As the great ecologist and conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, “Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” Conservation is based on the idea that we should regulate human usage of land rather than regulate the land itself. Conservation sees value in human involvement in the landscape and wants to conserve the land for future generations to utilize and enjoy. Farming homesteads and wildlife preserves are a great example of the result of conservation. These are both land resources that have been preserved in their natural form and regulated so that human use (in this case, farming and hunting) is sustainable and proper over the long-term.

In short, Preservation protects land from intervention or use and Conservation looks for methods of sustainable and proper use (

The divide between the two became a significant issue during the early 20th century, when the environmental movement was just beginning. John Muir and Gifford Pinchot were at the helms of preservation and conservation, respectively, and as the century wore on the disagreements grew in politicization and intensity (

Muir was an environmentalist, writer, artist, poet, activist, and outdoor enthusiast who lived in the mountains of the Western United States. We have him to thank for the National Parks that provide so much enjoyment for people from all over the world. He focused on preserving natural resources in their original form and heralded the intangible and spiritual factors related to wilderness experience as paramount to our nation’s health (

Pinchot, the manager of the U.S. Forest Service, said that federal lands should be preserved in their natural state but that citizens could still utilize them for logging, farming, recreation, and other such activities – within strict and carefully delineated boundaries, of course, to ensure the maintenance of the land’s natural form. Pinchot’s approach led the Forest Service to conserve nearly 200 million acres of forestland and grassland. We can thank Pinchot’s approach, therefore, for our ability to ski in the mountains of Colorado during the winter or swim in the lakes of Vermont during the summer. The thousands of towns that depend on winter and summer tourism for their economies can also thank Pinchot’s conservationist approach.

As one can see from the existence of the National Parks, preservation has a place in land management strategies. However, I would argue that conservation is clearly the superior approach. First, a practical perspective. Having grown up on a farm and worked in the forest for countless hours, I know what happens to a piece of forestland when it is left completely untouched. Within as little as five years, the forest is choked with young trees and underbrush, all trying to reach the sun; the older trees are dying because of a lack of nutrients due to the intense competition for phosphorus and nitrogen; weeds and thistles are strangling the open fields and pastures; and so on and so forth. Without proper management, natural resources often actually decline in quality and value. Secondly, the growing focus on organic agriculture and getting young people involved in farming will be impossible without land conservation. These young organic farmers have no land and no social capital with which to make the connections necessary to obtain land. In order for the small-scale organic farming tradition to grow, land must be not only kept in as natural and pristine a condition as possible but it must also be utilized to its full potential. Conservation is the best and the only way to make this happen. Thirdly, agriculture’s potential for mitigating climate change makes conservation of paramount importance. Whether it be through the sequestration of carbon in no-till systems and tree-planting or through better animal waste management practices, agriculture has a significant part to play in the reduction of our carbon footprint. A conservationist approach enables agricultural activities to appropriately utilize natural resources in this way.  Fourth, our nation’s agricultural and wilderness recreation economies are already utilizing millions of acres of our soil to grow our food and enjoy the great outdoors (which, by the way, is a massive industry in and of itself). Even if the conservation of additional land were to end today, we would still need to find a way to effectively conserve the significant amounts of natural resources already in use. Preservation has a place, but it is a very small place that has already been almost entirely filled via the National Parks. Conservation, on the other hand, is the best tool we have to 1) keep our natural resources intact, and 2) ensure that future generations have the resources that we have. By utilizing the legal framework that surrounds Conservation, we can effectively ensure that Grandpa’s farm will continue being farmed; we can make sure that our grandchildren can still swim in our favorite summer lake; we can keep our oceans healthy and usable by the fishermen in our communities; we can enable continued agricultural production; and we do it all while keeping the quality and health of the land as our first priority.



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