Feeling the Bite of the Bark Beetle

Facing an unprecedented tree die off, California's forests and its management face change. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Drought and an unprecedented tree die-off are proving to be a critical test in resource management. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

by Shauna Potocky

It is shocking. That is the only relevant descriptor—even for someone who has watched the forest turn under the pressure of drought and bark beetles, day by day. The once emerald canopy of spires continues to change, shifting from vibrant green to a pale dusty green-gray and finally to a burnt umber of brown-red. Single trees turn into patches, which turn into ridges or valleys and become full drainages of standing dead Ponderosa pines.

I have watched the Sierra National Forest change day by day, week by week, over the last four years. In 2014, as California’s drought labored on in year three, forest managers and fire agencies delivered the news that we would lose nearly 40 percent of the forest that year. When winter didn’t return again, for the fourth year in a row, the sound of people’s hearts breaking was audible and everyone in the region could feel the pressure mounting. By 2015, the forest along the western slope of the Sierra, and specifically in the foothill communities of Madera and Mariposa Counties, was poised for a massive die-off. Literally, on a daily basis, I watched trees succumb to the lack of water, which leaves them defenseless to burrowing bark beetles.

In a press release, Governor Brown recently stated, “California is facing the worst epidemic of tree mortality in its modern history.” In response, the Governor’s office of California declared a State of Emergency because of the unprecedented die-off. In October of 2015, estimates indicated approximately 22 million dead trees with potential increases as the drought and beetle kill continues.

Trees succumbing to the pressure of drought and bark beetles become a fire hazard. Photo by Shauna Potocky

Trees succumbing to the pressure of drought and bark beetles become a fire hazard. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Bark beetles are opportunistic, able to take advantage of stressed and weakened trees, particularly during drought. They bore into a tree, and if the water pressure within the tree is not adequate and the tree is unable to mount its defenses to force the beetles out, they can then establish themselves, damaging the tree, which can result in its death.

This crisis of lack of water, increased wildland fires and the nearly unstoppable spread of bark beetle infestation, has made me seriously question: what good can come of all this?

California’s drought and the unprecedented tree die-off of the state’s forests may be the environmental issues needed to help people fully understand and engage in proactive and nimble resource management. As pressure increases on limited water resources, and the state’s forests succumb to the perfect storm of environmental pressures resulting in an increase of wildland fire hazards,  we need management strategies, skilled professionals and citizens poised and empowered to make decisions that will lead to long-term sustainability of resources.

In the fire scar along Bass Lake, California. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In a fire scar on the edge of Bass Lake, California. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Management Matters:

When Euro-Americans settled in the Sierra Nevada, their suppression of fires dramatically shifted the fire regime and density of biomass within the forest ecosystem. Fire had been a natural occurrence on the landscape, returning in regular intervals, which served to thin the forests and recycle nutrients by burning woody debris that had settled on the forest floor. The local tribes of the Sierra utilized fire as a tool on the landscape; they used fire to manage meadow lands, clear space around important tree species and to manage the health and production of various plants they depended on.

The western slope of the Sierra Nevada ecosystems evolved and are adapted to fire as a natural part of the landscape. Some species of plants and trees possess substances that provide them with fire resistance. In the case of the Ponderosa pine, the tree possesses, several adaptations, which include bark that sheds easily and features a crown structure that prevent them from burning or torching during low intensity fires. Alternatively, others species require fire as a necessary element of their reproduction cycle, needing fire or heat to open their cones or clear the forest floor providing space and nutrients for germinating seeds, such as Giant Sequoias.

When fire is suppressed in these ecosystems, it allows forest debris to build up and create large fuel loads under stands of trees, increasing the risk of large, hot wildland fires such as the Rim Fire or the Rough Fire—as observed in recent years in the Sierra Nevada.

Fire suppression also allows the forests to become overgrown, with large numbers of trees in densely packed areas, forcing them to compete for resources such as light and water. In these densely packed stands, trees become more susceptible to stress and disease—consider the analogy of children with a cold virus all in one classroom—when in contained spaces or areas, it is much easier to spread an illness, or in the case of bark beetles, an infestation.

Low water levels, dense forests filled with stressed trees contribute to the spread of disease and bark beetles. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Low water levels and dense forests filled with stressed trees contribute to the spread of disease and bark beetles. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

What the drought and beetle kill is creating, besides anxiety and pressure, is movement. Governor Brown stated, “A crisis of this magnitude demands action on all fronts.” Today, there is significant movement as citizens launch Fire Safe Councils and Firewise Communities, while federal and state agencies proactively address issues, reevaluate management practices and provide funding as well as resources to mitigate hazards, easing the burden of overwhelmed communities and agencies. From grassroots efforts, county participation and state and federal support, work is being done on a daily basis to address the issues, on the ground, at all levels.

Reintroducing fire as a management tool in forests will help to reduce fuel loads, restore natural fire regimes. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Fire as a management tool in forests will help to reduce fuel loads and restore natural fire regimes. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

So as I look out over the forest from where I write, and see the mix of oaks and pines. A tartan pattern of green and dead, it seems a long stretch to pull some positive parable out of this situation, yet, I honestly believe this has been a critical turning point for California. For people who seemed yet untouched by drought, fire, forest management practices, and climate change, this has been the reality check, reaching into all walks of life and emerging as the situation that is moving the needle.

We are poised to take a serious compass baring and find a new direction that inspires us to address critical issues collaboratively, engage them in a timely way and manage our resources wisely in order to minimize crises. We are better together, pulling resources and knowledge, leveraging skills and the best we each have to offer to address water use, battle the bark beetle and our old ways of thinking.

It is an unprecedented time and we need to shift the paradigm from crisis management to sustainable management; we have the resources, the knowledge and the people to do it, now we need the resiliency, political systems and backbone to make this shift, because the challenges will keep coming and together we can do better in facing them; the drought, bark beetle and resulting wildland fire hazard might just be what gets us there.

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Balancing Shock and Optimism in a Time of Declining Attention Span

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

By Richard Telford

“You can’t leave things like that around for me to see.”

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

My seven-year-old daughter told me this when I left a copy of SE Journal on the bathroom counter. SE Journal is a publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the issue in question featured an image of a dusty savanna strewn with bloody elephant bones—the aftermath of a March 2013 massacre by poachers of 90 savanna elephants in the central African country of Chad. I felt badly, of course, and flipped the journal over to its innocuous back cover as we spoke, but I did briefly explain the image in simple terms. I thought, and still think, the context mattered. Afterward, I reflected many times on this exchange, as it raised questions for me, both as a parent and as an environmental journalist. Even as I write this now, those questions persist.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne's article, "Life or Death for the Harp Seal." Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne’s article, “Life or Death for the Harp Seal.” Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one image of human barbarism against the natural world defined the call for environmental policy change more than any other, at least in my memory—the clubbing of baby seals on Canada’s northern ice floes during that nation’s annual, government-regulated seal harvest. Magazine covers and documentary films featured images of seal pups (the primary target of the harvest, then and now) with large, dark eyes staring innocently at the camera. Then, there were the images of slicker-clad sealers wielding hakapiks, the traditional club with a curved or angled pick blade used to drag the dead and dying seals across the ice. The contrast of these two images, the first of moving beauty, the second of appalling barbarism, is reflective of the quandary within which environmental writers, and environmental advocates more broadly, often must work. Too much coverage of the benign and beautiful, and we ignore the realities of the environmental crisis with which we are confronted. We risk luring the reader or viewer into complacency, inaction. Too much coverage of the brutal and the jarring, and we cause the reader or viewer to turn away, out of disgust or hopelessness or both. The greatest danger in that case is that their gaze does not turn our way again. There, too, we end at inaction, and inaction can be deadly. These are two poles of response that we, as environmental journalists, may elicit, and there are many gradients between them, all of which demand our attention and careful navigation.

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When Recycling Isn’t Enough–Managing Your Waste Stream for Sustainablity

By Neva Knott

Sourcing, energy usage, and waste are the core concepts of sustainability, a much tossed around and little understood buzzword of today’s consumer culture. It’s also one of the values that underpins natural resources management. In this post, I’m not talking about “go green” consumerism; rather, about how to take responsibility for your own waste stream–as a global citizen and inhabitant of this beautiful yet ill and overburdened planet.

Trash collected on a twenty-minute dog walk in my neighborhood. Photograph by Neva Knott.

Trash collected on a twenty-minute dog walk in my neighborhood. Photograph by Neva Knott.

I grew up during the era of the Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute campaign. So when I read about Garbage Patches in the oceans, see trash on every dog walk I take, and consider all the disposability designed into our mainstream daily life, I cringe.

This past Fourth of July weekend, I took it upon myself to clean up a stretch of beach in Taft, Oregon the day after the fireworks. I was compelled after getting down there around coffee o’clock to walk my dogs, to find giant driftwood stumps emanating smoke, pillows left on logs, beer bottles, boxes, toys, a child’s shoe, about a billion snack wrappers, broken glass, cigarette butts, chicken bones. I could go on. What really flummoxed me, since–sadly–I am used to seeing trash everywhere I go (I often say it’s not a hike in Oregon if I don’t come across a disposed diaper) was that the trashed area was just about 50 yards from a huge hotel. I guess the guests thought housekeeping services extended to their beach party mess.

The reactions of other people as I filled my trash bag bowled me over. Most acted like I was intruding, one mom thanked me and encouraged her small children to help, and two little girls were sent by their mom to ask for some cardboard to use to start a fire.

The next day the beach was trashed again.

At Thanksgiving this year I was exclaiming to my aunt and uncle about this trash-fest. They live on the Washington coast, on the Long Beach Peninsula. I was horrified by their response to my description of the Taft scene.  The Peninsula is a destination on the Fourth. This year, 60,000 pounds of trash were cleaned up after the visitors left. The volume of trash spurred a community uproar–the conflict, though, is that tourists bring much-needed tourist dollars. Even so, my aunt explained shop-owners felt enough was enough.

Where does trash go?

As this video illustrates, we’re creating an enormous amount of trash.

Just a week ago, I attended a TEDx Salon on sustainability here in Portland. The Salon included three TED Talk videos and two live presenters: Marcus Young and Terra Heilman. Topics ranged from waste reduction through better product design, the sustainability of coffee-growing (Marcus Young), food waste, collaborative consumption, and “recycling doesn’t matter” (Terra Heilman). I was overwhelmed by the scenarios of waste described.

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Applying the story circle to academic writing

As an English teacher and an environmental writer, I love this!

Tom Houslay

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

I’m a big fan of the work of Dan Harmon, writer of amazing tv shows like Community and Rick & Morty, and I’ve often heard him talk on his podcast (‘Harmontown’) about his ‘story circle’: a pattern to which most good stories conform.

The REAL structure of any good story is simply circular – a descent into the unknown and eventual return – and that any specific descriptions of that process are specific to you and your story.

The structure itself is pretty simple: a circle, divided and numbered as below, with each number representing a step on our journey.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 13.08.31

  1. When you
  2. have a need,
  3. you go somewhere,
  4. search for it,
  5. find it,
  6. take it,
  7. then return
  8. and change things.

It got…

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Restoring the Johnson Creek Watershed with Native Plants

By Neva Knott

Restoring urban watersheds is an important part of developing a city’s green infrastructure. These streams and surrounding landscapes comprise an important ecosystem for wildlife and humans. Urban watersheds are habitat for fish, animals small and large, birds and plants. They also provide important ecosystems services, like filtering rain and groundwater and capturing carbon and other air pollutants. Urban watersheds are landscapes that connect people to nature within the business of city life.

Last Saturday, I donned rubber boots and rain gear and headed out to the Lower Powell Butte Floodplain along Johnson Creek, part of the Johnson Creek Watershed in Portland, Oregon, to lead crews of volunteers for Friends of Trees in planting several species of native trees and shrubs to restore a section of the creek bank.

Map of Johnson Creek

Map of Johnson Creek Watershed

Project History, provided by Friends of Trees: “In partnership with the Johnson Creek Watershed Council and Portland Parks & Recreation we will be planting native trees and shrubs to improve the creek side native plant community.  This project is supported by the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District and Metro. PP & R has been working for a number of years to treat invasive species in the area, primarily Reed Canary Grass, to prepare the site for replanting. This planting will be the second at the site and will expand upon the area planted by Friends of Trees in 2014. FOT has performed summer maintenance and monitoring for the past two seasons to keep invasive species down and help previously planted natives become established. The native trees and shrubs planted here will provide greater wildlife habitat, increase native plant diversity, and enhance water quality by filtering pollutants and assisting with erosion control along Johnson Creek.”

On Saturday, the FOT crew and volunteers planted 690 native trees and shrubs–Black Hawthorne, Oregon Ash, Black Twinberry, Pacific Ninebark, Thimbleberry, Swamp Rose, and Snowberry. These species are often used in stream bed restoration because they tolerate wet-to-dry conditions.

Plant Flags

Each flag identifies where a shrub or tree was planted

My team was in charge of getting the Black Twinberries into the ground. We planted starts–each plant was just about four inches tall, dormant with no leaves or fruit yet, but with vibrant root systems. Thimbleberries grow rapidly though, and form dense thickets up to seven feet tall. The mature shrubs function as habitat in that they provide food for many types of animals, cover from predation for small species, and regulate ground, stream, and air temperature. When our thimbleberries mature, they will bring wildlife to the area–to include several bird species, rabbits, beavers, deer, coyote–helping to create a once-again functioning ecosystem along Johnson Creek.

Teaching volunteers to plant trees is something I enjoy and value because it allows me to help people interact in a very intimate way with the ecosystems we depend on. This past Saturday, I had several seven- to nine-year-old scouts on my team. Planting with children is extra fun; they are so simply in awe of the effects of their own efforts. And, they love finding worms.

Working with Friends of Trees not only allows me to help others connect to nature, understand ecosystems, and find worms, it allows me to learn more about plant species. I am intrigued by ethnobotany–the study of the relationships between plants and people. This cultural value of native plants is another important reason for using them, and is an aspect of plants that can connect the past to the present. A source I regularly look to is The Wild Garden: Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database, where I found that First Nations groups harvested thimbleberries for a variety of uses:

  • The leaves were mixed with those of wild strawberry and wild trailing blackberry to make tea
  • The sprouts were collected, peeled, and eaten raw as a vegetable
  • Berries were eaten fresh and dried, sometimes with the addition of clams and pressed into cakes, for winter use
  • While still pink, they were harvested by some tribes and placed in cedar bark bags, water was sprinkled on top and they would ripen in the bag
  • The leaves were also used as padding to line baskets
  • The boiled bark was an ingredient in soap
  • Dried, crushed leaves were laid on burns to prevent scarring

Native plants are most of the choice in restoration work. They allow for a sense of place and let flourish the botanical uniqueness of the region. They attract and feed native insects, birds, and wildlife. Their genetic design allows them to flourish with other native species in the same environment and in that particular set of conditions. And, native plants require fewer inputs–fertilizers and extra water–because they are attuned to the soil and weather of the region.

One of the goals of the restoration work along Johnson Creek is to improve water quality for the salmon who navigate through the watershed to breed and spawn.

Muddy Johnson Creek

Muddy Johnson Creek with clean rainwater in adjacent gully

Johnson Creek is unique in that it is the only salmon-bearing stream in the city. This is significant because salmon are a keystone species in the Pacific Northwest, supporting 137 other species. The viability of salmon is an indicator of watershed quality and health. Salmon also holds high cultural value in the region because it is a traditional ceremonial food of the Native tribes and has long been an emblem of Pacific Northwest culture and cuisine. Salmon definitely is a food that connects past to present and it is a fish species that pulls together the peoples of the region across ecological, economic, and cultural boundaries. A regional ecological concern is water quality for salmon.

Salmon

Salmon in stream

The ecosystem services watersheds like Johnson Creek provide serve wildlife and humans; more importantly, watersheds connect nature and humans and remind us that much can be gained by looking to nature for solutions to particular problems of urban (and non-urban) environments. Whereas technological structures, such as sewer pipes underground in a city, serve as solutions to many environmental problems, plants can provide cheaper and more readily usable solutions. Green infrastructure is forward-thinking, often more effective, and always less costly that man-made infrastructure.

There’s a lovely walking and bike path along the creek and our planting area, next time you need a break from hectic city life. And, the thimbleberries ripen in late July.

Media Credits

  • Map of Johnson Creek Watershed: US Geological Survey
  • Thimbleberries: The Wild Garden
  • Salmon in Stream: US Fish and Wildlife
  • All other photographs by Neva Knott

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Story of Birds Brought to Life in a Brushstroke

Just one of the stunning illustrations by Jane Kim in the newly completed exhibit at the Cornell Lab Visitor Center.

Just one of the stunning illustrations by Jane Kim in the newly completed exhibit at the Cornell Lab Visitor Center. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

by Shauna Potocky

Artist Jane Kim’s hand crafted installation, “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Diversity and Evolution of Birds,” fills the largest wall of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Visitor Center in Ithaca, New York. Also known as The Wall of Birds, it is a striking art and education exhibit, unprecedented in its scope and absolutely stunning to see and explore.

The extraordinary hand painted piece blends the realism of scientific illustration with the dramatic character of the birds it represents. Commissioned by Cornell Lab as a celebration of its centennial, the project features 270 species of birds. Each bird is painted to scale and the artwork brings 243 families as well as 27 ancestors and five recently extinct relatives, into focus. The work connects the evolution and diversity of birds while demonstrating their distribution world-wide.

The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

This month, Jane Kim, creator of Ink Dwell, an art studio inspiring people to love and protect the natural world one work of art at a time, took a moment from her schedule to share some of the key highlights of the Cornell project—from its vision, content, and life size scale to Cornell Lab’s dedication and commitment to handcrafted artwork.

Through the commissioning of this one-of-a-kind project, Cornell demonstrated how much it values scientific illustration, the of blending art, science and engagement as a meaningful tool for education. In total, the project scope took two and half years to develop and complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting.

A close up view of the Great Hornbill. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

The Great Hornbill. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Shauna Potocky:  This project is truly inspiring. What do you hope the project work conveys?

Jane Kim: The project is meant to convey the awe of how many birds there are in the world; it also demonstrates how remarkable it is that birds have diversified to such an extraordinary extent. To see two hundred families is remarkable, and they are life size, placed on a world map with relative scale, and viewable in one location.

SP: How can people see and experience the work?

JK: One of the best ways to see it is in person. Since it is featured inside the Cornell Lab Visitor Center, it can be viewed during normal visitor hours. In addition, Cornell is currently building a digital interactive that can be used to experience the wall and will be released in February 2016.  The interactive includes high-resolution images of every inch of the wall! This will allow viewers to zoom in to see the images—you will be able to see every brush stroke. It will allow viewers to select a bird, learn about it, and hear its call. One of the great features is that Cornell has the largest collection of sounds in the world.

SP: What was one of the most exciting aspects of the project?

JK: It is unprecedented—completing a hand painted mural of all the birds–it was such a large project and took so much time. Researching, learning the subjects, developing the work and then painting it. Cornell truly demonstrated that they value hand crafted murals and value the time it would take to complete such a piece. From start to finish it took two and half years and required 16 months of on site painting. Now the piece is bringing art and education to people and engaging them.

SP: What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

JK: The balance of art and science because there was a high demand for scientific accuracy. It was working with a high bar for accuracy and creating a portrait that captured the spirit of the bird. In addition, painting it so it can be viewed from all distances and still be viewed beautifully. The work needed to read beautifully in the interactive and from far away.

Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

SP: Were there any species of birds that captured you, that perhaps you had not known previously?

JK: I didn’t know each bird, so every bird was a surprise. I enjoyed discovering fun facts like the Saddle-bill Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) with the only difference between male and female being the color of the eye. So I made it a female, with a yellow iris. I tried to depict females as much as I could, since males are often showier and represented.

The North Island Giant Moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae) female is also depicted because they are the bigger sex. There was a time when it was thought that they were two species—one being a subspecies because of the size differences. Testing showed that the birds were the same, males were smaller, females were larger.

Fun behaviors are also represented, such as the Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis) with its fun little mating dance. There are also Gouldian Finches (Erythrura gouldiae), a set of three because they have three different head colors, yellow, black and red, but they are the same species.

SP: How do you hope this work touches people?

JK: I hope it is inspiring to see, and I hope it is statement that demonstrates how Cornell values hand painted creations that can be inspiring and useful tools for education. I hope it also inspires people to ask a lot of questions and sparks a new generation of scientific illustrators—we need that. I hope it allows others to think big, take the time and make the effort.

Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

In many ways “From So Simple A Beginning” is a remarkable gift—it celebrates 100 years of Cornell Lab’s work and endeavors for birds, while providing an unparalleled learning opportunity through quality artwork that also celebrates the profound and quiet power of scientific illustration—a field that is rarely discussed yet touches so many of our lives.

With the recent completion of “From So Simple a Beginning,” Jane Kim already has new projects in the works, including the next addition to the Migrating Mural—so stay tuned as we wait to see what her next projects and remarkable artwork have to teach us.

To Preserve or to Conserve: Navigating the Conflicted Language of Environmental Advocacy

Hampton Brook, Hampton, CT, during a mid-winter thaw. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2016

Hampton Brook, Hampton, CT, during a mid-winter thaw. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2016

By Richard Telford

Writing for The Ecotone Exchange during the last three years, I have advocated for certain actions I see as critical to mitigate the present environmental crisis. These actions have included engaging children with the natural world in a deliberate way, encouraging the exploration of one’s immediate environment, rethinking the disregard we sometimes afford to common species, and forming a more thoughtfully developed environmental ethic, among others. In writing these and other pieces, one dilemma of word choice has vexed me more than any other. Do I call upon the reader to act in order to preserve the natural world or to conserve it? To some, this may seem a trivial question, one of semantics or aesthetics, but for me the distinction matters. I have stared on many occasions at a particular sentence, reading it aloud, inserting first one verb and then the other, only to delete and start again, often restructuring the entire sentence to accommodate each change only to return shortly after to a previous revision. Quite often, it is in one of these sentences that I am trying to culminate an argument that I have shaped first for myself, through the process of writing, and then for the reader. The weight of such sentences only muddles the choice further; such sentences require an investment of belief.

When, for example, I challenged the long-term efficacy of using charismatic species to enlist public support for environmental causes, I wrote, Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity?  However, in that same piece, when I argued for the value of local, common species and their capacity to build connections between us and the natural world, I wrote, All of these common summer residents of our region have evoked in our children and in us that sense of wonder that is so crucial to the long-term preservation of the natural world. When writing about my father, who, more than any other individual, helped me to form my own environmental ethic, I elected, with some concern about redundancy, to incorporate both terms side by side: Such relationships, I believe, can and must guide us as we contemplate the long-term conservation, preservation, and restoration of the natural world. Finally, when I examined the importance of forming and living by a conservation ethic, I opted for conservation as the more pragmatic and appropriate term with which to define the ethic, but I avoided both verbs in my culminating argument of what we must do with that ethic: As we work to develop a sustainable conservation ethic, we must seek questions as much as we seek answers—not in a way that paralyzes us and makes us put up our hands but in a way that empowers us to envision and bring to fruition significant changes in our resource use on all scales and in our broader treatment of the natural world on the whole.

So, in the end, does it matter which word is invoked? I think it does, not just in terms of precise word use—which in my view matters a great deal by itself—but in terms of how word choice, especially in this case, can shape public discourse, can clarify respective positions on complex issues, and can prompt action aimed toward the greater, long-term good. Thus, I set out here to answer this question of word choice that has vexed me so greatly. I do this realizing that I will not, in the end, be able to answer this question with surety, but I realize too that the questions with which we struggle are often more valuable than the answers to them.

When I wrestle with a particular word choice, I first consider the word’s denotation—its literal definition—and then consider its connotation—the associative and emotional responses the word may evoke. While a quick Internet look-up usually suffices to recall a forgotten denotation, for weightier word choices I turn to my 1988 reprint of the 1971 Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The word “compact” here seems a bit out of place, as its two hefty volumes contain a total of 6,165 pages, each of which features four full pages of the original 13-volume OED “reproduced micrographically” and requiring the use of a magnifier to read. To this, I add my 1412-page 1987 OED supplement, and whole new word-worlds are opened to me. For context, the last print edition of the OED was issued in 1989 and is still in print; now, however, all updates are done quarterly and are maintained electronically, accessible through subscription.

The 1971 Oxford English Dictionary offers three related definitions for the transitive verb form of preserve: 1) “To keep safe from harm or injury; to keep in safety, save, take care of, guard,”  2) “To keep alive, keep from perishing, to keep in existence, keep from decay, make lasting,” and 3) “To keep from physical or chemical change.”  Interestingly, the definitions offered by the OED for conserve in its transitive verb form are strikingly similar. The first definition for conserve combines nearly all of the content of the first and third definitions for preserve cited above, reading as follows: “To keep in safety, or from harm, decay, or loss; to preserve with care; now usually, to preserve in its existing state from destruction or change.” In kind, the second definition offered for conserve closely parallels the second definition cited above for preserve, the former reading: “To preserve or maintain in being or continuous existence; to keep alive or flourishing.” By denotation, preserve and conserve are effectively synonymous. As defined, they are interchangeable, which should solve the dilemma I introduced at the start of this essay. But it doesn’t. Like all language invoked in meaningful discourse, these terms are evocative, loaded with past history, with present associations, and with future implications.

In historic terms, the preservation versus conservation conflict that profoundly shaped the modern environmental movement is most often associated with the early-twentieth-century feud between John Muir, who advocated for the preservation of wilderness for the sake of its aesthetic value and beauty, and Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, who advocated for the conservation of the nation’s natural resources—responsible, sustainable use with maximum benefit to society. That feud climaxed in the famous Hetch-Hetchy controversy, in which conservationists, led by Pinchot and former San Francisco, California mayor James Phelan, lobbied the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the 1913 Raker Bill (H.R. 7207), which would authorize the damming of the Tuolumne River in the Hetch-Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park to create a water supply for the city of San Francisco. In testimony before the House, Pinchot argued that “the fundamental principle of the whole conservation policy is that of use, to take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will best serve the most people […].” Preservationists, led by Muir, lobbied vehemently against the project. In a pamphlet produced to garner public support “to save the famous Hetch-Hetchy Valley and stop the commercial destruction which threatens our national parks,” Muir wrote, “[…] this great natural wonderland should be preserved in pure wildness for the benefit of the entire nation.” Primary source documents from both sides of the debate are available from the U.S. National Archive, and some of these can be viewed here.

The Hetch-Hetchy controversy had profound effects on the environmental movement in the United States, and it polarized into camps individuals who, in many ways, were likeminded in their appreciation of the natural world but diverged on questions on how it best served humankind. Despite the denotative equivalence of preserve and conserve, the Hetch-Hetchy controversy entrenched a connotative distinction that manifested itself many times over and persists even now. At times, I hesitate to use the term conserve, even when it seems most appropriate, as, connotatively, it confers an implicit permission to exploit the natural world. In pragmatic terms, I understand that we must exploit the natural world to survive, but the idealist in me wants to aim for preservation even when conservation—the responsible and sustainable use of resources—is the only viable path. As I note above, the language of any cause that matters is necessarily evocative and loaded, especially for writers.

While it is easy to laud Muir and condemn Pinchot in the context of Hetch-Hetchy, to do so terribly oversimplifies the greater debate between preservation and conservation, both as it existed then and as it does now. It was Pinchot, for example, who fought vehemently against the common timber company practice of clear-cutting western mountains, leaving them bald and desolate for the sake of a profitable but unsustainable harvest. During the Raker Bill hearings, when Representative John E. Raker, for whom the bill was named, asked Pinchot if dead timber could be taken from Yosemite for commercial use, Pinchot replied, “I think we can have a little timber fall down and die for the sake of having the place look like no human foot had ever been in it. I do not think that the national parks should be used as a lumber supply.” When Raker pushed the question a second time, arguing that such a harvest “does not affect the scenic beauty of the park,” Pinchot responded, “[…] here is one of the greatest wonders of the world, and I would leave it just as it is so far as possible in the Yosemite National Park.” Pressed a third time on the issue, Pinchot added, “I will mention that among the greatest of the beauties are some of the fallen trees. I would not touch one of them.” These responses serve to soften the contrast between Muir and Pinchot, and they demonstrate that the connotative views of preservation and conservation are not mutually exclusive, no matter how fervent the debate, then and now.

As Aldo Leopold would later state so eloquently and succinctly in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949), published three years after Pinchot’s death: “Wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow.” Like Muir, Pinchot was certainly not ignorant of this fact. His testimony on the Raker Bill bears this out. Leopold’s own call for a land ethic acknowledged that preservation in the purist sense, as advocated by Muir, must be balanced with our need to use the land to our own ends and for our own comfort. In the closing pages of his seminal book, Leopold wrote: “We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.” While preservation is an ideal worth striving for when possible, conservation, viewed connotatively in the framework above, is more often the pragmatic approach, achieving many, though not all, of the aims of the former approach.

As I sit and write this piece in the early morning hours of the New England winter, looking out my kitchen window at a fresh snowfall, I am warmed by a 550-degree-Fahrenheit woodstove that requires harvesting the land and, in some ways, sullying the environment that Muir advocated preserving in its purest form. My computer is powered by electricity which, at least at present, necessitates burning coal or natural gas. Thus, my own environmental advocacy comes at an environmental cost, as does my continued existence in the simplest terms, and I would be naïve or disingenuous to ignore this reality. It is in this conflict within myself that my conflict of word choice—to preserve or to conserve—is rooted. It is not a question of semantics or aesthetics. It is a question driven by a complex set of realities that shift and change with changing anthropogenic influences and impacts. It is a question that lacks and always will lack a finite answer. All good questions do.

As I noted earlier, the Oxford English Dictionary, with its rich etymological entries, truly opens new word-worlds to the reader, and I will close here by sharing a few additional insights I gleaned when researching preserve and conserve. The OED traces the word preserve back to the 14th century French word, preserver, meaning “to save from an evil that might happen.” The use of the word “evil” frames the act of preservation in moral terms, which I find especially apt in our present time. As much as our actions undertaken to mitigate the present environmental crisis are pragmatic ones, aimed at not degrading the world’s biodiversity and habitat to such a degree that it leads to our own demise, our actions must likewise be framed in moral terms. Because our actions for or against the natural world will be handed down for generations, we have a moral obligation to those later generations. Our present environmental crisis is, at its core, a moral crisis, and where we fail the natural world through our careless actions, it reflects a failure on our part to realize our own insignificance in a complex and extraordinary world, and a failure to act in accordance with that realization. This links in a profound way to a final denotative entry from the OED worth examining here: the noun form of conserve, conservation.

The third definition for conservation in the OED refers to the scientific principle of the conservation of energy, the “doctrine that ‘the total energy of any body or system of bodies is a quantity which can neither be increased nor diminished by any mutual action of those bodies, though it may be transformed into any one of the forms of which energy is susceptible.’” Reading this, it occurred to me that an argument could be made that we are not truly destroying the natural world, no matter how terrible our actions toward it. Instead, we are reshaping it, redistributing its energy into heretofore unseen configurations. Viewed superficially, this could almost seem comforting. But it isn’t. While the transmuted energy may still be present, we will lose a complex and beautiful system built over hundreds of millennia, and we will lose ourselves, both spiritually and in real terms. For me, there is something deeply moral in the effort both to preserve and conserve as much of that system as we can, and there is something deeply moral in recognizing our individual insignificance and acting for the greater good. As we debate and plot a forward course, the words we choose matter, but our actions matter even more.