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

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

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.

The Extraordinary Gift of Common Species: Rethinking the Charismatic Species Paradigm

A female Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015
A female Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Can we view the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with the same sense of wonder or spirit of inquiry with which we view more exotic animals—the African elephants (Loxodonta exoptata and adaurora), for example, or the gray wolf (Canis lupus)? This question (paraphrased, here) was posed by Dr. Laird Christensen to our Field Journaling class at Green Mountain College in the summer of 2012, and it is a question upon which I have since often reflected, both on the individual level and on the larger scale. The latter two species in the preceding comparison are largely seen in conservation circles as charismatic or flagship species, which the 1995 United Nations Environment Program’s Global Biodiversity Assessment defined as “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action.” By stimulating such awareness and action, the reasoning goes, both the charismatic species and the larger systems they inhabit can be preserved, benefitting life at all scales. When done right, it is a win-win approach.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.
An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

In many courses in the GMC Environmental Studies graduate program, we analyzed campaigns that featured charismatic species as a kind of holdfast with which to anchor public support for broader conservation efforts. While I came to accept the value of this approach, I often found and still find myself conflicted over it, as it creates a hierarchy in which megafauna are disproportionately valued to the exclusion of virtually all other organisms within staggeringly complex systems of life. Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity? What does such a hierarchical approach say about the way we value life? What does it teach the next generation of conservationists?

While charismatic species can evoke strong response from the public, building support for important conservation actions, the majority of the public will never have any direct interaction with these species except perhaps captive specimens in zoo settings. Thus, support is elicited for a cause from which the general public is largely removed, and that support is often built principally on aesthetic factors, absent a full ecological context. Such support, in my view, is inherently limited in what it can accomplish on a greater scale, and it is likewise potentially short-lived. The reliance on charismatic species to drive conservation efforts may in fact have the potential to undermine those efforts by reducing the public’s personal investment in them to an unintentionally detached, flavor-of-the-month mentality. I do not mean to suggest that charismatic species have no conservation value; on the contrary, their potential to generate both personal and financial investment is well-established. Instead, I am suggesting that such support does little on a larger scale unless it is framed by a more developed set of personal connections to the natural world, connections that are forged by consistent, direct experience framed by a fuller ecological context. It is the common species that inhabit our day to day lives that have the power to forge and meaningfully develop those connections, much more so, I would argue, than exotic species that elicit a strong but potentially fleeting response.

The cover of Rachel Carson's 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.
The cover of Rachel Carson’s 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

Rachel Carson, in the preface to her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea, writes, “To understand the shore, it is not enough to catalogue its life. Understanding comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating at its shores—blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold.” Here, Carson’s “eye and ear of the mind” represent the deepest connections to nature that we can make, but to make those connections of the mind we must first stand on the beach; we must run fine sand between our fingers, gaze upon the complex interactions of tidal pool life, feel the blast of wind that has shaped the land for millennia, hear the roar of the surf breaking on the coast. To fully value natural systems, we must fully immerse ourselves in and interact with those systems. It is the common species, rather than remote and exotic ones, that allow us to do so in the most meaningful and efficacious way for long-term conservation of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This summer, our yard has been the site of a flurry of nesting activity among the common songbirds that spend their summers in our region, particularly the American robin (Turdus migratorius) and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). This winter, my six-year-old daughter and I made a robin nesting platform, which we attached this spring to the standing remnant trunk of a once-towering eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) at the edge of our yard. That platform remains vacant, but a pair of robins did in fact nest in the unfinished soffit of an adjacent shed. During early summer, we watched the parent birds harvest worms from our yard and shuttle them to the growing nestlings. Several weeks ago, late in the day, with the nestlings close to fledging, I carried my daughter up on a ladder inside the shed to view them for a moment. We slipped quietly in and out in less than five minutes, but the view of the downy nestlings with mouths stretched upwards has remained and will remain in my daughter’s memory. That image—framed by the coming dusk, the cooling air, the waning buzz of carpenter bees mixed with the rising evening bird chorus—can shape her connection to the natural world in a way that no virtual image of a more exotic species can. In fact, such experiences can potentially provide a transferrable, interpolative context for more exotic species for which a direct experiential context may be less accessible or altogether absent. When we understand the complex interactions of one natural system, we can at least imagine the like processes of another system.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated
A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing, Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

The North American Association for Environmental Education, defining “Standards of Excellence” for environmental education in 2010, noted, “Providing opportunities for the growth and development of the whole child, opportunities to develop a sense of wonder about nature, and earnest engagement in discovery about the real world are the foundation for learning in early childhood.” For my children this summer, the opportunities to build such a foundation have been manifold, provided by common, readily accessible species: a returning mating pair of nesting Canada geese (Branta canadensis); scores of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus); an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) rescued from the center of a country road during our drive to swimming lessons; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), and other dragonflies hunting the overgrown ecotone that separates our cut yard from the surrounding forest; turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) shadowing the ground in soaring, dihedral flight; eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) sidling along our garden fence. 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. We have viewed each as an integral part of a marvelous, complex, and unified system to which, in reality, we are adjunct, despite are disproportionate capacity to degrade it. In understanding that system more fully, we cannot help but understand ourselves more fully too.

I have previously written about the complexities of forming and developing a conservation ethic, both in ourselves and in others, and I am fully convinced that such an ethic is shaped primarily by direct, daily actions and interactions. Personal investment in a handful of exotic species, absent these meaningful daily interactions with common species, is not enough to forge and develop that ethic. Such an ethic, which can guide our daily choices in the spheres we influence, can contribute to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity in a way that remote investment in a handful of compelling species cannot. As Robert Michael Pyle observes in The Thunder Tree, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” The appeal of charismatic species taps a laudable impulse and can be a valuable conservation tool in its own right, but the effectiveness of that tool is inherently limited. When we open ourselves to the charisma of and deep connection to common species, and foster that openness in others, we enrich our lives on the individual scale and optimize the efficacy of conservation efforts on the broader scale. By doing the latter, we can likewise enrich the lives of generations to follow.