There is, as yet, no sense of pride in the husbandry of wild plants and animals, no sense of shame in the proprietorship of a sick landscape. We tilt windmills in belief of conservation in convention halls and editorial offices, but on the back forty we disclaim even owning a lance. —Aldo Leopold
Conservation is quite the buzzword these days. The hashtag—#conservation—is trending nationwide. You see the term peppered throughout social media feeds in posts about protecting public lands. “Hunters are conservationists” is rhetoric heard anytime we discuss the need for hunter recruitment and funding.
I truly love to see how many people are carrying the flag for conservation and think we can all agree that protecting public lands, habitat, and wildlife is necessary. Good intentions notwithstanding, I wonder if the term is often misunderstood or used too flippantly—as it was during the time Aldo Leopold published A Sand County Almanac in 1949. His quote above says it all: We take no pride in conserving our habitat and wildlife and have no sense of shame when we fail to. We chase the imaginary goals of “conservation” in legislatures and media without doing anything real about it ourselves.
What does “conservation” really mean? You might be surprised, because the word and the way we use it matter to what happens—in terms of policy, funding, and real solutions—to the lands and the habitat that support the wildlife we pursue.
Basic classes in science or natural resources teach students about the three theories of land use: exploitation, preservation, and conservation. Let’s do a quick test to see whether you passed your class:
1. It’s opening day of the grouse-hunting season. You are on public land, and you are appreciative for the access and the opportunity. The rising sun shines clearly for hundreds of yards through the mature stand of aspens as you follow your dogs through the forest. You stand for a second in awe of the nature around you. The moment is just as it should be, and you want to maintain it—everything from the trees to the land—in this pristine manner, unchanged forever. Is this conservation, preservation, or exploitation?
2. It’s opening day of the grouse-hunting season. You are on public land, and you are appreciative for the access and the opportunity. The rising sun shines clearly for hundreds of yards across a clearcut, where the mature aspens had been harvested the previous winter by a timber company that was contracted by the government. The acres you once hunted look barren—everything from the trees to the land—and you wonder why the landscape has been disturbed like this by humans. Is this conservation, preservation, or exploitation?
For example number one, did you answer “conservation”? It includes public land, access, hunting, trees, and wildlife. It must be conservation. Well, actually no. It’s a clear example of “preservation,” which is defined as the philosophy of leaving our natural resources completely undisturbed by humans—maintaining the landscape the way it has always been through time.
For example number two, did you answer “exploitation”? It includes clearcut trees, a barren landscape, significant disturbance, timber companies, and the government. It must be exploitation. Well, actually no. It’s a clear example of conservation.
Conservation is management of the lands where we use the extra natural resources (i.e., timber in this example) in a responsible and sustainable way to ensure they are available for the future. This is fundamentally different than exploitation, which is the use of natural resources to depletion (i.e., market hunting or deforestation). For conservation here, there is more to the story of this clearcut and its sustainable effect on habitat and wildlife for the future.
Just as the use of the word conservation is trending, so too are references to Theodore Roosevelt, and his likeness, to promote federal public lands and conservation. Let’s talk about this real quick: When Roosevelt was establishing our public land use around 1900, he based it upon the two theories of conservation and preservation. He relied upon two pioneers of land-use theory: Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, who differed in their views.
Pinchot believed that federal lands should be “conserved” for recreation and economic gain through industry as long as use was reasonable and sustainable. Roosevelt agreed and established the National Forest System—where we can hunt and sustainably manage the lands for wildlife habitat and economic gain.
Muir, on the other hand, believed that the legacy of our lands should be “preserved” from all threats of industrial profit, remaining in their pristine, original form. Roosevelt agreed and established the National Parks System—where hunting and economic management are either prohibited or limited.
Sometimes preservation is a good thing. Do we want to preserve the access and use of our public lands? Yes, of course. Our National Parks and designated wilderness areas, such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota, are great examples of public lands preserved in their natural form for future generations. Humans are not allowed to disturb these areas in any way, and the only disturbance is through natural causes such as wind, fire, or flood.
However, preservation is sometimes bad because it fails to allow humans to create habitat for wildlife when it is necessary. Take the ruffed grouse, one of our beloved gamebirds, for example. These birds require young forest habitat to survive. This habitat is created through disturbances in the forest that cause regrowth and regeneration. Because humans intervene in natural disturbances, through practices like fire suppression, our forests are growing too old to support populations of ruffed grouse and other species, such as American woodcock and golden-winged warblers, whose populations are significantly threatened because of lack of habitat.
The solution is through reasonable and sustainable human-made disturbances—scientific forest management, of which timber harvests are an example—to create the necessary habitat. These practices also have an economic benefit. Back to question number two above: Not only does the described clearcut economically support the local community, the ecosystem regenerates to create the necessary young-forest habitat to benefit wildlife.
It’s a win-win. This is conservation.
Just as preserving our public lands is important, isn’t conservation—being able to manage these lands to create habitat for wildlife—just as crucial, too? Yes, of course.
Conservation, as defined, matters. Unfortunately, even with the recently enacted Great American Outdoors Act, our public lands are facing significant funding issues for active and planned habitat management. We are finding it difficult to take care of the public lands we have. Even if managers had the requisite funding and resources to do the work, preservationists are inhibiting the forest-management process through laborious and expensive protests and lawsuits. Although access to public lands is great for users, without a focus on habitat, it is the wildlife that suffers.
So, the next time you see a fellow hunter, company, organization, or politician use the term “conservation,” ask yourself, “What do they really mean?” If the answer is not clear, ask them these questions:
1. “Do you support protecting public lands?”
2. “Do you support managing and using natural resources in a reasonable way that sustains and benefits the ecosystem, including scientific habitat management, on public lands?”
The answer should always be “yes” to question number one. If the answer is “no” to question number two, then it’s not conservation. It is the difference between a fact and a fairy tale.
This distinction matters in terms of policy, funding, and real solutions as we move forward. It is great to have a place to hunt, but what happens if the wildlife is gone when you get there?
How would Roosevelt have answered these two questions? I think I have a pretty good guess.
Originally published in Volume 9, Number 1 (December-January 2021) of Covey Rise.
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