Conservation Definition and History

Conservation is a term used to describe the prudent use of natural resources: "consumptive and nonconsumptive use without complete destruction/conversion" (Redford and Richter, 1999, p. 1247). It is closely allied, and often confused, with several terms including preservation. Preservation is often defined as the maintenance of natural resources free from human intervention. Conservation of an area, for instance, may include selective harvesting of a resource, such as game birds, at a level that ensures the continued existence of that resource over time. Preservation of an area would not allow harvesting of any sort.

The origins of conservation are older than written records, and it is next to impossible to determine what were the first conservation efforts. Myriad examples of conservation activities pepper historical accounts across cultures, regions, and over time. Some of the first recorded laws protecting the remaining forests were decreed in Ur in 2700 B.C.E. Alison (1981) notes that the earliest recorded efforts to conserve natural resources were simple statements of penalties for destroying a designated marshland or cutting down trees unauthorized.

Middle Eastern pharaohs regulated water fowl hunting through licenses, and civilizations from as far back as 3,000 years ago and as distant as China and South America have recorded decrees setting aside land for the protection of plants and animals.

Around 400 B.C., the Greek general Thucy-dides, one of the first known historians, tried to protect forest lands in northern Greece. When these efforts failed, he turned to writing the history of the Peleponesian War.

The Peloponesian war itself (431-421 B.C.) transformed vast areas to wasteland, resulting in soil erosion and flooding. Theophrastus of Erasia, Aristotle's biographer, developed a theory that linked deforestation to decline in rainfall in Greece and Crete. His writings influenced Rennaissance scholars when his Historia Pantarum was republished in 1483.

Pliny and Vitruvius both wrote about the potentially serious consequences of deforestation, yet no serious efforts to control deforestation emerged in the Roman Republic or the Empire.

Many of the early conservation efforts were undertaken by royalty to exclude the commoners. In medieval Europe, kings and princes set aside royal forest—11,000 hectares in the eleventh century alone—to support game species for royal hunts. Early governmental

A reforestation project near Lima, Peru, to prevent the spreading of the desert. (UN photo/Shawn McCutcheon)

efforts at conservation, such as the Forest Code introduced in France in the 1300s, focused on reserving resources for government use (in this case, reserving wood products for the French Navy).

The common people often resented and either ignored or fought edicts put forth by royalty or governments. For instance, in India in 1720, hundreds of Bishnois Hindus of Khe-jadali died trying to protect trees from the Maharaja of Jodhpur, who wanted wood to fuel the cement kilns to build his palace.

In the late 1700s, Western writers and scientists began to focus attention on the natural world. William Wordsworth (1770-1850), one of the first of the English romantic poets, deemed the Industrial Revolution an "outrage done to nature." In 1835, Ralph Waldo Emerson published his essay "Nature," initiating the American-based Transcendental movement, continued by Thoreau, Fuller, Walt Whitman, and others (see Ethics of Conservation).

The roots of modern Western conservation efforts were born in the European colonial period. The unprecedented scale of ecological change in response to European expansion prompted conservation measures.

These measures themselves were an amalgam of philosophies drawn from colonizers and colonized. Indian and Chinese forestry and horticulture methods, and local classification and interpretation of nature throughout the tropics, heavily influenced European colonists.

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Alexander von Humboldt, a German explorer and geographer, devoted his life to the natural environment. Von Humboldt championed an ecological concept of relations between humans and the natural world drawn from Hindu philosophers. His work in South America highlighted the consequences for natural areas of cutting down trees in upland areas, as well as for croplands downstream, thus influencing governments to conserve upland forest reserves.

Pierre Poivre, Philibert Commerson, and Bernardin Saint-Pierre, some of the pioneers of modern environmentalism, were concerned about deforestation and its impact on climate and species extinction, as well as the potentially global consequences of European economic activity on people and environments of colonized lands. Their conservation efforts drew on local as well as Indian and Chinese conservation practices. Conservation efforts in Europe itself were developed as foresters returned from their service in the "Empire" with new ideas about the relation between humans and their environment.

The conservation movement in the United States drew its roots from European ideals. The first inklings of citizen-driven action as well as public policy emerged in the mid- to late-1800s. One seminal event in the birth of the conservation movement was the public outcry in 1852 when the "Mother of the Forest," a giant sequoia tree 300 feet high, 92 feet in circumference, and about 2,500 years old, was cut down for display in exhibitions and carnival sideshows. The tree grew in Calaveras

Grove, part of what would eventually become Yosemite National Park.

In 1864, George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature: The Earth as Modified by Human Action, heralding forest preservation and soil and water conservation. Marsh, von Humboldt, and Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) were pioneers of environmental science and the scientifically based conservation movement.

Conservation efforts between 1870 and 1910 led to two major developments. The first involved setting aside large tracts of forest that came under federal ownership and were managed for "wise use"—an early term for "sustainable use." Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the United States and probably the world, was set aside in 1872. The second major development was the use of fire suppression for managing forests, a legacy that haunts U.S. forests to this day.

Two opposing viewpoints dominated conservation pioneers in the United States. The so-called aesthetic viewpoint—termed the romantic transcendental conservation ethic— championed by the likes of John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, emphasized the importance of rare species, old growth wilderness areas, and the rights of wildlife. Opposing that philosophy were the pragmatic Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, who led what was called the resource conservation ethic movement. These men forwarded a "multiple-use" concept for the nation's land and water, encouraging logging, grazing, wildlife and watershed protection, and recreation simultaneously. Their emphasis was on rapid productivity, abundance of game animals, and rights of access to resources.

These two philosophies were melded in part by Aldo Leopold in the middle of the twentieth century in a movement now called the evolutionary-ecological land ethic. Leopold provided the philosophical foundation for the

Continental Shelf development of conservation biology (see Conservation Biology). In his writings, Leopold drew on the analogy of a watchmaker, noting that a watch is not a collection of independent parts but a complex and integrated system of interdependent processes and components. The proper functioning of each part depends on the other components; together they make the watch function. Leopold stressed that a wise tinkerer saves all the parts, explaining that ecological processes are greater than the sum of individual species.

Modern U.S.-based conservation efforts are based on a mixture of the three philosophies. Single individuals had a tremendous impact on the development of these conservation efforts. Theodore Roosevelt, as governor of New York state, fought to develop conservation strategies for the state's forests and rivers; as president of the United States, and working with his chief forester, Gifford Pin-chot, he brought conservation to the fore as a national priority for the first time. Rachel Louise Carson, a scientist and an eloquent writer, wrote Silent Spring in 1962, calling for an end to indiscriminate pesticide use and, more broadly, a change in the way we view nature. Her literary and scientific focus helped catalyze the formation of a new body of environmental law that fostered the development of conservation biology.

—Eleanor J. Sterling

See also: Conservation Biology; Ethics of Conservation; Preservation of Habitats; Preservation of Species; Stemming the Tide of the Sixth Global Extinction Event: What We Can Do; Why Is Biodiversity Important?


Alison, Robert M. 1981. "The Earliest Traces of a Conservation Conscience." Natural History 90(5): 72-77; Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin; Cronon, William. 1985. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang; Crosby, Alfred

W. 1986. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press; Grove, Richard H. 1995. Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropic Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Hughes, J. Donald. 1975. Ecology in Ancient Civilizations. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press; Hughes, J. Donald. 1994. Pan's Travail: Environmental Problems of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; Pinchot, Gifford. 1947. Breaking New Ground. New York: Harcourt, Brace; Redford, Kent, and Brian Richter. 1999. "Conservation of Biodiversity in a World of Use." Conservation Biology 13: 1246-1256; Simmons, Ian Gordon. 1993. Environmental History: A Concise Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell; Worster, Donald. 1977. Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Worster, Donald, ed. 1988. The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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