(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


Conservation is the philosophy and policy of managing the environment to assure adequate supplies of natural resources for future as well as present generations. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, conservation usually referred to management of a single, economically valuable resource such as forests, soils, or wildlife. Today, reflecting an increasing understanding of ecology—the science of the interrelationships between living things and their environment—the use of the term conservation has been extended to consider the environment as a whole. Modern conservation, then, can be defined as the management of the human use of the environment so that it may yield the greatest sustainable benefit to present generations while maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of future generations. It is concerned with the quality as well as the basic support of human life. Conservationists recognize that human activities profoundly change the face of the Earth and can irreparably damage or destroy the natural resources on which human well-being and, indeed, human survival depend.

Natural resources traditionally have been classified as renewable and nonrenewable. Renewable resources are those which, under proper management, regenerate and even improve their resource values, but which when misused can be depleted or lost entirely. They include plants and animals and other resources such as soils and inland waters. Nonrenewable resources are minerals and fossil and nuclear fuels, which are present on the Earth in fixed amounts and, once used, do not regenerate. Increasingly, elements of the environment, such as oceans, tidal lands, and the air itself, are also being recognized as natural resources.

It has become increasingly clear that resources and resource uses are intimately interrelated. A forest contains lumber, which is a valuable economic commodity; it also, however, serves as a watershed, keeps soil from eroding, provides habitat for wildlife, provides recreation, and ameliorates local climate. Indiscriminate cutting of trees may destroy the forest, but it will also have corollary, and potentially far more serious, effects. A paramount principle of conservation is that the use of any resource requires consideration of the impacts of that use on associated resources, and on the environment as a whole.

The goals of resource conservation are 1) the maintenance of essential ecological processes, which range from the global cycles of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water to the localized regeneration of soil, recycling of nutrients, and cleansing of waters and air and life-support systems, such as agricultural systems, coastal and freshwater systems, and forests; 2) the preservation of genetic diversity; and 3) the assurance that utilization of species and ecosystems such as forests and grazing lands is sustainable. The consumption of nonrenewable resources should ensure that scarce minerals are used conservatively and recycled where possible, and that their mining and use have the least possible adverse impact on other resources, and on environmental quality.

History: the United States

The conservation movement began in the United States largely in response to the unparalleled damage the settlers had inflicted on natural resources. The original vast forests of eastern North America were devastated by clearing for agriculture, and by destructive lumbering and the massive forest fires that followed. Agricultural soils were depleted, farmers speaking proudly of having "wore out" several farms on their march westward. The grasslands of the west were so severely overgrazed that many have never recovered their productivity. Wildlife was particularly hard hit by unrestricted market hunting and predator control. The abundant herds of bison, deer, elk, and antelope were greatly reduced, and wolves, bears, and mountain lions were virtually eliminated. A number of local varieties of wildlife vanished utterly. Some bird species were virtually wiped out, and species that had existed in incredible numbers—the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet—were exterminated.

Conservation in America grew out of the recognition of these destructive processes. Many far-sighted individuals contributed to conservation theory. In 1832 artist and author George Catlin proposed setting aside large areas of the western United States where the Indians, as well as wildlife, could survive. Geographer George Perkins Marsh published Man and Nature (1864), the first real consideration of the human impact on nature and its resources. Author and naturalist John Muir became a champion of wilderness preservation and was a founder and first president of the Sierra Club.

The later 1800s saw the creation of several of the earliest private conservation organizations. In 1875 the American Forestry Association was founded, followed in 1883 by the American Ornithologists' Union, the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887, the Sierra Club in 1892, and the New York Zoological Society in 1895. These were pioneers among the nongovernmental organizations that have played a vital role in the development of conservation.

The Beginnings of Federal Involvement. 

In 1864, Congress gave the state of California Yosemite Valley for a public park and recreation area, effectively making it the precursor of today's national park system; in 1872, it established Yellowstone as America's first true national park. The Division of Forestry, now the U.S. Forest Service, was created in 1876. The U.S. Geological Survey was established in 1879, and its first director, John Wesley Powell, publicized the agricultural possibilities and limitations of the West. The U.S. Biological Survey, precursor of the Fish and Wildlife Service, was founded in 1885. In 1897, Gifford Pinchot was appointed chief of the reorganized Division of Forestry. Pinchot became a key architect of the conservation policies that developed under President Theodore Roosevelt.

The Roosevelt Administrations. 

Conservation of natural resources was firmly established as an important concern and priority of the federal government under Theodore Roosevelt's administration (1901–09). Through various initiatives, including the White House Governors' Conference on Conservation held in 1908, Roosevelt also persuaded state governments of the importance of conservation.

The establishment of national parks, national forests, and wildlife refuges (the first in 1903) firmly set out the conservation principle that certain public lands must be held in trust by the federal government and managed for the good of the country as a whole. For a time, other lands in the public domain received little attention, but in the 1930s it became evident that resource depletion due to overgrazing on these lands had reached crisis proportions. With the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act (1934), under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Congress affirmed that all lands in the public domain were to be managed as part of the public trust.

The catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl occurred in the early 1930s, when a series of dry years coincided with the extension of agriculture to unsuitable lands, and when poor agricultural practices had caused grossly deteriorated conditions on vast areas of midwestern and western farm lands. Dry and denuded lands simply blew away, and the clouds of dust reached as far east as Washington, D.C., dramatizing the severity of the crisis. With the establishment (1933) of the Soil Erosion Service, the country began to accept the principle that it was appropriate for the government to intervene to assist private landowners, especially in the areas of soil and water conservation. The year 1933 also saw the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Post World War II. 

In the period following World War II, growing populations, advanced technological capabilities, and increased emphasis on economic development put new stresses on the environment and its resources. For example, DDT and other synthetic pesticides were developed in an attempt to reduce insect-borne diseases in humans and to increase food production. The initial results were dramatically successful. DDT was heavily used virtually worldwide, and in many areas malaria, carried by the anopheles mosquito, practically disappeared. Particularly in the United States, the new pesticides helped to produce bumper crops. Nevertheless, it became apparent that these substances were producing severe environmental effects, and in many cases creating problems that were worse than those the pesticides were intended to cure. The publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring alerted Americans to the dangers of unwise pesticide applications, and eventually the use of DDT and related pesticides was severely restricted.

The Emergence of Environmentalism. 

As pollution increased throughout the 1950s and '60s, conservation problems were forcibly brought to public attention via television. People saw the ghastly effects of mercury poisoning at Minamata Bay in Japan in the 1950s, the Torrey Canyon oil spill (1967) in the English Channel, and the killer smog episodes in Los Angeles and London. One result was an unprecedented growth of public concern and the emergence of citizen conservation organizations. Many came to recognize that the narrow approaches to conservation that had marked earlier efforts were no longer appropriate and that a more comprehensive environmental approach was needed. Conservationists began to become environmentalists.

Public environmental concerns led Congress to develop the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and to pass it unanimously over President Richard M. Nixon's objections. In the process of developing NEPA, Congress found that there were more than 80 government units whose activities affected the environment, yet there was no governmental mechanism to develop environmental policy, maintain an overview of governmental actions, or provide environmental coordination. To fill these needs, NEPA established the Council on Environmental Quality and mandated theenvironmental impact statement in an attempt to ensure that environmental factors received due consideration in any federal actions. Today, most states, many other countries, and international development institutions have adopted somewhat similar mechanisms to assess the environmental effects of proposed actions.

The 1970s represent the high point in the passage of U.S. conservation-related legislation. Following NEPA and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, a series of important pollution control measures were legislated: the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, and the Clean Water Act of 1987, as well as comprehensive legislation on ocean dumping, fisheries conservation and management, wetlands and coastal-zone conservation, and protection of marine mammals and endangered species.

The International Environment Protection Act of 1983 is landmark legislation. It incorporates wildlife and plant conservation as important objectives of U.S. development assistance to developing countries, and it requires the federal government to formulate U.S. strategy to conserve biological diversity in those countries.

The 1980s were marked by a backlash against the environmentalism of the previous decade. Led by the administration of President Ronald Reagan and based on ideological, political, and economic concerns, attempts were made to weaken or repeal many of the conservation-related laws and regulations of the previous decade. Outspokenly anticonservation administrators were appointed to head government agencies such as the Department of the Interior and the EPA, and antienvironment citizen groups such as Wise Use Movement emerged. This in turn led to a revitalization of the environmental movement, and the country has made some additional progress on environmental issues, but conservation-related matters often have remained controversial.

International Conservation

The most effective early international conservation efforts involved agreements on migratory species, such as the 1911 treaty for the conservation of the northern fur seal (signed by Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States) and the 1916 U.S.-Canadian treaty for the conservation of migratory waterfowl. Only since World War II, however, has public awareness led to increasing international cooperation on such conservation issues as endangered species, national parks, conservation education, and conservation law. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Sweden in 1972, firmly established conservation of natural resources as an important concern of governments throughout the world.

Today, conservation is concerned with a small number of major global issues. Each of these affects the others, and all are basic to human survival. Although not strictly conservation issues, population growth and economic factors underlie virtually all conservation problems.


Tropical forests are being destroyed at an ever increasing rate. Estimates of the extent and rate of loss vary, but it appears that nearly half of the world's tropical forests already have been lost, and the remainder will all but disappear in the next two to three decades. The loss is incalculable. These forests provide habitat for an estimated half of the world's plant and animal species, provide water and fuel for much of the world's population, and influence regional and global climate. Commercial logging, clearance for agriculture, ranching, and fuel gathering are all responsible for the destruction. Solutions include the development of alternative fuelwood supplies through fuelwood plantations, the regulation of logging, and a consensus as to the value of forest conservation over commercial development.

In contrast, temperate-zone forests have actually increased in recent decades. Their greatest threat is acid rain pollution, which is already severely affecting large areas of the conifer forests of Europe and northeastern North America.

Loss of Agricultural Land. 

As the world's population increases, the lands needed to produce its food are disappearing, covered by buildings and roads, their topsoil lost through erosion, and their productivity destroyed by the salinization caused by irrigation. Large-scale commercial agriculture in parts of the United States results in severe and unsustainable rates of erosion soil loss. Overgrazing and firewood gathering denude vast areas of arid lands, resulting in the inexorable spread of deserts and desertlike conditions. Much of the problem in the developing countries is caused by unsound or ineffective development assistance efforts.

Loss of Biological Diversity. 

The ever increasing loss of plant and animal species represents a major conservation concern. Habitat loss, especially in tropical forest areas, is the greatest threat. Overexploitation threatens some species, such as whales and the rhinoceros. The Convention on Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna has worked well to control trade in most species threatened by commercial exploitation. A more fundamental solution, however, must be the establishment of a global network of areas that protect and maintain representative samples of the world's ecosystems. Substantial progress has been made toward this goal, and there are protected areas—on paper at least—in virtually all nations. To strengthen and augment protected areas where people are excluded, increasing emphasis is being placed on sustainable development, or "community conservation" where people live; the objective here is to bring benefits to the people involved so that they will assist in biodiversity conservation. This approach represents a major new thrust in both national and international conservation endeavors, and it is now central to the conservation efforts of international development institutions such as the World Bank. From the standpoint of conservation, maintaining species of plants and animals in botanic gardens, zoos, or gene banks may be a last resort but is no substitute for maintaining species in their natural habitat.

Endangered Water Supplies. 

Water supplies are threatened virtually worldwide with depletion and pollution. Globally, the major problem is loss of watershed areas through denudation of vegetation. The solution must come from better land use and the protection of critical watershed vegetation, along with water conservation and recycling.

Exhaustion of Nonrenewable Resources. 

The primary conservation concern in this area is with fossil fuels, both in terns of exhaustion of supplies and with global warming caused by the carbon dioxide that is released when fossil fuels are burned. Solutions include improvements in the efficiency of fuel combustion and pollution control, as well as more-intensive explorations for alternatives, particularly from solar energy and other renewable resources.

Conservation As Political and Economic Issue

The benefits of conservation are often long term and therefore accrue to future as well as to present generations. Many of the benefits (environmental quality, for example) do not neatly fit in conventional cost-benefit economic calculations. Thus conservation efforts nearly always run counter to the objectives of short-term economic gain. For example, a lumber company can usually make a greater short-term profit from rapid, indiscriminate "mining" of the trees in a forest than it can from careful, selective logging, followed by replanting to assure a sustained yield. Fishing provides another example. Technological advances have provided modern fishing fleets with the means to harvest vast quantities of fish, providing short-term profit but severely depleting fish stocks worldwide.

In developed countries, conservation issues are often clear-cut economic ones. From the start, the concept of public-trust management of U.S. public lands has provided a major focus for conflict between conservationists and the economic interests of loggers, ranchers, and miners, who virtually without cessation have sought control over the resources of public lands and continue to receive subsidized access to timber, minerals, and grazing privileges. Short-term economic interests often conflict with conservation interests where proposed development will create environmental damage. (An extreme example, but one that is fundamental to conservation issues, is where development threatens a species with extinction.) The benefits of development can be quantified; the costs of the anticipated damage often cannot. Because of the potency of economic motivations, however, the use of economic incentives to promote conservation represents another new thrust in conservation.

Recreational use of public lands has increased dramatically, and while this has created a larger constituency for public-trust management, it has also caused new problems. Increased numbers of hikers, cyclists, horseback riders, and campers are overusing many fragile park and wilderness areas, and future access probably must be limited. Off-road vehicles pose the greatest immediate problem because of their impact on wild-country ecosystems.

Other conflicts arise over quality-of-life issues, particularly those involving low- versus high-density commercial and residential additions to towns and suburban areas. With increasing population pressure, controlling growth has become a high-profile issue in much of the United States. Conservation issues can also have a potent political dimension, especially where they engender conflicts with those whose ideology favors "free enterprise" over government involvement.

In developing countries it has become clear that conservation and sound development are mutually interdependent. Without development, conservation has little chance of being sustained. Where people live at subsistence level and rely on burning wood for heat and cooking, they must cut the rapidly diminishing trees even though they may know that the trees are needed to hold soil and moisture. Yet development that does not take environmental factors into account also has little chance of continuance. For example, unless the watershed above a new dam is protected, its trees may be cut down and the resultant erosion will silt up the dam, making it useless. The interdependence of conservation and development is well illustrated by those development projects which ignored environmental concerns and caused massive deforestation in Latin America, desertification in Africa, and salinization in Asia. Famines in Africa have been exacerbated, if not substantially caused, by development projects that did not incorporate environmental considerations.

Conservation can maintain the resource base needed by developing countries, and it can contribute directly to economic development, as in Kenya and Costa Rica, where wildlife-based tourism earns a significant percentage of those nations' foreign currency. Increasingly, conservation concerns are being incorporated into economic development plans. At the U.N.-sponsored 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the largest congregation of world leaders in history agreed on the broad principles that must guide environmental policies while still encouraging economic growth. Binding treaties commit most of the Earth's nations to curb the emission of greenhouse gases and to protect endangered species.

Lee M. Talbot


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