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I. Political and Social AspectsArthur Maass


II. Economic AspectsAnthony Scott



Whatever else it may mean, “conservation” when used in relation to natural resources is a virtuous, a worthy word. Just men do not oppose conservation. As U.S. President William Howard Taft complained in 1910, “The subject of Conservation is rather abstruse, but there are a great many people in favor of Conservation, no matter what it means.”

In the United States, where this good word has been used most, it has been called to the support of many policies and programs that on their face do not seem terribly consistent. If there is any regularity among them, it is that the policies and programs have demanded reform, based on certain scientific, democratic, and moral objectives.

When “conservation” came to be used in the United States, at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was associated principally with new federal programs for forestry; for regulating the use of western public lands to protect, in addition to timber, the livestock ranges, outstanding scenic and recreational sites, and wildlife habitats; and for developing water resources for irrigation of western deserts and navigation of eastern rivers.

A half century later, in the 1960s, “conservation” was being used to describe and support government programs relating to cities. The “new conservation,” as spokesmen for President John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society have called it, is concerned with the quality of the urban environment—with programs to acquire and protect open land in metropolitan areas and to prevent ugliness and the pollution of the environment. Between 1900 and 1960 the nation's population and its social problems and government programs had shifted from being dominantly rural to being dominantly urban; the use of “conservation” to describe problems and programs followed the same course.

Furthermore, “conservation” had been used in the intervening years with reference to pressing needs of the moment. The great depression of the 1930s and the cold war of the 1950s are examples. Most of the conservation programs of the New Deal were undertaken to pull the nation out of a deep depression and to redistribute income to disadvantaged groups. The Central Valley project, Bonneville Dam, and many other resource-development projects were begun with funds appropriated to stimulate the economy by emergency public works. Payments to farmers for soil-building practices were basically supplements to their low incomes. The public lands were improved by unemployed urban youth recruited into the Civilian Conservation Corps.

In the 1950s conservation was linked to plans and programs to insure the adequacy of raw materials to meet the needs of the free world. The report of the President's Materials Policy Commission, which articulated this approach, was concerned with how to “avert or overcome materials shortages which threaten the long-run economic growth and security of the United States and other free nations” (U.S. President's Materials … 1952, vol. 1, p. 2). The public policies recommended by the Materials Commission were radically different in kind from those that had been associated with conservation in earlier years, among them policies for influencing the rates of technological development in American industry and for guaranteeing private American investments for the processing of materials in foreign countries.

Notwithstanding the number of policies and programs that have been called conservation, certain types of objectives have recurred sufficiently frequently to give some loose form to the concept. The first of these is scientific method.

Scientific method as an objective

Science and technology have played so dominant a role in conservation policies and programs that the scientific method has been used not only as an analytical technique for solving resource problems but as an objective of public policy as well. The authority of science has been used regularly to justify conservation programs. Supporters of conservation have understood the public decisionmaking process to be the somewhat automatic one of collecting scientific data and applying scientific principles to them. Thus, for example, a physical inventory is made of the forest resource; scientific principles of forestry are applied to the data thus collected; and there results a public policy of prescribed cutting practices on timber lands. The word “planning” has often been used to describe this process.

Alongside the great reliance on science and technology for solving problems, conservation programs have normally included general and specific proposals for the support and promotion of science, technology, and data collection on their own accounts—to add to knowledge.

The conservation movement of the 1900s was above all a scientific movement, and its role in history arises from the implications of science and technology for modern society (Hays 1959, p. 2). The leaders of the movement came from such fields as forestry, hydrology, geology, anthropology, and civil engineering—several of which had come to be recognized as professions, with societies and standards, only in the last part of the nineteenth century. A central theme of the movement was support for scientific data collection by such agencies as the then recently established U.S. Geological Survey and for scientific research by the new Forest Experiment Stations and the Agricultural Experiment Stations.

The conservation programs of the New Deal were also scientifically oriented. The high-level National Resources Planning Board served several purposes during its ten-year lifetime, which began in 1933; but the one for which it was created initially, and which remained a central purpose, was to guarantee that public projects undertaken with emergency and other public-works funds were planned by technicians in accordance with scientific principles.

In the report of the Materials Commission, which dominated thought on conservation in the 1950s, more pages are devoted to technology and its promise than to any other subject. Although the commission found that “the Government, up from almost nothing since the beginning of the century, is now the great force behind scientific and technical research in this country,” it concluded that the effort was not sufficient and recommended more funds for basic research on materials and more government planning and coordination of materials technology (U.S. President's Materials … 1952, vol. 1, pp. 144–145).

The “new conservation” of the 1960s, with its focus on beauty and quality of the environment, continues to emphasize science and technology. However, the classes of expert skills called upon to develop the technical principles to be applied are broader. Thus, the conservationist today may be a lawyer working on scenic easements, a land planner, or an architect.

Scientific elitism

The central role of science in conservation programs has meant a central role in decision making for experts and, concomitantly, a reduced role for lay judgment. And since the conservation scientists have been largely in government service, there has developed a scientific elitism that emphasizes government regulation, by the experts, of private interests; and executive, or expert, power at the expense of legislative, or lay, power.

As for the distribution of power within government, scientific elitism has led to the belief that the experts of the executive branch are better equipped than the laymen of the Congress to make decisions relating to conservation, because these are considered to be basically technical in nature. Foresters should determine the allowable annual timber cut; engineers should study the feasibility of river-development projects; agronomists should determine which ranges to keep open for grazing; soil scientists, which lands to retire from agriculture; planning technicians should select the public-works projects to be built. Furthermore, conflicts among competing resource users should be dealt with by experts and not by the political processes that involve the legislature. Land-management experts should resolve land-use differences between forestry, livestock, wildlife, irrigation, and settler groups. Water-resource experts should adjust power, navigation, flood-control, recreation, and upstream-downstream interests to promote the best multipurpose development of river basins. Legislators, being poorly prepared in matters technical, fall easy prey to special interests that have no concern for scientific truth. Members of Congress, therefore, when they have tried to reconcile conflicting groups, have worked a positively bad influence on conservation programs.

As a consequence of this scientific elitism, proponents of conservation programs have held, first, that the legislature should grant the executive the very broadest discretion to deal with problems, and, second, that executive officers have an inherent discretionary power and responsibility to do everything for the public good—as they interpret it— that is not prohibited by law. Thus, executives who are technically competent should be encouraged to do everything that the law will let them do, not merely what the law directs them to do. This latter doctrine, as far-reaching a statement of the public servant's discretion as is to be found in the literature of American government, was set forth by Pinchot and practiced by him and his professional colleagues in the U.S. Forest Service (Pinchot 1947, chapter 12). A similar doctrine was expounded by Pinchot's superior, Theodore Roosevelt, and came to be known as the “stewardship theory” of presidential power. Roosevelt said: “I declined to adopt the view that what was imperatively necessary for the Nation could not be done by the President unless he could find some specific authorization to do it. My belief was that it was not only his right but his duty to do anything that the needs of the Nation demanded unless such was forbidden by the Constitution or by the laws” (Roosevelt [1913] 1946, p. 357). Of course, it was one thing, and at that, quite controversial, for Roosevelt to claim such broad authority for the president, deriving it from the inherent constitutional powers of that office; it was quite another for Pinchot to claim it for forestry and other conservation technicians.

The claims for broad bureaucratic discretion in conservation programs were more regular and explicit early in the century than they have been since. Nonetheless, this feature of scientific elitism has continued to apply to programs called conservation. Thus, in the 1960s a major controversy developed over the Wilderness Bill, the executive departments holding that their technicians should be authorized to designate, subject to presidential approval, which public lands should be set aside for wilderness, excluding thereby all other resource users; laymen legislators holding that such designations should be authorized by the Congress, with full opportunity for legislative hearings.

Finally, scientific elitism has helped to pin a bad reputation on the nation's legislature— that of proponent of special interests and opponent of scientific method.

Physical versus economic objectives

The emphasis on natural science in conservation programs has led to analyses of problems and statements of goals in physical rather than economic terms. The barrels of oil in the ground and the number of barrels pumped out each year; the timber inventory and the board feet of lumber cut each year; the inches of topsoil on the land and the tons of it that annually wash down the Mississippi River —these have been considered the relevant data. They have led to simple conclusions: We are in danger of running out of oil; the topsoil will be entirely gone in another x years—unless vigorous government conservation programs are activated. The responsive government programs have included most physical solutions—contour plowing and the construction of dams are examples—to satisfy goals that, also, have been put in physical measures. “To each acre according to its needs and capabilities,” was the motto of the soil-conservation program; and proponents of the federal reclamation program in California have sought, as their goal, to ensure that not a drop of fresh water is wasted from the rivers to the sea.

The close association of conservation in the 1930s with efforts to redistribute national income to disadvantaged groups raised obstacles for those who analyzed resource problems in physical terms. Nonetheless, the limitations of a heavy reliance on physical data for identifying and solving conservation problems were not exposed systematically until the 1950s, in the report of the Materials Commission. According to this report, the traditional view of conservation had perpetuated two fallacies. First, it regarded the resource base as a fixed inventory that, when used up, would leave society with no means of survival. Second, it equated physical waste and economic waste—it encouraged the feeling that it is wasteful to use materials in ways that make them disappear. This attitude, said the commission, can lead to devoting a dollar's worth of work to “save” a few cents' worth of paper and old string. In its own analysis, the commission estimated the resource requirements of the United States and the rest of the free world and devoted special attention to those resources that would not be forthcoming in sufficient quantity to meet future needs except at significantly higher relative prices. In other words, the commission attempted to foresee potential price rises and to plan in advance to forestall them or adjust to them by various types of measures.

Recently scholars have developed new techniques for combining the physical and economic analyses of complex resource systems (McKean 1958; Maass et al. 1962). The production function for a resource, representing relations between physical factors, and its benefit function, representing relations between economic factors, are believed to be so closely interrelated that they should be developed and analyzed synchronously. The methods of operations research and systems analysis make this possible [seeOperations research; Planning, social, article onRESOURCE PLANNING].

Scientific research and action programs

Principles derived from the natural sciences have been developed for the conservation of each resource— forests, ranges, soil, wildlife—and one principle, that of ecological balance, or nature's balance, for the several resources in combination. This latter principle states that under natural conditions the resources of a region tend to be in balance and to remain relatively stable over long periods of time. Thus, under natural conditions the soil, cover, and moisture supply of a watershed are believed to be in balance, in the sense that plant growth is adjusted to the amount and distribution of rainfall, and stream channels to the runoff they must carry. Even under natural conditions this balance is not static. It is influenced by long-term natural processes, such as climatic forces, and by natural catastrophes. The principle of ecological balance holds that the long-term processes are virtually imperceptible to man and that the natural catastrophes are infrequent, their effects usually confined to small areas that heal rapidly.

Man, however, interferes with nature's balance in a destructive way, according to the ecological theory that has been popular with supporters of conservation programs (Frank & Netboy 1950). He tends to set in motion forces that seriously and sometimes permanently disrupt the ecological balance. For example, his livestock may overgraze a watershed. The plants lose their vigor—that is, their ability to produce new leaves and roots and to deposit litter that covers and nourishes the soil. The carpet of litter not only wears thin but is destroyed by exposure to the elements and to animal hoofs. In time the soil loses its virility, including its capacity to absorb water and to resist forces of destructive erosion. Concomitantly, the flow and quality of water deteriorate.

The public-policy consequences of the principle of ecological balance are clear: control man's activities so that he cannot permanently or seriously disrupt nature's balance. A great many conservation programs have been based on this scientific principle. Furthermore, the principle provides its own criterion for evaluating the condition of the resources of a region: measure it against what were believed to be the natural conditions prior to man's settlement.

In response to this theory, certain scientists, frequently men who have not been associated with conservation programs, have argued that man is only the most recent and most complex of nature's creatures; that he and his activities are a part of, not apart from, nature's balance (Tansley 1939; Firey 1960). Conservation ecologists have replied that man is unique; that he is endowed with capacities not found in other animals or found there only in concentrations so weak as to make a qualitative difference. These capacities are, of course, consciousness, intellect, and conscience.

Quite separate from this continuing and, in part, philosophical debate, recent scientific studies have challenged the principle of natural ecological balance and, therefore, the scientific bases of many public programs. Raup (1964) and his colleagues at the Harvard Forest have demonstrated that natural catastrophes have such persistent and serious effects on natural environment that stable natural equilibriums may be infrequent. On certain slopes of the forest over 50 per cent of the trees are growing on blowdown stumps that were razed by numerous hurricanes. Malin (1956) has described the influences that kept the Great Plains grasslands in a disturbed state for countless years before the coming of the fur traders and settlers. His studies make an impressive case against the theory of nature's balance and the doctrine that man, primarily, destroyed this. Scientists like these have modified their search for ecological balance, with its resulting emphasis on “Do Not Disturb”— on protection. They have instead focused their studies on adaptation, with its resulting emphasis on a dynamic and flexible system of controls and de-emphasis of the destructive character of human occupance. Yet the traditional association of many conservation programs with ecological balance is so strong that supporters of these programs tend to disregard or disagree with any contrary or even partially nonsupporting scientific theories.

Conservation programs have been devised and then supported on the “authoritative base of science,” but when this scientific base or any part of it is challenged by new findings, supporters of the program, both in and out of government, are ambivalent. Their dedication to science leads them to promote the type of research that can turn up new and contrary results. But the fact that their public, and most often their legislative, support is based on a previously proclaimed scientific authority makes them hesitant to give currency to these new findings.

Another illustration of this is the U.S. Forest Service and fire (Schiff 1962). When the service began its program for ridding the nation's forests of what was then considered to be their greatest scourge, the doctrine that trees and fires don't mix was generally believed to be a scientific truth. Public and legislative support for the now familiar Smoky Bear program was built largely on this truth. In the mid-1920s, however, Professor H. H. Chapman, the noted Yale forester, confirmed a new truth, which had been suggested previously by other forest scientists; namely, that fire is essential for the reproduction of longleaf and loblolly pine in the southeastern United States. Without fire to burn off the brush growth and ground litter, pine seedlings are unable to survive. If the Forest Service had been fully successful in its fire-protection program in the southeast, it would have eliminated these valuable species.

For over six years the Forest Service refused to investigate or check the new findings, though Chapman insisted they should. When Forest Service scientists did conduct investigations at their Southern Experiment Station, these confirmed the case for burning; but the service then refused to release the results.

Finally, in 1939, after the incessant insistence of Chapman, the service published their scientific findings; but not until after World War ii did they make any effort to inform the public that controlled burning was in some situations desirable and in others essential. Throughout this period of about twenty years, the Forest Service supported publicly the original scientific doctrine that forests and fire should never mix. The leaders of the agency feared that to modify or contradict this in any way might lead the public to be less vigilant and cause the federal and state legislatures to be less sympathetic to providing the means for preventing forest fires throughout the nation.

The Forest Service and other conservation agencies are not the only government organizations that have encountered problems in accommodating both scientific research and action programs. The general problem, a fascinating one in bureaucracy and organization, is beyond the scope of this article. At the same time, because of their very heavy reliance on scientific method as an objective, conservation agencies have suffered the problem in an aggravated form.

American conservation programs, with the possible exception of those based on the analysis of the 1952 Materials Commission, have been reform programs. Like other American reform programs of the twentieth century, but much more so, conservation programs have relied on the authority of science. Faith in science has had a high standing among the beliefs and commitments of the American people. Science has come to stand for material well-being, soundness, objectivity, and truth. A society with a proper respect for science and technology can enjoy the liberties of a free people. Much the same can be said of democracy, as an objective of American reform programs in general and of conservation programs in particular.

Democracy as an objective

For the American people, democracy has been not only their form of government but a faith, an ideal, an objective, “our form of patriotism” (Waldo 1948, pp. 12–13). Every individual is important; every man should be master of his own destiny; all men are endowed with rights that should not be violated; the privacy of individuals should be free from unwarranted intrusion—these are the first tenets of the American democratic faith, and they have been associated directly with conservation programs. “Rugged individualism” is a phrase common to conservation literature from the beginning of the century until today, and a highly evocative phrase this has been—whether it calls to mind Theodore Roosevelt on horseback or today's heavily knapsacked citizen on foot, solitary in his enjoyment of nature's wilderness. Conservation begins with the American people, who have been nurtured on “a fierce sense of individualism,” and it “rests in the people's hands,” according to the school text published by the American Association of School Administrators and written by its Commission on Conservation (1964).

Conservation programs, again apart from those inspired by the Materials Commission, have typically defended this rugged individual, “the little man,” against monopolies and concentrated wealth, special interest and special privilege. Big business and financial power have been identified with the wasters of resources and the destroyers of beauty.

The conservation movement of the early twentieth century was in part a reaction against the influence of private corporations, which had been growing rapidly since the Civil War. Unless the corporations were controlled, said the supporters of conservation-reform programs, the basic resources of the nation would come to be concentrated in the hands of a few, and these few would use up the nation's wealth wastefully and profligately, for quick private profit, with no concern for the long-range benefit of the people. Furthermore, the organization of industry into combinations threatened the independent, self-made man with a faceless, ugly, and largely urban materialism. In recent years, as conservation has been used more and more in relation to urban problems, the real estate interests, the large industrial polluters of the environment, the billboard lobby, and others have been added to the oil trust, the lumber lobby, the power interests, and the cattle barons as enemies of the common man—selfish despoilers of his heritage.

There runs through all conservation literature the notion of a common, or public, good that differs from the self-interest, the “selfishness,” of private operators, especially those with great financial power. To define and enforce this common good, governmental action and public education are needed. Thus, alongside the basic belief in rugged individualism, there has developed a strong commitment to positive government as a means of effecting the common good. In fact, this progovernment attitude has been a principal characteristic of conservation programs, joining the emphasis on science. At the turn of the century, such an attitude represented a drastic departure from then dominant values with respect to the role of government in society (Wengert 1962), and ever since, demands for governmental action to support conservation have been more far-reaching than those for action to support most other domestic policies.

Commitments to rugged individualism on the one hand and to positive government on the other are presumably harmonized in a commitment to democratic institutions, and the literature on conservation programs is sprinkled with references to faith in democracy and to consent of the governed. But when the investigator looks carefully, he finds that supporters of conservation programs have in fact had little confidence in democratic institutions. They have considered popularly elected assemblies to be agents of special interests; they have opposed advisory committees in connection with administration of the national forests. Their confidence has rested with the technicians of the executive, who are qualified both to define the common good in relation to the subject at hand and to enforce government action to realize it. The common good, thus, is equated with scientific elitism.

At the same time, conservation men have sought direct popular support for their government programs through public education and public information. As a result of the sustained effort of government conservation agencies and their allies outside government, conservation is a subject taught today in thousands of public schools all over the country. The curriculum emphasizes the scientific principles of conservation; in the classroom and in the woods children are taught ecology, soil classification, game management, etc.

The government conservation agencies have also depended heavily on adult education to gain support for, and cooperation with, their programs to reduce forest fires, to promote soil-erosion control and other agricultural practices, to preserve scenic areas, etc.

If the supporters of conservation programs, while claiming democracy as an objective, have shown little confidence in democratic institutions, they have, through their outstanding efforts in public education, shown confidence in the common man. But one could argue that this has been more to gain public support for programs based on the scientists' definitions of the common good than to encourage popular participation in defining this goal.

The commitment to positive government has led, as might be expected, to the organization of a large number of special-interest groups and to an intense form of interest-group activity in conservation programs (Wengert 1955). Since the conservation technicians are concerned to see that the general interest, rather than special interests, prevails and since the general interest, for them, is the result of the application of scientific principles, they are ever on guard against the influence of these groups. This is in part why they have opposed advisory committees that represent one or more classes of users of the public lands, and why they have been suspicious of popularly elected assemblies, which are susceptible to the influence of special interests.

Big and little operators

From the beginning, but especially since World War II, the “little-man” component of the democratic objective of conservation programs has meant contradictions in these programs; for the big operators, even or especially the very big ones, frequently practice better “conservation” than the little ones.

Take forestry, for example. In a massive inventory report entitled Timber Resources for America's Future (U.S. Forest Service 1958), the Forest Service reported that “the forest condition is best” on public forest lands and on those owned by forest industries such as Weyerhaeuser. “There is little distinction,” said the service, “between the productivity of recently cut lands in public ownership as contrasted to those owned by forest industry.” The real contrast in quality of forest practices is between the public and forest-industry ownerships on the one hand and the small private holding on the other: “There is conclusive evidence that the condition of recently cut lands is poorest on the farm and 'other' [meaning 'small'] private ownerships” (ibid., p. 106).

Reduction in numbers of livestock on public ranges that are overgrazed is another example. Government range supervisors assert that it is easier to effect this conservation measure if the range is used by a few permittees, each with a large number of livestock, than by a large number of permittees, each grazing relatively few head. This is because the large operators, with their commensurately large private holdings, can absorb a cut of 10 or 20 per cent in public range use; whereas a similar cut for small permittees might force them into economic ruin. Thus, the small man presents the conservation problem.

Morality as an objective

In addition to commitments to science and government, conservation programs have had a strong moral commitment or objective. Historians (Hofstadter 1955) have shown that reform programs in America—prohibition, civic improvement, or conservation—have often been a product of the “Protestant mind.” Reformers have both found their arguments in and made their appeals to the traditional biases of American Protestants: individualism; a tendency to see every issue as a moral issue; an emphasis on man's and society's guilt for abusing God's gifts and on the need for missionary work to repair this. Conservation reformers, in particular, have inherited the moral traditions of rural evangelical Protestantism, even though today they use them in connection with urban problems. The present condition of our natural resources, as revealed by scientific inventories, “constitutes the gravest indictment that has ever been returned against a civilized people,” said a conservation magazine in 1909; and pronouncements concerning today's conservation problems frequently are similar in tone and appeal.

What precisely have been man's and society's sins? Of what are we guilty? First, of interfering with nature's balance. The scientific principle of ecology is supported by and gives support to religious beliefs. All things owe their gift of life to God, and nature's balance is God-given. At the same time, man is outside nature's balance because of his unique endowments, endowments that give him the power to transgress the balance (i.e., intellect) and that make his transgressions sinful (i.e., conscience). These transgressions should be controlled, for man is in the relationship of steward to the resources that surround him. Man “has been made responsible for something that belongs to God. The good steward acknowledges this responsibility as a trust… . The orderly conservation and development of natural resources is man's recognition of his responsibility under God to protect and use wisely His precious gifts” (National Association of Soil Conservation Districts 1962, inside front and back covers).

One sin is, then, to destroy nature's balance. A second one is to waste, and a third is to use our natural resources for private benefit rather than for common good. The importance of the sin of wastefulness in the American ethos is well known. It has led us, as the Materials Commission said, to saving old string. “In the orderly world of our Creator,” warns a recent conservation pamphlet, “there are penalties for extravagance.”

”Our resources are God-given heritages that belong no more to the present generation than to generations that are to come.” This is a common concern in conservation literature, and it is usually accompanied by the idea that single-minded pursuit of present profit in the development of resources may not protect the interests of unborn children. Supporters of conservation programs, in other words, have had little confidence that the discount rate of the private competitive market will account for legitimate long-run interests. Since those who develop resources for private benefit can thus fly in the face of the common good, they can act immorally.

This third sin is especially likely to occur where monopolies, trusts, and conspiracies in restraint of trade are present in industrial organization. The supporters of conservation almost invariably find that such private combinations are operating against their programs, so they are typically engaged in battle against immoral conspiracies. Since Americans have a propensity to believe in conspiratorial theories of history, a propensity derived in part from their Protestant ethic (Hofstadter 1955), the battles of conservation have been popular engagements.

The political and social consequences of the moral objective of conservation programs generally have reinforced the consequences of the scientific and democratic objectives. The cases for positive government and for executive power have been enhanced; both are needed to combat evil, as well as to promote science and democracy. Reinforced with a sense of moral righteousness, the supporters of conservation programs have considered those who disagree with them to be not merely misinformed or wrongheaded but wicked and possibly vicious. The conservation men are ever fighting for their programs in a milieu of recurrent crises. See the remarkably readable works of Pinchot (1947) and Ickes (1934) and the exquisitely written and influential commentaries of DeVoto (1955) for examples.

As in the cases of science and democracy, recent findings have questioned some of the bases for the moral content of conservation programs. But the moral component is so ingrained that the findings have frequently been challenged or ignored. Thus, Malin's and Raup's researches have questioned the evilness of man's encroachments on nature's balance. The Materials Commission has redefined waste in a way that makes the concept more difficult to relate to sin. And the good conservation practices of large industrial resource users, as compared with the poor performance of small operators, tend to blunt the charges of immorality made against corporations and combines.

Conclusion on American conservation

This article has sought to explain the social and political aspects of conservation programs, not to evaluate them. Because of the difficulties of explaining frequent contradictions in these programs, however, the reader may have gained an erroneous impression that the writer's purpose was to evaluate and even to condemn. The contradictions are present because conservation has been used in relation to so many different programs and because the unifying theme, insofar as there is one, is simply that these have been programs for reform, based on certain attitudes toward science, democracy, and morality.

Without trying to evaluate the substantive achievements of individual conservation programs —for example, forests protected from fire, topsoil protected from wind and water erosion, income redistributed to tenant farmers, highways protected from billboards—we can point to some meritorious consequences of scientific elitism and the acceptance of positive government. These factors undermined the Spencerian view, prevalent at the turn of the century, that government could not perform effectively. Insofar as conservation agencies were involved, the executive branch of the government was radically reformed, and these agencies—the Forest Service and the Geological Survey are examples—continued, for almost half a century, to be models of what a professionally competent and efficient bureaucracy should be. They developed professional standards and loyalty to professional ideals; they introduced personnel programs emphasizing the selection of officials through competitive examinations, professional training, and career planning; they enjoyed stability of leadership; they established close relations for research and recruitment with the nation's leading universities; they pioneered new methods of program planning. Scientific elitism and the acceptance of positive government put a new and handsome face on the executive; but not so meritoriously, they have helped to blacken the eyes of the legislature and have contributed little to reforming it.

Finally, for general evaluation, the highly charged moral battle against evil that has characterized conservation programs has probably been good catharsis for the American people. A balanced opinion on this requires a general view of American social, economic, and political history that is beyond the scope of this article.

Now that conservation has come to be associated with urban as well as rural problems, it will be interesting to observe whether this unique combination of science, democracy, and morality, with its resulting emphasis on positive government and on scientific elitism, will accomplish similar results for the government's urban functions.

Conservation outside the United States

Research to date has not shown that similar objectives have been combined to produce similar reform programs outside the United States. To be sure, all nations have some government programs like the conservation programs of the United States. In many cases these foreign programs were adopted long before their American counterparts. The scientific principle of sustained-yield forestry was brought to the United States from Germany, and the idea of protecting and conserving forests for national self-sufficiency and national survival was practiced in Napoleonic France. In other cases United States programs, e.g., those of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), have been models for foreign activity. In fact, TVA, meaning multipurpose water development, is now a universal concept.

In some countries these programs have not been called conservation at all, and in others, where the word is used, it has been in a different context. Thus, for example, the forestry activities of the French in north Africa were not called conservation, whereas similar British activities in India were described as “forest conservancy.” The Indian government, however, in its five-year development plans, no longer uses “conservation” with reference to timber programs, reserving the word for nature, wildlife, and soils; and the British at home have always used the word as do the Indians today. In any case, outside the United States conservation has not meant programs of reform involving a combination of scientific elitism, a positive attitude toward government, and a religious commitment. Neither western European nor developing nations have needed a reform rationale to justify the power of government to act in forestry and related natural-resource areas.

The United Nations and its specialized agencies pursue many programs for resources and related activities that superficially are similar to United States conservation programs; yet the United Nations activities are not typically called conservation, nor do they, in fact, combine the several elements that have given character to the United States programs. The student who seeks references to the international programs in the indexes of United Nations publications should look under such entries as “economic development,” “technical assistance,” “land reform,” “natural resources,” “arid zones”; for he will find few or no references under the heading “conservation.”

In 1949 the United Nations did sponsor the Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources, but its subsequent conferences on the same and similar subjects have been given titles that emphasize, instead of conservation, the application of science and technology to various resources for the purpose of economic development. Julian Huxley's UNESCO report on the conservation of wildlife in central and east Africa (1961)—with its insistence that “the world is ecologically out of joint,” that man has destroyed nature's balance for shortsighted economic advantage, that African and world opinion must be aroused through popular education to protect Africa's wildlife and its habitats from exploitation by Africans—approaches the United States model that we have elaborated, but this report is atypical in the vast documentation of the United Nations.

Arthur Maass

[See alsoPlanning, social, article onRESOURCE PLANNING. Other relevant material may be found inEcology; Landscape; Science, article onSCIENCE-GOVERNMENT RELATIONS.]


American Association of School Administrators 1964 Conservation: In the People's Hands. Washington: The Association.

DeVoto, Bernard A. 1955 The Easy Chair. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Firey, Walter I. 1960 Man, Mind and Land: A Theory of Resource Use. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Frank, Bernard; and Netboy, Anthony 1950 Water, Land and People. New York: Knopf.

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Huxley, Julian S. 1961 The Conservation of Wild Life and Natural Habitats in Central and East Africa: Report on a Mission Accomplished for UNESCO, July−September, 1960. Paris: UNESCO.

Ickes, Harold L. 1934 The New Democracy. New York: Norton.

Maass, Arthur et al. 1962 Design of Water-resource Systems: New Techniques for Relating Economic Objectives, Engineering Analysis, and Governmental Planning. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

McKean, Roland N. 1958 Efficiency in Government Through Systems Analysis, With Emphasis on Water Resources Development. New York: Wiley.

Malin, JAMES C. 1956 The Grassland of North America: Prolegomena to Its History, With Addenda. Lawrence, Kan.: Malin.

National Association of Soil Conservation Districts 1962 The Stream of Life. League City, Tex.: The Association.

Pinchot, Gifford 1947 Breaking New Ground. New York: Harcourt.

Raup, Hugh M. 1964 Some Problems in Ecological Theory and Their Relation to Conservation. Journal of Ecology 52 (Supplement): 19–28.

Roosevelt, Theodore (1913) 1946 An Autobiography. New York: Scribner.

Schiff, Ashley L. 1962 Fire and Water: Scientific Heresy and the Forest Service. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Tansley, Arthur G. 1939 The British Islands and Their Vegetation. Cambridge Univ. Press.

U.S. Forest Service 1958 Timber Resources for America's Future. Washington: Government Printing Office.

U.S. President's Materials Policy Commission 1952 Resources for Freedom. 5 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Waldo, Dwight 1948 The Administrative State: A Study of the Political Theory of American Public Administration. New York: Ronald Press.

Wengert, Norman I. 1955 Natural Resources and the Political Struggle. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Wengert, Norman I. 1962 The Ideological Basis of Conservation and Natural-resources Policies and Programs. American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals 344:65–75.


The economist concerns himself with the allocation of scarce inputs among different uses and over time. The conservationist's mission is narrower: ignoring the scarcity of labor and capital, he sets standards for the use of land or natural resources. Originally the conservation movement considered chiefly the allocation of natural products over time; later, their allocation among competing uses (the ”multiple-use” approach); most recently, in the adaptation of benefit-cost analysis, the allocation of capital to the development or preservation of nature.

Thus, the gulf between conservation and economics has narrowed. But there is still a special conservationist approach: nature must be protected from man's ruthlessness, wastefulness, and ignorance, both because mankind jeopardizes its own present and future gain from the natural endowment and environment and because the preservation of nature is a good thing in itself. The liberally trained economist, distrustful of such absolute value judgments, has also been disturbed by the imprecise and demagogic use of such phrases as “natural heritage,” “waste,” “wise use,” “debt to the future,” and “greatest good of the greatest number for the longest period of time.” Consequently, after a brief examination of the writings of the nineteenth-century economists on similar topics, this article will attempt to distinguish and interpret the economic problems embedded in the writings of the conservationists.

At least three important classical economists anticipated the conservation movement's writings about the uses of natural resources, although only Malthus is acknowledged by the conservationists to have done so, and then only in connection with population growth. But Malthus is actually the least significant of the three in the economic analysis of the conservation question.

Malthus (1798), in his basic model, for example, envisaged ever-increasing food production (at an “arithmetic” rate), a possibility denied by the pessimistic conservationists. Furthermore, Malthus' commentators asserted that he had understated the ability of improved technology to obtain adequate produce from the earth. Both he and his critics, therefore, ignored the possibility of depletion. [SeeMalthus.]

Ricardo (1817), on the other hand, taught that man must extend production to ever less fertile lands until society's growth would be stopped in an equilibrium of human and natural fertility characterized by low standards of living and high land values. Furthermore, in some inconclusive passages on minerals, Ricardo showed himself aware of the possibility of complete depletion. Indeed, Goundrey (1960), has argued that the conservationist literature approximates a layman's discussion of the Ricardian stationary state. [SeeRicardo.]

For fifty years following Malthus and Ricardo, economists accepted this view of the relation of man to his resources [seeRent]. Although this analysis was couched in the sweeping dynamics of the early classicists, it actually did not deal with rates of growth or depletion, a neglect remedied by Jevons in The Coal Question (1865). This vigorous work, a model of research, forecast the Ricardian decline of both British mining and the industrial might dependent upon it. Jevons then posed the question, Should exhaustion be delayed by conserving coal for the future? His answer was not explicit, but his approach was clear:

The alternatives before us are simple… . If we lavishly and boldly push forward in the creation of our riches, both material and intellectual, it is hard to over-estimate the pitch of beneficial influence to which we may attain in the present. But the maintenance of such a position is physically impossible. We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer continued mediocrity. ([1865] 1906, pp. 459–460; italics in the original)

Jevons had already considered substitutes for coal but concluded that their possible appearance would not contribute to Britain's “superiority.” In the above quotation he summarized two important principles: first, that natural resources can be transformed into man-made riches, including intellectual capital, that might be of greater future value to all mankind than a stock of coal; second, that the rate of growth itself and the “fabric of varied interests” connected with change should be encouraged, rather than a high or a sustained level of output. This fine study is still a source of inspiration to economists pondering the terms of trade between present and future production.

Like Malthus and Ricardo, Jevons alarmed his contemporaries, his ideas leading, for example, to statistical examinations of Britain's wealth and to political debates on her liabilities—the public debt. [SeeJevons.]

Conservation goals. But economists had little impact on the conservation movement, which instead developed certain unique social principles [seeConservation, article onPOLITICAL AND SOCIAL ASPECTS]. These principles were applied in the advocacy of a set of policies about resource use that could be traced back through European economic history to suggest that conservation had long been inherent in enlightened official action. Four distinct policies, in fact, were frequently cited as anticipations of what was to become the conservation movement.

Preservation of wildlife and forests. The first of the four policies was the preservation of wildlife and forests. Feudal Europe had set aside “forests,” or hunting preserves, for the monarch and had guarded them against farming and urban encroachment by stern laws, savagely enforced. The result was that by the nineteenth century many of these large areas were still wooded and comparatively undeveloped, some being used for timber, others as parks and game preserves. Although the undemocratic reasons for creating these reservations and the bloodthirsty enforcement of encroachment laws were sometimes glossed over, the fact that these areas existed, had survived commercial opportunities, were often highly valued by the public, and were well managed by the state was frequently cited by conservationists. These reserves were undoubtedly an important model for the national and state parks and forests set up in the United States and in some of the British countries. Also an important forerunner of the nature sanctuaries that public and private agencies have recently promoted, they can be said, in retrospect, to have inspired what has probably been the most successful aspect of conservation policy: the setting aside of natural areas as a source both of productive resources, chiefly timber and fish, and consumption resources for the leisure and recreation of an increasingly urban and educated public.

Access to natural resources. The second policy goal was the achievement of a widespread ownership of and access to natural resources. Conservationists pointed out that in feudal times the supposedly absolute rights of the monarch over resources were actually limited by his duties to his tenants and by the fact that he was forced to delegate land management to those who were using the land. This system, it was argued, had eventually degenerated and succumbed to the age of liberalism, when land was enclosed by capitalists and accumulated into large holdings; the countryside was heavily depopulated; and resource wealth was “seized,” “grabbed,” and “wasted.” The conservationist reaction to this trend was widespread.

In Scandinavia, for example, especially in Sweden, the liberal policy of alienating royal land to timber and iron companies was suddenly reversed; the remaining area was set up as government forest, managed by public enterprise. In other parts of Europe too, as the great American conservationist Pinchot noted during his period of training in France, the government had resolved to hold forests “for the people.” In many newly settled countries, large landholdings were disfavored, and it became official policy to encourage homesteads instead of ranches and plantations. Similarly, the American alienation of mineral and water rights was organized so as to maximize the access of small operators to these resources. Thus, both in the United States and elsewhere, the conservationist had goals in common with latter-day physiocrats, single taxers, socialists, muckrakers, and trust busters: the prevention of resource accumulation by a small number of “land capitalists,” and the widespread distribution of land ownership or of rental income.

Prevention of depletion. The second goal, of course, was frequently in conflict with a third policy: the prevention of rapid depletion and eventual disappearance of resources. This third policy has been called “conservation proper”: a program of state action or intervention to change modes or rates of use of natural resources. Both casual observation and economic analysis strongly suggested that “waste,” erosion, and overrapid mining and logging were most common where holdings were small or where users had an incomplete title to the land. “Democratization,” as it is called in the preceding article, was frequently antipathetic to long-term conservation.

For conservationists, however, the pressing task was not the reconciliation of their objectives but the demonstration of the imminence of resource depletion. This was no small task. At first they had no evidence to offer except the logical proposition that because production was continuing and increasing, reserves must be declining—a proposition that was applied indiscriminately to reserves of timber, coal, oil, helium, whales, groundfish, salmon, and gold. When scientific inventories and geologic surveys eventually became available, near the end of the nineteenth century, they did seem to indicate increasing scarcity, although they also imposed a certain discipline on conservation orators. Among the facts stressed was a decline in the number of large trees in the annual cut and a decrease in the size of fish being caught. It was shown, too, that petroleum reserves amounted to less than twenty years' production and that the delta of the Mississippi was apparently building up, through upstream soil erosion, at an alarming rate.

In the present century, however, the revision and perfection of these inventories has weakened the impetus of the conservation movement. In the first place, improved knowledge of animal and forest science has shown that population dynamics and ecology, rather than static inventories, are required for an understanding of future yields from the so-called renewable resources, so that attention has become focused on the many problems of management, rather than on the unique goal of hoarding. In the second place, it was realized that inventories have an economic dimension: the estimate of “ore” and “commercial” timber reserves available depends upon prices and costs, as modified by ever-changing technologies. Thus, not only did increasing resource scarcity become difficult to demonstrate, but also the essential unity that a feared generalized depletion of all resources had imposed on the movement was lost. From the technical point of view, the United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources (UNSCCUR) meeting in 1949 showed the impossibility of taking a global view of natural resource inventories, so complex were the uncertainties and the interconnections between resource industries (United Nations … 1953). And from the policy point of view, the United States President's Materials Policy Commission report (1952), subsequent European energy studies (Organization for European Economic Cooperation 1960), and the mammoth investigations by the staff of the Resources for the Future foundation (1963) utilized an economic approach to the problem of possible scarcities that left little room for the conservation faith.

Management of common-property resources. The conservation movement was also influenced, although to a minor degree, by the problems of common-property resources—those in which private investment aimed at changing the form, scale, or management of a resource would be unprofitable because the investor cannot be sure he will harvest the returns. Much of the literature on this subject was bequeathed by the eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century writers on the European common pastures and woods to those who later observed the low yields and unprofitable investment in oil fields, ocean fisheries, and certain water resources, where unrestrained private utilization caused external diseconomies of production. In addition, when the resources were capable of producing recreation benefits, there were external diseconomies of consumption. [SeeExternal economies and diseconomies.] Thus, when the conservationists turned to the prevention of depletion and the advocacy of “prudent use” of oil fields and water bodies, they found there was no single, responsible owner or manager.

Eventually it was left to the technologists and scientists to define some conservation ideal for such resources. Petroleum engineers invented the concept of “maximum efficient rate” of production, designed to recover a high percentage of the underground crude. And fisheries biologists designed fishing regulations that would achieve a fish stock's “maximum sustained catch.” Both these concepts implied regulation of the users of common-property resources, and holding to the prescribed rates was designated “conservation.” But the technical complexities of these subjects and the limited number of persons interested in them have left them somewhat outside the wider conservation movement.

The conservation movement. The four subjects —preservation of wildlife, redistribution of landed wealth, prevention of depletion, and prudent use of common property—became the basic precepts of the conservation movement. Upon them was based a structure of thought that, as formulated by scientists, attempted to show the loss to mankind from continued misuse and abuse; as formulated by more extreme and romantic writers, it attempted to find villains and scapegoats among those who “exploited” the natural heritage. While the former group projected nineteenth-century trends into the future, predicting shortages, low living standards, and high costs, the latter group attacked the farmers who used bad agricultural practices, the insatiable hunters and fishermen, and above all, the large mining and logging companies who, negligently or malevolently, despoiled the earth.

The scientists' work has led them into many byways. As they have learned more about new techniques of exploration, production, and concentration, the oversimplified conservation ideals have been abandoned. National and international multi-resource conferences, such as the UNSCCUR meeting mentioned above, have been highly interesting but have failed to reveal the common aims and problems proclaimed in the 1900s. The more sophisticated contemporary discussions of water recycling, desalinization, and purification, of mineral development, forest genetics, fisheries' biology and oceanography,. game behavior, and population dynamics, have, instead, revealed a multitude of social science problems concerning the re-education and adjustment of producers and consumers to new practices, costs, and opportunities.

Further, there is nowadays no single “economics of conservation”; many methods of analysis, from the use of econometrics in demand and production studies through regional input-output studies to decision theory in the business firm, are now relevant. In what follows, therefore, we must confine the discussion to the economic analysis of the older conservation assertions, particularly to the claim that the market mechanism is powerless to deal with imminent depletion and shortage.

Economic analysis of conservation

At any given time, there exists for each resource what Ciriacy-Wantrup (1952) has called its “state of conservation,” the expected temporal distribution of use rates. A conservation policy, therefore, is one that would induce those who manage resources to change this state so that more use will take place at a later date.

How does the original degree of conservation come about? The economic forces at work can best be understood by studying the behavior of the firm making planning and production decisions. The firm is deterred from postponing all use of its resources by the discount on future net revenues. A profit of $1 postponed one year is worth $1/(1 + i)> where i is the rate of interest relevant to the firm's lendings and borrowings. This expression is less than $1 and diminishes exponentially with the number of years the profit on resource use is delayed. Consequently, there is an incentive to reap the harvest of its durable and its growing assets as soon as possible. The rate of interest, i, here stands for all the forces of time preference, shortsightedness, and liquidity preference that the conservationist believes are leading to early depletion and future shortages.

But if the firm advances the dates of use of its resources, its output per day must then increase. This increased rate will be possible only at higher unit costs, so the profit per unit will be smaller and the incentive to early depletion will be counterbalanced.

The precise nature of such increasing costs has been debated by economists since Ricardo wrote his chapter “On the Rent of Mines” ([1817] 1962, pp. 46–47). It is now agreed that three types of increasing costs may be distinguished. In the short run, a resource operation with a given plant, transportation, and underground or surface layout will experience ordinary diminishing returns. In the long run, however, these facilities and layouts are flexible; the question now becomes whether the “law of diminishing returns” applies. Marshall's assertion that it did not led to a controversy with Taussig, Wicksell, and Cassell. Today it is agreed that higher costs associated with ores located farther away from the plant are irrelevant to the discussion of the costs of alternative rates of output, indicating only that costs will be higher in later periods than in early periods or that more elaborate workings will become necessary. They do not indicate that the curve of costs must, in the long run, rise with higher rates of output per year or per shift. In general, it would appear that the economic debate about proportionality and returns to scale applies as well to resource operations as to other businesses, with the added element of the limited space within which commercially attractive materials are to be found. This factor of limited space would appear to be an additional reason for expecting the long-run cost curve to be U-shaped.

Amortization of fixed capital is a third source of rising costs. Except in extremely large sites, the life of a resource operation is shorter than the durability of the fixed capital needed to work it. Apart, therefore, from those items of capital that can be moved to new workings, the equipment costs must be amortized over the number of units of material to be removed. Consequently, higher rates of extraction can be accomplished only by higher fixed costs per unit.

The firm may encounter any or all of these sources of increasing costs and so be deterred from attempting an immediate exhaustion of raw materials. In addition, it must contemplate the expected course of future prices for its product.

In the typical situation deplored by the conservationists, mineral extraction is proceeding, reserves are shrinking, mines are closing, and metal prices are gradually rising. Under such circumstances the firm has an additional incentive to lengthen the state of conservation. Future use will be expected to receive higher market prices and unit profits than current use. It will pay the firm to adjust its production plan in favor of output in later periods. This incentive will be presented to all firms, so the evil day of future scarcity, dreaded by the conservationist, is postponed by today's planning for higher future profits.

Thus, the firm must balance present profits, future profits, and the rate of interest. Discounted profits become an opportunity cost, or more precisely a user cost, of present production. (User cost is the present worth of the profit that could be earned on an extra unit if its extraction were postponed to the best future date.) Present operations should therefore be expanded until marginal current profits equal marginal user costs, in order to maximize the present value of the natural resource enterprise.

In a perfectly competitive commercial economy, it could be said that the firm that only maximizes current profits is acting on the expectation that future prices and profits will be very poor. Assuming that the firm's foresight is not only normal but is sharpened by the opportunity to gain from accurate perception of future markets, society can have no complaint about such a firm's state of conservation. On the contrary, such present-worth maximizing firms will produce an optimum degree of conservation. This is why the academic economist rejects the conservationist's contention of the probability of a future starved of natural resources.

But the conservationist can rightly point to the many assumptions underlying this economic model. If, for example, the firm (like many small miners, farmers, and loggers) discounts the future at a rate higher than that used in the rest of the economy, user costs will be too small to prevent present extraction of material that competitive forces would have awarded to the future. Or if the firm is irrational, unthinking about its own best interests, future consumers may lose. Such market imperfections are the first of three important justifications for conservation policies.

Market imperfections. The presence of market imperfections in the capital market, the labor market, or the final-product market can weaken the economists' case that present-worth maximization by individual sellers will ensure an optimum state of conservation. Ciriacy-Wantrup (1952), Gordon (1958), and Scott (1955) investigate the consequences of such imperfections and weigh the arguments for remedial policies, such as regulation, subsidies, public ownership, and so forth. It is usually held that an imperfect land market—that is, a common-property situation—presents the best prima-facie case for interference in the interest of conservation.

Other imperfections may also be serious. But conservation action is not justified by a few firms having a strong time preference, extreme illiquidity, or lethargic indifference to their own gain. For the too rapid production of a few firms will be counterbalanced by compensatory action of the other firms in their industry. The relatively high rates of output of the “imperfect” firms will raise market supplies and so depress prices; the depressed prices will discourage production by other firms and also discourage the opening of new operations. The competitive interperiod allocation of total supplies will be restored. Only if such a large fraction of total stocks is dumped on the market that the remaining producers have insufficient reserves to restore the intertemporal balance will conservation intervention be justified. Hence, the mere citing of imperfections in some portions of the market does not in itself justify conservation policies. The market must be overwhelmingly imperfect.

A better case for conservation intervention can be made if the owner has been placed in a situation where he cannot gain by delaying sale of his stocks until the future period comes. At least five types of circumstance may be responsible. First, governments may, by tax-free inducements to new resource firms, make it less profitable to extend production much beyond the duration of the tax holiday. Second, government purchase, stabilization, or stock-piling schemes may create an incentive to take early advantage of supported prices. (In this circumstance, however, conservation objectives may be achieved by the stock-piling, even though it is done away from the original site.) Third, as discussed above, users of common-property resources are incapable of taking advantage of future markets and must extract as much as is profitable today. They may, however, “unitize” the management of the resource in order to gain from the process outlined earlier; or they may encourage the government to intervene to slow down present extraction; or, finally, they may individually produce in the present for their own inventory (because of the high costs of storage off the site, this is rarely an important alternative). Fourth, future values may be so enveloped in uncertainty that firms may individually opt for present profits. Fifth, future values may be in different uses than present values and may be unmarketable. That is, they may be the source of external economies to other producers (in controlling floods or erosion) or “intangible” services (of scenery or recreation) to consumers.

All of these circumstances are common in the resource industries, and many have been dealt with by special government institutions, such as those mentioned in the last section of this article. While it is true, as suggested earlier, that small resource owners are sometimes irrational and do not know their own best interest, investigation often shows that nonconservation behavior can be explained satisfactorily by one or more of the five circumstances above.

A less clear-cut situation exists when the value of production to some portion of society, such as the inhabitants of a province or country, is greater than the market value. Thus, a unit of timber output postponed may prevent a town from degenerating into a “ghost town.” Forest and oil conservation may well prolong the industrial importance of communities and nations that might otherwise suffer from the migration of labor and capital to locations where their incomes and productivity would be higher. Such cases are complicated, and it does not follow that anyone's interest is actually served by postponing the day of final exhaustion and closing down. There are indeed many direct and indirect subsidies for production from dwindling reserves, to support otherwise stranded communities. But such subsidies are hotly debated. Even if they are justified, it does not follow that it would have been better to reduce the early rates of extraction of such deposits than to subsidize them later.

But the strongest case for conservation ultimately depends upon opposing views of responsibility to the future and opposing views of the future situation. It is true that there are many externalities, but taken together they are insufficient to motivate the conservation movement. Let us take up these two matters one at a time.

Responsibility to the future. The preceding account of the theory of use has shown that the future is not ignored by resource firms. The future is provided with such raw materials as are justified by the owner's cost of holding wealth (the rate of interest). Although monetary fluctuations and changes in desire for liquidity may change the rate of interest from period to period, it is here a rough indicator of both the rate of return on other types of capital investment and the desire of present generations to save. It is this connection between saving and the state of conservation that has led many writers to conclude that the heart of the conservation problem is in the conflict between present and future (Gray 1913). Clearly, a lower rate of interest would reduce a firm's tendency to discount user costs and to divert consumption of a raw material from the near future to the more remote future.

In general equilibrium this diversion, however, might not occur for all resources. If, for example, savers became more willing to provide for the future, the supply of savings would increase (and interest rates fall) not only for resource owners but also for all potential borrowers. As the amount borrowed for private and social capital formation rose, the current demand for raw materials for these investment goods would expand; meanwhile, the demand for raw materials specifically needed for consumer goods would fall. It is quite possible that some index of demand for all natural resource raw materials would rise, not fall. Without knowledge of the elasticities of substitution between resource-based inputs and other inputs, it is, of course, impossible to predict what the outcome would be. Unless substitute inputs are generally adopted, however, the demand for resource-based raw materials by makers of both capital and consumer goods should be about the same as with the former, higher rate of interest. If the resource industries supply this unchanged demand as before, then the change in the interest rate has had no effect. If they do so at higher prices, the final outcome may be that although the money rate of interest has fallen, the real (Wicksellian) rate has returned to its previous level.

A third outcome is that the lower rate might induce resource owners to reject permanently some of the current demand and hold their resources longer. This possibility might emerge if it is expected that all (present and) future prices for raw materials will be higher, but the discount rate remains lower, than before the change in rate. This third outcome, similar to the effect described by the Austrian economists as “lengthening the period of investment,” is the only one of the three possibilities favorable to general conservation of stock, or durable resources.

Which of the three possible outcomes will materialize depends on the new general equilibrium following a change in the propensity to save, which new equilibrium may take many years to emerge. The raw materials demand from other types of new investment may develop rapidly or slowly; and the contraction of consumer goods requirements may also depend upon the durability of the consumer goods in question. Thereafter there will be a response lag as the resource industries, especially those producing renewable resources, make and remake decisions about investment in extractive and regenerative activities. In other words, a simple change in the rate of interest will produce a new degree of conservation only after a long adjustment period, during which resources may be depleted more or less rapidly than before the change and more or less rapidly than after the final equilibrium is reached.

Another difficulty about applying the interest rate concept is that although many writers concede a lower rate of interest will lengthen the period of investment, such theories do not offer predictions of which types of investment will actually increase in “duration.” The general lengthening may be accomplished by the shortening of some types and the lengthening of others (Hayek 1941).

It is, of course, impossible to dispense with the rate of interest in resource calculations. Some guide is needed by which today's managers can spread possible output over a stated period of years. Otherwise they would have no measure of the amount of stock resources to be taken out of possible future use for present consumption. Graaff has described decision making about intertemporal allocation as planning to bequeath a certain “terminal capital” at a certain date; of the problems beyond this date, man takes no heed. This approach has proved to be a useful approximation in recent papers on welfare economics and growth, but its value for reasoning about resource allocation is limited. The planning horizon recedes as we approach it, so that some discounting is still required, with perhaps a sudden discontinuity at a certain point in the stream of future revenues and costs.

Predicting the needs of the future. If some dis-count must be used and if society is to depend upon commercial estimates of future prices to indicate future needs, can we be sure that these needs are being correctly estimated? It is clear that many owners are not foresighted, but in view of the many government studies now available, it is hard to believe that the information is now any worse than the rest of the information by which persons and governments govern their behavior.

The real difficulty about these predictions is the certainty that requirements are going to change. The dynamism of the world economy means that once-essential materials may become mere chunks of matter, of low economic value. Not only do fashions change (e.g., from cotton to man-made fibers), but new techniques change entirely the type of process responsible for providing a certain part of the consumer budget (e.g., from mail carried by coal-powered railroad to telephone and television), and these changes are apparently accelerating. Hence, producers are feeling less confident that their resource will have a future market.

Furthermore, there is increasing evidence that expected future scarcity brings about its own solution—through “self-generating technical change,” as Barnett and Morse (1963) have called it. An anticonservation view is now plausible: that mankind can invent itself out of any shortage. Barnett and Morse feel that the only difficulty here is that increasing recourse to substitutes and increasing shortage of space may lead to some general deterioration in the “quality of life.”

Hence, estimates of future scarcity not only are uncertain but also are probably overstated. The resource owner can be forgiven if he decides that it is not worthwhile arranging to have supplies available for some remote posterity. Such uncertainty is now likely to provide a large discount, additional to the interest rate, in computing user costs of current production and depletion.

Conservationists have disputed this conclusion on two grounds. The first is that energy sources are likely to become an ultimate bottleneck. Fossil fuels and falling water are known to be limited; tidal energy may be expensive to harness; we might soon have to depend upon sunlight and other solar radiations. This argument has been recently weakened by the discovery of the practicability of nuclear power sources. In any case, it is not at all clear what should be done, in a large way, to delay the time when lack of energy might become a seriously limiting factor to production or growth.

The other ground for conservation action, based on uncertainty about technical progress, has been formulated by Ciriacy-Wantrup. Confining himself to renewable or flow resources (soil, water, plants, and animals), he argues that society should not gamble on the possibility that changes in technology, tastes, and institutions will be favorable. He advocates, instead, that the level of such resources should be kept above a “critical zone,” below which any decline is irreversible. It should be the business of society to keep a stock of timber, soil, plants, fish, and wildlife available, which can be expanded to fill an “immoderate” need if such should arise. This view is close to that of the ecologists, who advocate keeping the relationship of various living species to each other and to their habitat (swamps, rivers and lakes, wilderness, desert, and so forth) more or less intact. In effect, Ciriacy-Wantrup claims that the maintenance of this “safe minimum standard” is a fairly inexpensive insurance policy against the possibility that unpredictable changes may put a high value on living forms and water and soil complexes after they have become irrecoverable.

Conclusion—the role of economics. It will be seen that the economists' analysis of the conservation question depends heavily upon the theory of capital, which (as in welfare economics, macroeconomics, and growth theory) is probably the least-rewarding branch of economic theory in terms of useful generalizations about the real world. The objective fears of conservationists, under particular circumstances, could be realized; their assertions about subjective benefits and costs are more questionable but have indicated fields for valuable analysis, so far mostly ignored by economics. What economics has done up to now is to show the variety of problems and objectives implicit in the conservation question; to attack the notion that all resource problems are susceptible to a common analysis or policy; to stress the scarcity of labor and capital, as well as that of natural resources; and to undertake the detailed description and analysis of land and raw material situations.

Such applied research began early in the nineteenth century, in forest economics, an ingenious combination of population theory and actuarial finance most fully developed in Germany and Scandinavia. The objectives, such as maximum sustained yield, were more technocratic than economic, but the methodology is easily adapted to other ends. Agricultural economics, too, got off to an early start and was well equipped to analyze soil exhaustion and conflicting land use from both institutional and marginalist points of view.

The economics of mining, petroleum, fisheries, water-supply, and recreational land operations, however, were largely ignored by economists until the late 1930s. Most progress in these fields was made in peripheral studies of market organization, labor conditions, taxation, or public utility pricing, and most of these had little impact on resource policy or business practice. Indeed, today's specialists in conservation economics frequently find that the best pioneering contributions have been made by geologists, engineers, biologists, and administrators.

From the marriage of such “engineering economics” with orthodox welfare economics have emerged the variants of benefit-cost analysis, a technique of decision making first applied in Europe and the United States to the evaluation of water-resource projects [seeWater resources; Welfare economics]. It has been generalized to deal not only with fixed investments but also with conflicting uses of land resources. It is discussed more fully in another article [seeInvestment, article onTHE INVESTMENT DECISION]. All that needs to be said here is that it makes possible the full and systematic study of any investment which claims to increase income or stability or fulfill other objectives. Variants of this approach, designed especially to deal with uncertainty, the discovery of new resources, intangible services, and opportunity costs, have been worked out in many countries. In view of the numerous distortions interfering with the optimum use of actual resources (such as the market imperfections previously discussed), it is a particularly useful substitute for market forces in government decision making about the form and rate of resource exploitation.

Conservation institutions

The state of conservation of any particular natural resource is not alone the outcome of a variety of personal and economic determinants, such as the intelligence, education, taste, and means of the owners and managers. In addition, special pressures are brought to bear by taxes and tax rebates, subsidies, licenses and regulations, tariffs, quotas, labor laws, safety rules, and zoning statutes. These institutional arrangements temper and divert the forces of the market for each raw material and resource location. In some countries public ownership and the force of custom and habit are so overwhelming that the price mechanism works only slowly and spasmodically. In others, markets for the resource site, for shares in ownership, for capital, labor, and the final product, are so well developed that criticism of the state of conservation is implicitly criticism of the open-market system itself.

In all countries, however, a variety of special institutional arrangements have been made to modify the private regime of resource exploitation and renewal. Some of these supplement market mechanisms by providing information, education, or special assistance where these seem to be lacking. For example, many countries have systems of farm credit, which have, as one of their purposes, the supplementing of poorly organized private systems of farm, livestock, and crop loans.

Similarly, many countries maintain some kind of geologic survey, which performs for the mining industry as a whole a basic research function similar to the basic research carried on by the government for agriculture and by the universities for industry.

A number of other such public institutions, important but auxiliary to the basic market mechanism, might be identified. In the following paragraphs, however, it is intended to mention some institutions that go further and that compensate for the absence of a market or replace it. In addition, there are institutions concerned with common-property resources that basically compensate for the absence of sole ownership.

International institutions. From the administrative point of view, the most interesting international institutions are those concerned with resources that are open to several nations, either because they are in the high seas or in other areas outside national jurisdiction (Antarctica or outer space) or because the resource moves from country to country (fish, migratory birds, international rivers and air).

In the absence of specific treaties, customary international law governs the conditions of use of these resources. Usually the effect is that there is little restriction on the resource's use. Thus, in the absence of specific agreements, high-seas fisheries, migrating birds and animals, rivers and air flowing across boundaries, may usually be exploited much as the nationals of each country wish, subject only to their domestic laws. And since the country has no power to regulate the actions of other countries' nationals, there is little to be gained by making restrictions.

For that reason, there have long been agreements whereby certain countries were given rights or sole rights to certain fisheries or bodies of water, although the older of these agreements rarely called for regulation to protect fish or animal population. Since 1900, however, a variety of conservation treaties have dealt with fisheries in waters used by two countries, fish migrating between two countries' seas, and high-seas fish populations. The first important example was the 1911 fur seal convention between Great Britain (for Canada), Japan, Russia, and the United States. Since then, fisheries treaties governing research, catching, and improvement have been made for whales, Pacific tuna, and Pacific salmon and halibut, and agreements have been made regarding North Sea and Baltic Sea trawling, and the northwest Atlantic fisheries. The general effect of such treaties is to leave fishing open to the members but to restrict the time, place, or technique of fishing in such a way as to increase the sustained yield. This is certainly a gain, in that more fish are available for consumers. However, the regulations have been criticized because they aggravate the overemployment and overinvestment that are already inherent in the utilization of common-property resources. First, by raising the potential catch without limiting the entry of vessels, they draw still more vessels into the fishery (Christy & Scott 1965). Second, the method of protecting the fish stock (for example, the prohibition of modern methods or the setting up of closed seasons) frequently creates idle capacity or requires expensive off-season storage facilities. Recent studies of the operations of the Pacific halibut convention have demonstrated that the industry is by no means healthy, although the treaty is frequently and correctly cited as a striking success in the management of wildlife, in that it has produced or maintained large catches compared with what would have been the case in the absence of international agreement.

In this connection, it should be noted that the UN Geneva meetings on the law of the sea, in 1958, succeeded in introducing two conventions, one on high-seas fisheries and the other on the mineral resources of the continental shelf. Probably on the way to becoming accepted international law, these conventions should increase the possibility of bringing marine resources under economic management.

There are a number of international river agreements, negotiated between the riparian states. Among them are agreements on the Indus, the Rhine, the Danube, the Rio Grande, the St. Lawrence, and the Columbia. All permit more valuable development than would have been possible had the signatories confined their activities to their own waters. Few, however, have gone so far as to encourage the full utilization of the river without regard to the boundary.

Some action has also been taken to protect migratory wildlife. Eleven European states interested in bird protection signed a convention for this purpose in 1902, and Canada and the United States agreed on joint action in 1916. International action has also produced the 1936 convention on the protection of African flora and fauna and the 1954 convention on the prevention of pollution of the sea by oil. Such conventions are interesting because they seek “nonmarket” objectives: they have been supported mainly by sportsmen, on the one hand, and by amateur and scientific ornithologists, on the other. The great destructiveness of modern hunting methods makes it possible to annihilate certain species entirely (an outcome that is much less likely in most fisheries), so these treaties should indeed be classified as preserving certain resources “for future generations.”

National institutions. The conservation of resources within each country is implemented by a rich complex of specialized institutions. This is particularly so for common-property resources, which would otherwise be overexploited, depleted, and perhaps destroyed. Almost all countries now have fisheries' regulations, applicable within their territorial and inland waters. Some of these regulations are explicitly to protect the exploiting rights of certain communities or tribes or the owners of certain outmoded kinds of equipment. But others exist to protect fish stocks by regulating time, place, and method of catching. Usually, however, permission to fish is free or cheaply obtained, so that conservation (actually, management) of the fish stock may be achieved while labor and capital are, as already indicated, economically underemployed.

Similarly, pressure of oil and gas in petroleum fields and levels of water tables in aquifers may be regulated to prevent destructive loss from competitive exploitation. Prorationing of oil fields is a well-known technique. But spacing by unitization is rare in North America. It is more common in other countries, where concessions are given for management of, and investment by firms and syndicates in, entire fields. Conservation of the resource may, therefore, be achieved, but at the opportunity cost of a substantial waste of labor and capital.

In the same context, the special tax treatment for petroleum and mineral exploration and development should be noted. Generally based on the “unusual degree of risk” in exploration ventures, these amount to an amelioration of income tax by depletion allowances and the “expensing” of prospecting costs against other income. It is, however, hotly disputed whether this undoubted risk is a sufficient reason for special treatment; in addition, it would, in general, seem to be an anticonservation treatment because it leads to more rapid exploration, production, and depletion than would otherwise be the case.

Another device is the export control board. This has occasionally been used in time of national emergency to prevent the export of scarce raw materials and is, in that restricted sense, a conservation institution. Canada's National Energy Board, however, has powers to prevent the export of fuels or electricity until it is satisfied that Canada's future needs have been covered. A Norwegian policy respecting the export of electricity has somewhat the same effect. This type of policy is often indistinguishable from that of forbidding the export of certain raw materials in order to encourage further processing by home industries. It is, therefore, frequently a type of industrial protection, akin to the tariff.

Forests and forestry are also the business of a large group of special institutions. On the one hand, as has been noted, many forests are publicly owned and come under management rules that, if anything, exaggerate future needs. Not only have some governments invested more than private owners in land acquisition away from agriculture and in the planting to forest of such lands, they also tend to grow plantations to ages (”rotations”) that aim at maximizing the physical volume of wood produced rather than its maximum present value. Many European countries, especially in Scandinavia, now obtain a large proportion of their wood from public lands (which are frequently in regions that were not wanted for any other purpose and remained, by default, in public ownership). The tropical countries, also, own most of their own timber resources. In addition, logging and processing lumber, on some, at least, of these lands, tends to be a nationalized industry, although in the United States and Canada it is common to have short-tenure loggers or logging contractors undertake the harvesting.

On the other hand, there is an increasing tendency for private forests to be regulated by government, in the interest of ensuring reforestation and fuller utilization. The economic value of regulation by law is uncertain, but such regulation may be defended as a means of drawing to the attention of small owners the profitability of more intensive forest management; the burden of compliance with the law is frequently very small.

This legalistic approach is usually supported by a system of property taxation applicable only to forest lands, which reduces the incentive created by value-based taxes to cut while trees are still small. In addition, there are special income tax and inheritance tax arrangements available that reinterpret the usual tax distinctions between income and wealth, to deal with the fact that a growing forest is both a capital good and a crop. Scandinavian taxation is most elaborate in these respects, but attention should also be drawn to the capital gains status of forests in American federal taxation and to the reliefs for forests provided under the British death duties. Most important, however, is the administration of these laws and taxes, which has an educative effect similar to that of farm-extension work.

Conservationists, often biologists, have long been concerned about recreation, but the study of park and recreational-site planning in general is just commencing. As explained at the outset of this article, most public lands and parks “survived” the nineteenth-century period of liberal land alienation into private use. In most countries these parks today—in a period of increased population, higher incomes, and increased leisure—are intensively used by the general public and are imaginatively managed by conscientious park services. But because their services are given freely, there is no market profit reaped; access is unrationed; parks are congested; and a “problem” has emerged. There is a clear public desire for more facilities, but governments have been slow to respond. Economic analysis of land-acquisition policies is just commencing, and conflicting users of land close to centers of populations have not been slow to dispute the establishment of public parks, nature conservancies, camp grounds, green belts, playing fields, and so forth. A few private substitutes have appeared, charging for their services, but the problem of land allocation between recreation and market uses is largely neglected by the social sciences, although it should be amenable to techniques now used in the economics of education.

Finally, we may refer to the preservation of sport fish and wildlife. As has been mentioned, international agreements exist that have some effect on the preservation of some species. But for the most part, protection is achieved by the domestic control of hunting and, to a lesser extent, of habitat.

In general, rights to hunt and fish are conveyed by licenses or permits, it being an offense to hunt without one. In addition, certain species are protected absolutely in certain seasons or places or up to a certain quota. Usually permits are free or cost only a nominal amount, although permits for the hunting of big game (especially by foreigners) may be sold close to what the market will bear. Sometimes hunting or fishing rights are attached to the land or water, are owned privately, and may be leased or sold. Such private rights produce revenues that can be used to conserve the resource, and these revenues also ration the demand.

But “public” hunting is not usually rationed in this way. Enforcement of prohibitions against an extensive activity that takes place in open country is, of course, very expensive and in some countries has been quite ineffective. Elsewhere, a trio of problems prevents a sophisticated conservation regime: the problem of acquiring or protecting habitats from other land uses; the problem of learning the needs of the various species inhabiting the environment; and the problem of arranging an understandable set of regulations, permits, and prices that will encourage the harvesting of surplus stocks of some species while protecting the diminishing stocks of others. In the long run, there is the additional danger that a really effective management system will lead to the virtual domestication of the conserved species, thus negating much of the ethical and recreational value claimed for the preservation of wildlife.

Anthony Scott


Barnett, Harold J.; and Morse, Chandler 1963 Scarcity and Growth: The Economics of Natural Resource Availability. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Christy, Francis T. Jr.; and Scott, Anthony 1956 The Common Wealth in Ocean Fisheries: Some Problems of Growth and Economic Allocation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Ciriacy-Wantrup, Siegfried von (1952) 1963 Resource Conservation: Economics and Policies. Rev. ed. Berkeley: Univ. of California, Division of Agricultural Sciences, Agricultural Experimental Station.

Gordon, H. Scott 1958 Economics and the Conservation Question. Journal of Law and Economics 1:110–121.

Goundrey, G. K. 1960 Economics and Conservation. Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science 26:318–325.

Gray, L. C. 1913 Economic Possibilities of Conservation. Quarterly Journal of Economics 27:497–519.

Hayek, Friedrich A. von (1941) 1950 The Pure Theory of Capital. London: Routledge; Univ. of Chicago Press.

International Economic Association 1957 The Economics of Fisheries: Proceedings of a Round Table …. Edited by Ralph Turvey and Jack Wiseman. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.

Jevons, W. Stanley (1865) 1906 The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-mines. 3d ed., rev. London and New York: Macmillan.

Malthus, Thomas R. (1798) 1958 An Essay on Population. 2 vols. New York: Dutton.

Organization for European Economic Cooperation, Energy Advisory Commission 1960 Towards a New Energy Pattern in Europe: Report. Paris: The Organization.

Resources for the Future 1963 Resources in America's Future: Patterns of Requirements and Availabilities, 1960–2000, by Hans H. Landsberg, Leonard L. Fischman, and Joseph L. Fisher. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Ricardo, David (1817) 1962 Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. London: Dent; New York: Dutton. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Irwin.

Scott, Anthony 1955 Natural Resources: The Economics of Conservation. Univ. of Toronto Press.

Seminar on the Development and Administration of the International River Basin, Vancouver, 1961 1963 The International River Basin: Proceedings of a Seminar… . Edited by J. D. Chapman. Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia, Publications Centre.

United Nations Scientific Conference on the Conservation and Utilization of Resources, Lake success, N.Y., 1949 1953 Proceedings. 7 vols and 1-vol. index. New York: United Nations.

U.S. President's Materials Policy Commission 1952 Resources for Freedom. 5 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office. → Commonly known as the Paley report.

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CONSERVATION is the term coined by the forester Gifford Pinchot in 1907 to describe the philosophy that the environment must be managed to assure adequate supplies of natural resources for present and future generations. Several other definitions of conservation exist, and an examination of the evolution of the conservation movement in the United States may help elucidate how and why the term has come to have different meanings for different people at different times.

Utilitarian Conservationism

Throughout most of American history, the prevailing attitude toward the natural environment was that it was something to be subdued and used for the good of humankind. This exploitative ethos was grounded partly in the Judeo-Christian tradition that gave humans "dominion … over every living thing." The perception that the continent was endowed with limitless natural resources and the dogma of free enterprise with the concomitant view that private property was sacrosanct and beyond the scope of government regulation also encouraged exploitation. Accordingly, as the nation expanded westward, hunters, loggers, miners, ranchers, and settlers heedlessly laid waste to the country's wildlife, forests, minerals, grasslands, and soil in the name of progress, civilization, and manifest destiny.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a few scattered individuals fore saw the dangers of such practices. In 1832, for example, the artist George Catlin warned in North American Indians that the American wilderness eventually would vanish unless subject to formal preservation, and he consequently proposed setting aside a large area of the West as a national park where Indians and wildlife could survive. In the following decade, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau castigated his fellow citizens for prizing only the material potential of the landscape and urged preservation of portions of the countryside in their pristine states. In 1864, the geographer George Perkins Marsh traced in Man and Nature the disastrous consequences of deforestation in terms of flooding, soil erosion, and degradation of the water supply and implored society to take responsibility for its actions. In 1878, the geographer John Wesley Powell issued his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, in which he advised settlement of the West in a planned manner that took account of the constraints of the environment. In 1872, Congress established Yellowstone National Park, the country's and the world's first national park, to protect the area's unique geysers and geological formations.

But the creation of Yellowstone National Park was an anomaly, and farsighted people like Catlin, Marsh, and Powell were lone voices crying in the rapidly diminishing wilderness. Not until the late nineteenth century, when it was no longer possible to ignore the evidence that the country's natural resources were not in fact limitless, did those voices turn into a chorus. It is not insignificant that this occurred at the same time that the accelerated settlement of the West led the Census Bureau to proclaim the closing of the frontier in 1890. In addition, in this era the burgeoning cities were vacuuming their hinterlands of resources, the increased pace of industrialization was depleting the nation's raw materials, the ownership of resources was concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, a newly imperialistic United States required ever greater material holdings to stoke its military and economic engines, and the rising rate of immigration seemed to increase competition for assets. It accordingly dawned on forward-looking policymakers that what was left of the public domain would have to be administered in a more thoughtful and planned manner if future generations were to avail themselves of nature's bounty.

Conserving wildlife. Persons whose work or avocation brought them in contact with wildlife were among the first to manifest a conservationist ethic. Ornithologists, mammalogists, foresters, and sportspeople became increasingly concerned that North America's game animals were dwindling in number drastically. The numbers were decreasing because the advancing tide of settlement caused widespread habitat destruction and also because it was in the immediate financial interest of many Americans, for example, farmers, tanners, milliners, furriers, and market hunters, to kill as many wild animals as possible. As a result, several species of North American game had been exterminated by the beginning of the twentieth century, and the outlook was bleak for a number of other animals.

In 1887, Theodore Roosevelt founded and became first president of the exclusive Boone and Crockett Club, with membership limited to an elite core of one hundred big-game hunters. Roosevelt's most important successors as president of the club were George Bird Grinnell, a famous ethnologist and the influential editor of the nation's foremost periodical for sportspeople, Forest and Stream; and Madison Grant, an amateur anthropologist and the powerful chairman of the New York Zoological Society. Aristocratic sportspeople like Roosevelt, Grinnell, and Grant accepted that those in a position of power and prominence were obligated to husband the nation's resources for the benefit of their less-enlightened compatriots. They set about convincing their fellow sports-people that, if big-game hunting were to survive beyond the nineteenth century, they would have to lobby for restrictive game laws. Consequently, the Boone and Crockett Club was transformed from an association of gentleman hunters into one of the seminal conservation organizations in the United States. To implement its agenda, the club's members cultivated key legislators, entertained important newspaper editors, submitted articles to influential journals, and appeared frequently before congressional committees. Within a few years, a number of other organizations devoted to conservation joined the Boone and Crockett Club on the national scene, and together they racked up a number of legislative victories for wildlife protection. Many species that had been headed toward extinction at the beginning of the twentieth century were relatively common by the end of the century.

But the legislative successes of the conservationists and the proliferating number of organizations devoted to wildlife protection did not ensure the popularity of the conservation movement at the dawn of the twentieth century. The vast majority of the American people still looked upon conservationists as effete "sentimentalists" and aristocratic "busybodies" who threatened the right of average Americans, especially the hard-working hunters, trappers, loggers, ranchers, and miners of the West, to benefit from the country's public resources. Conservationists countered that, aside from any sob sister concern about wild animals, the true economic interests of most westerners lay in preserving rather than using the wildlife and resources of their region. In the long term, far more people could make far more money in guiding, lodging, rafting, and outfitting than in market hunting, clear-cutting, and strip mining. But the conservationists were few in number; not until the 1920s did the conservation organization the Izaak Walton League attract a mass membership. Conservationists were still part of a narrow-gauged effort that had succeeded so far precisely because it was composed of a small but well-connected elite with ready access to the corridors of power in Washington, D.C., and certain state capitals.

Fortuitously for the perpetuation of the conservation movement, the founder of the Boone and Crockett Club ascended to the U.S. presidency in 1901. During his tenure in office, President Roosevelt vigorously espoused conservation and transformed the previously esoteric philosophy into a popular movement. In addition to making wildlife protection an important priority of the federal government, Roosevelt also raised the public's consciousness about the need to conserve the nation's forests and to protect its water resources.

Conserving forests and water. From its inception, the federal government had pursued an energetic policy of transferring into private hands the vast quantities of land, known as the "public domain," it had obtained as a result of the nation's westward expansion. A variety of disposal laws encouraged land speculators, railroad magnates, cattle kings, mining interests, timber syndicates, and others to lease, purchase, develop, or otherwise acquire "usable" areas of the public domain. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, conservationists began urging the government to "withdraw" areas of particular value from the operation of the disposal laws so they could be permanently protected under the control of the federal government. The creation of Yellowstone National Park provided the model for the practice of withdrawing discrete areas from the public domain to preserve unique qualities. The next major step in this process was the Forest Reserve Act of 1891, which authorized the president to protect areas covered wholly or in part by trees. The creation by executive order of such forest reserves, which became known as the national forests, would put those lands beyond the reach of the loggers who were decimating the nation's timberland to meet Americans' unquenchable demand for wood to build their homes and for fuel to run their steamboats, locomotives, and factories. Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland proceeded to set aside 38 million acres of public land as forest reserves, all in the western part of the country, as the East had long since been denuded of its old-growth forests.

The forest reserves were supported by a number of groups, including wildlife organizations, who appreciated that forests provide habitat for fauna; hydrologists, who understood that forests protect watersheds and temper flooding; and agronomists, who realized that trees block the wind and prevent soil erosion. But the forest reserves were extremely unpopular in the West, where the average citizen, remarked Roosevelt, had always had but one thought about a tree—to cut it down. Westerners bitterly resented the federal "lock up" of public lands and grew increasingly angry over the magnitude of presidential withdrawals. Politicians, including President William McKinley, noted the level of the westerners' enmity and began listening attentively to their demand that the forest reserves be restored to public sale.

When Roosevelt became president, he was fully determined not just to retain but to expand the nation's forest reserves. He and his close friend Pinchot, the head of the U.S. Forest Service, worked together to create many new forest reserves, and by the time Roosevelt left office in 1909, he had quadrupled the extent of the national forests to 172 million acres. But Pinchot correctly feared that future presidents might be less sympathetic to forest conservation than Roosevelt. He understood that, if the reserves were to be protected in perpetuity, the opposition of the West would have to be taken into consideration. Accordingly, he explained to suspicious westerners that the federal government had no intention of locking up the forests forever. Rather, he and Roosevelt simply sought to replace wasteful, short-term exploitation by selfish lumber barons with efficient, long-term management by the federal government. In Pinchot's vision, forests, if protected properly and harvested judiciously, could be renewable resources that would last forever. Just as the Boone and Crockett Club wanted to save animals now so they could be hunted later, so Pinchot's Forest Service wanted to conserve trees now so they could be harvested later.

For Pinchot, conserving forests was a matter of both fiscal prudence and fealty to the tenets of democracy. "The natural resources," Pinchot declared, "must be developed and preserved for the benefit of the many, and not merely for the profit of a few. Conservation means the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time" (Breaking New Ground, pp. 46–48). He furthermore pointed out that forests, if wisely managed, not only would return crops of timber but also would accommodate land for grazing and, most importantly, protect watersheds that could be used for irrigation. Thus, forest reserves would benefit local, that is, western, residents most of all and were not just a pet cause of effete tree lovers. To drive home the point, Pinchot changed the name of the forest reserves to "national forests." The former term implied that the trees were being reserved from the nation's use, while the latter implied they were being conserved for the nation's use. "The object of our forest policy," repeated Pinchot, "is not to preserve the forests because they are beautiful. … The forests are to be used by man. Every other consideration comes secondary" (Hays, Conservation, p. 42). It was not at all illogical therefore that in 1905 the national forests were removed from the jurisdiction of the Interior Department and placed under the control of the Department of Agriculture. "Forestry," explained Pinchot, "is tree farming" (Breaking New Ground, p. 31).

Pinchot's defense of the national forests provided the manifesto of the nascent conservation movement, which sought to "conserve" the resources of the nation in the present to ensure a supply in the future. Pinchot's philosophy fit well the tenor of the times, for conservationism mirrored the progressives' enthrallment with scientific management, rational use of resources, and long-term planning by the federal government. This helps explain why the public so rapidly embraced the concept of conservation during the Roosevelt administration and why the public eagerly agreed with the president that it was not just wildlife and trees that needed to be conserved. Water, for example, was now seen as a resource worthy of conservation, and Congress passed the Newlands Reclamation Act (1902) to fund water reclamation projects in arid western states. In 1907, the government created the Inland Water ways Commission to oversee multiple-purpose river development, including irrigation, navigation, flood control, and power creation.

In addition, President Roosevelt set aside millions of acres of coal, phosphate, and other mineral reserves to prevent private exploitation, and he kept the momentum going by hosting the historic White House Governor's Conference on Conservation in 1908 to persuade state governments and corporations of the importance of conservation. The Governor's Conference led in turn to the creation of conservation commissions in forty-one states, and it also appointed the National Conservation Commission, chaired by Pinchot, to inventory the nation's resources as a guide to future policy decisions.

Aesthetic Preservationism

President Roosevelt accepted the utilitarian rationale for conserving trees. "These [forest] reserves," he stated unequivocally, "are created purely for economic purposes" ("Wilderness Reserves," p. 23). He reminded Congress that "forest protection is not an end in itself: it is a means to increase and sustain the resources of our country and the industries which depend on them. The preservation of our forests is an imperative business necessity" (Pinchot, Breaking New Ground, p. 190).

But in conserving trees, Roosevelt was also motivated by a sentimental consideration, his genuine love of nature. While his first priority was utilitarian, he also wished to have some forested areas remain in their natural conditions, untouched by the ax of the logger, no matter how "inefficient" such a policy would be. "In addition … to the economic use of the wilderness," he wrote, "it is wise here and there to keep selected portions of it … in a state of nature … for the sake of preserving all its beauties and wonders unspoiled by greedy and shortsighted vandalism" ("Wilderness Reserves," pp. 23–24).

Roosevelt's conflicting motives for expanding the national forests highlight the fact that in the early twentieth century the growing conservation movement was actually fed by two different streams. On one side were the utilitarian conservationists, epitomized by Pinchot, who were interested in conserving the nation's resources so they could continue to be used by future generations. On the other side, led by John Muir, who in 1892 founded the Sierra Club, were the aesthetic preservationists, who were interested in preserving nature for its scenic values and who lobbied for the creation of inviolate sanctuaries, for example, national parks and wildlife refuges, where fauna and flora could be preserved in their pristine states, safe from the encroachments of modern civilization. Muir and his followers disdained the utilitarians for seeing only the material, as opposed to the spiritual, benefits of nature and were aghast that the Forest Service encouraged lumbering, grazing, and mining in wilderness areas. As far as the preservationists were concerned, the only way the nation's forests should be exploited by humans was as sites for recreation and contemplation.

The preservationists were part of the long American tradition in which citizens responded to the ravages of urbanization and industrialization with a romantic yearning to "get back to nature." And certainly at the beginning of the twentieth century, the aesthetic and recreational charms of the outdoors were ever more inviting to the increasing proportion of the population that was living in urban areas and evincing disgust at the congestion, corruption, pollution, and inequalities of the cities.

While the popular mind viewed both the Pinchotian conservationists and the Muirian preservationists as part of the conservation movement, a large gulf existed between those who looked at a forest and saw, in Pinchot's words, "a manufacturing plant for the production of wood" (O'Brien, "Environmentalism as a Mass Movement," p. 9) and those who looked at a forest and saw an inviolate temple of nature. To be sure, some persons, like Roosevelt, appreciated the arguments of both the conservationists and the preservationists. But the two sides were generally hostile toward each other, and their philosophical differences became starkly evident during the protracted battle between 1901 and 1913 over whether or not to construct a dam in the isolated Hetch Hetchy Valley

in Yosemite National Park. Pinchot weighed in favor of building the dam, which would create a water reservoir for San Francisco. He did so both as a conservationist and as a progressive advocate of public utilities. After all, James D. Phelan, the reform mayor of San Francisco who sought to protect his constituents from the monopolistic practices of the privately owned Spring Valley Water Company, which specialized in poor service, high prices, and unsafe water, wanted the dam built. Furthermore, the residents of San Francisco had approved the dam in a 1908 referendum by an overwhelming 7–1 margin. But Muir and his preservationist allies, especially Robert Underwood Johnson, the editor of Century, were incredulous that anyone could even think of destroying the priceless beauty of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, and they fought for years to prevent construction of the dam. The difference between the two sides was summarized by Mayor Phelan when he accused Muir of engaging in "aesthetic quibbling" while "the 400,000 people of San Francisco are suffering from bad water" (Fox, John Muir and His Legacy, p. 141). Muir and the preservationists thus found themselves in the uncomfortable position of opposing the legitimate needs of "the people." In 1913, Congress finally approved construction of the dam, whereupon the Hetch Hetchy Valley disappeared under the waters.

Despite their defeat at Hetch Hetchy, the preservationist wing of the conservation movement won a number of victories in the early twentieth century. In 1903, for example, they convinced President Roosevelt to create the first national wildlife refuge at Pelican Island, Florida, and Roosevelt created more than fifty national wildlife refuges during his administration. In addition, preservationists persuaded Congress to enact the Antiquities Act of 1906, which authorized the president to protect areas of scientific or historical interest by designating them "national monuments." The Roosevelt administration created sixteen national monuments, including Devils Tower, Muir Woods, and Natural Bridges. Congress also created many new national parks during this period, including Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890; Mount Rainier in 1899; Crater Lake in 1902; Wind Cave in 1903; Mesa Verde in 1906; Glacier in 1910; Rocky Mountain in 1915; Lassen Volcanic in 1916; Denali in 1917; Grand Canyon and Zion in 1919; Hot Springs in 1921; Shenandoah in 1926; Bryce Canyon in 1928; Acadia and Grand Teton in 1929; Carlsbad Caverns and Great Smoky Mountains in 1930; and Isle Royale in 1931. To administer this greatly expanded system, the National Park Service was formed in 1916 with an institutional philosophy of aesthetic preservationism that counterbalanced the utilitarian policies of the Forest Service.

Finally, in one of their more notable accomplishments, the preservationists saved the California redwood trees, the tallest and among the oldest living things on Earth. The Save-the-Redwoods League, formed in 1917, raised millions of dollars to purchase groves of trees from the loggers and converted them into the thirty-seven California State Redwood Parks, where they are protected forever. All of the efforts, from saving roosting pelicans to protecting giant trees, represented aesthetic preservationism at its purest, for conservationists were saving scenery—impractical, intangible, nonutilitarian scenery.

Wildlife Management

The conservation movement lost some of its public momentum in the 1910s and 1920s in part due to the departure of Roosevelt from the White House in 1909, the dismissal of Pinchot by President William Howard Taft in 1910 in the wake of the Ballinger-Pinchot Controversy, the involvement of the United States in World War I, the enthronement of big business during the Roaring Twenties, and the expenditure of effort on internecine clashes between the utilitarian conservationists and the aesthetic preservationists. While conservation experts continued to work unobtrusively on such prosaic and utilitarian projects as resource surveys, management systems, forest fire protection, flood control projects, mineral leasing programs, and soil erosion research, the crusading spirit of the Progressive Era waned, and conservation faded from the public's consciousness.

But out in the field significant developments were taking place. By the late 1910s, ominous hints indicated that the preservationists may have been too successful for their own good. The problem was that the populations of some of the species of animals they had saved in wildlife refuges were expanding so rapidly that the animals were actually beginning to exhaust their food supplies and perish from starvation. As the President's Committee on Outdoor Recreation explained in 1927, "Over-protection, paradoxical as it may seem, defeats its end, and under its stimulus certain types of game animals multiply beyond their means of subsistence and cruel starvation ensues" (Cameron, The Bureau of Biological Survey, p. 192).

One of the most famous examples of this took place in the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve on Arizona's Kaibab Plateau. President Roosevelt had created the million-acre refuge in 1906 to protect the three thousand endangered Rocky Mountain mule deer on the plateau. Hunting was prohibited in the area except by agents of the Forest Service, who went after the main predators of the deer—wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes—with a vengeance. Within a few years the protected mule deer had managed to double their numbers, and the Grand Canyon National Game Preserve was hailed as a great success. But with no natural enemies, the Kaibab deer herd kept right on growing. Between 1906 and 1924, the herd increased from 3,000 to perhaps as many as 100,000 animals, far beyond the carrying capacity of the range. After the herd depleted its natural food supplies, malnutrition, disease, and starvation wreaked havoc with the deer herd, which plummeted to a few thousand gaunt animals.

Tragedies like the one on the Kaibab Plateau were repeated in many places throughout the continent where a favored species had been granted protection, and preservationists began to understand that simply placing animals in a refuge and passively hoping for the best was not always in the best interests of the animals. They realized that wildlife populations needed to be actively managed to ensure their healthy survival.

The strongest proponent of a more dynamic approach to wildlife conservation in the 1920s was Aldo Leopold, the nation's first professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin and the author of the seminal monograph on the subject, Game Management (1933). Leopold, whose A Sand County Almanac (1949) joined the works of Thoreau and Muir as the founding texts of the environmental movement of the 1960s, believed that all species, including Homo sapiens, exist in a symbiotic interdependence. His theories prefigured the modern science of ecology, defined as "the study of the interrelationships of organisms to one another and to the environment," and his words were echoed later by proponents of the "Gaia hypothesis." Leopold preached the need for humans to appreciate "the indivisibility of the earth—its soil, mountains, rivers, forests, climate, plants and animals—and respect it collectively" (Chase, In a Dark Wood, p. 45). He understood that a region's flora and fauna subsist in an intricate web of interdependencies and that to single out one species, such as the Kaibab deer, for protection at the expense of others is to disrupt a natural equilibrium that had been eons in the making. In a development emblematic of the evolution of conservationism from a movement staffed by upper-class amateurs to one composed of middle-class professionals, Leopold called for a new generation of scientifically trained experts conversant in population dynamics and the operation of food chains to become involved in game management. He taught that wildlife officials could institute a number of practices to maintain the balance of what became known as the "ecosystem," such as practicing selective castration, conducting breeding programs, and allowing predators and even licensed hunters to cull dangerously expanding populations.

Ironically, preservationists had devoted years to convincing the public and Congress of the need for inviolate wildlife refuges, and as a result most Americans were revolted by the idea of predators and hunters being allowed to kill supposedly protected animals in refuges and national parks. But according to the theories of wildlife management, understandable but misplaced sympathy for the fate of the individual animal must not be allowed to override concern for the welfare of the herd as a whole. Just as foresters cut down a diseased tree that threatens the overall health of the forest, so game officials should cull an individual animal that endangers the survival of the herd. These theories slowly won acceptance among wildlife professionals. In the early 1940s, for example, the National Park Service finally overrode public sentiment and began killing a certain number of its game animals every year to maintain the wildlife population at its optimum level.

Eugenics. The philosophy of wildlife management was in tune with other political and social developments of the time. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, for example, the Progressives and their New Deal heirs tried to regulate not only big business but also the political system, public utilities, working conditions, and public health, and now even the wild animals of the forests were going to be managed scientifically. Through expert analysis and intelligent planning, the most fundamental processes of nature were going to be controlled.

In this context, it is notable that the eugenics movement became popular in the United States at the same time that the tenets of wildlife management were formulated. Eugenics was an effort to improve the nation's "germ plasm" by discouraging the propagation of "unfit" humans and encouraging the "fittest" members of society to breed more prolifically. Eugenicists were particularly anxious to preserve the blond-haired, blue-eyed "Nordic" race, whose survival, they feared, was threatened by the unprecedented influx and high birthrate of non-Nordic immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Thus, conservationists and eugenicists both were interested in managing and regulating breeding to protect the noblest endangered species of the United States, whether they were bison, redwoods, or the "master race" of human beings.

It is not an accident that many of the leading conservationists, most notably Madison Grant, were also eugenicists. In the 1920s, conservationists like Grant, who was the guiding force behind the Bronx Zoo in New York, the Save-the-Redwoods League, and the American Bison Society, saw that the protected animals on their wildlife refuges were dangerously increasing in number, and they adopted the techniques of wildlife management to control them. At the same time, eugenicists like Grant warned that the "inferior" races in the United States were dangerously increasing in number and exhorted the public to accept the techniques of eugenics to control them. In essence, Grant simply applied the concepts he developed in wildlife management to the human population. Thus, Grant led the fight to pass the immigration restriction legislation of the 1920s, successfully lobbied legislatures to enact antimiscegenation laws, and influenced many states to implement coercive sterilization statutes under which thousands of Americans deemed "unworthy" were sterilized in the 1930s. The connection between such measures and the conservation movement was made explicit by the eugenicist Ellsworth Huntington when he declared: "The germ plasm is the nation's most precious natural resource. Eugenics is thus an integral component in the conservation of our natural resources" (Tomorrow's Children, p. 9).

Interestingly, conservationism and eugenics again crossed paths after World War II. At that time, conservationists began to fear that overpopulation and industrial poisons were wreaking havoc with the environment, while eugenicists worried that the population explosion in the Third World and the mutative effects of atomic radiation threatened the purity of the germ plasm. Thus, both movements jointly embraced family planning and environmentalism in the 1950s.

Conservation during Depression and Prosperity

The New Deal. Conservation usually is viewed as an indulgence of affluent societies, as only they can afford the luxury of reserving from immediate consumption a portion of their resources. But during the Great Depression, when the public accepted the necessity of dynamic federal action on behalf of the public welfare, the United States entered its second notable period of conservationism. Like his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an ardent conservationist, and he took advantage of the economic emergency to launch government programs that conserved the country's natural resources at the same time that they provided a living wage to its human resources.

During the first hundred days in 1933, Congress created two of the most famous conservation agencies, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which rehabilitated the natural landscape and improved the standard of living of an entire region of the country, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which sent out 2.5 million young men to dig reservoirs, stock lakes, maintain fire trails, work on erosion control, plant more than 2 billion trees, and under-take a host of other conservation projects. A number of other New Deal agencies, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) under Harold Ickes and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Harry Hopkins, spent billions of dollars on hundreds of projects, many of which were related to conservation. In addition, Franklin D. Roosevelt designated more than 2 million acres of federal land as national monuments, including Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and White Sands, and created several new national parks, including Everglades in 1934, Big Bend in 1935, Olympic in 1938, and Kings Canyon in 1940.

The federal government also took a number of steps to deal with the dust bowl, which ravaged western farmlands in the early 1930s thanks to poor agricultural practices, disastrous overgrazing, and a series of dry years. The Soil Erosion Service, established in 1933, and then the Soil Conservation Service, established in 1935 under Hugh Hammond Bennett, aided landowners in soil and water conservation. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 halted overgrazing on public lands, the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenancy Act of 1937 provided for reforestation of abandoned or submarginal farmland, and the Shelterbelt Program planted more than 18,000 miles of tree belts on the Plains to break up the wind, to provide shade for livestock, and to retain moisture in the soil.

As with the rest of the New Deal, Roosevelt's conservation program suffered from little coordination, frequent redundancies, and even blatant inconsistencies. Nevertheless, Roosevelt initiated an unprecedented level of federal involvement in the natural environment, and as a result, the conservation movement became linked with liberalism and the Democratic Party, an association that lasted through the rest of the century.

The 1950s and the wilderness movement. Conservation was put on hold during World War II, but during the 1950s, the movement reemerged and gained momentum. This was mainly due to the noticeably worsening state of the environment. The country's growing population and booming economy, featuring tremendous growth in the automobile, plastics, petroleum, and chemical industries, put increased stress on the nation's finite resources and led to highly visible and noxious forms of pollution. The public was increasingly cognizant that water was unfit to drink, food was laced with chemical additives, milk was contaminated with radioactive fallout, and cities were choked by poisonous air. A number of well-publicized episodes helped heighten awareness of the environmental crisis. For example, in 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania, thousands of residents became ill, and twenty died from severe air pollution. As a result air, water, and noise pollution were no longer proudly pointed to as signs of modernization but were decried as disfiguring to the landscape and dangerous to public health. The fear arose that the list of species whose survival was endangered might have to include Homo sapiens.

That the Republican Party, now far removed from its Theodore Roosevelt days, returned to power in the 1950s did not help the environment, but it did help the conservation movement. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration threatened to reverse the gains of previous decades by cutting funding of federal conservation agencies and opening protected areas to military use. Eisenhower also appointed a wealthy automobile dealer named Douglas "Giveaway" McKay, whose sole qualification for office was a large campaign contribution to the Republican Party, as secretary of the interior. McKay promptly opened national wildlife refuges to gas and oil leasing.

With the state of the environment deteriorating and the government showing no interest in stemming the tide, the public turned to private conservation organizations to take up the slack. All the major conservation groups experienced healthy growth in the 1950s, as they broadened their membership bases, increased their budgets, hired professional staffs, expanded their range of activities, and cooperated with each other to push the conservation agenda. The movement's resurgence was exemplified by the broad-based and successful fight from 1950 to 1955 to save Dinosaur National Monument from being drowned by the proposed $417 million Echo Park Dam.

In addition, in the 1950s the conservation mosaic added a new element, the wilderness preservation movement. Americans had historically viewed wilderness areas, whether swamplands, forests, prairies, or deserts, as wasted areas with no value until they had been drained, cut, cultivated, or irrigated. But in the increasingly crowded postwar world, undeveloped areas became valuable precisely because they had been left in their natural states. Where wildlife and forest groups heretofore had dominated conservationism, wilderness organizations joined them on the front lines. Among those leading the charge were the Nature Conservancy, formed in 1951, which sought to preserve biological diversity by purchasing tracts of threatened wilderness, and the Wilderness Society founded in 1935 by Robert Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and Robert Sterling Yard, which lobbied the government to protect primitive areas from contamination by civilization. The wilderness forces shared a bond with the earlier efforts by the aesthetic preservationists to preserve the scenery of the United States. Their differences were that scenery is meant to be seen, whereas wilderness should ideally exist unseen so it can remain untouched and unspoiled by humans. The wilderness movement's efforts were rewarded with the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The resurgence of the conservation movement in the 1950s laid the groundwork for its evolution into the mass movement of the 1960s and the 1970s known as environmentalism. By then, the forebears of the environmentalists, utilitarian conservationists, aesthetic preservationists, wildlife managers, and wilderness preservationists, had already established a formidable and enduring legacy, witnessed by the fact that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the United States included 55 national parks of 83 million acres, 75 national monuments of 4 million acres, 177 national forests and grasslands of 192 million acres, 530 national wildlife refuges covering 93 million acres, and over 700 national wilderness areas of 104 million acres, where fauna, flora, water, scenery, and other natural resources survived as living embodiments of the philosophy of conservation.


Cameron, Jenks. The Bureau of Biological Survey: Its History, Activities, and Organization. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1929.

Chase, Alston. In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Fox, Stephen. John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement. Boston: Little, Brown, 1981.

Hays, Samuel P. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1890–1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Huntington, Ellsworth. Tomorrow's Children: The Goal of Eugenics. New York: Wiley, 1935.

Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949.

Nash, Roderick Frazier, ed. American Environmentalism: Readings in Conservation History. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.

O'Brien, Jim. "Environmentalism as a Mass Movement: Historical Notes." Radical America 17, no. 2–3 (March–June 1983): 7–27.

Pinchot, Gifford. Breaking New Ground. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1947.

Reiger, John F. American Sportsmen and the Origins of Conservation. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.

Roosevelt, Theodore. "Wilderness Reserves." In American Big Game in Its Haunts. Edited by George Bird Grinnell. New York: Forest and Stream Publishing, 1904.

Trefethen, James B. An American Crusade for Wildlife. New York: Winchester Press, 1975.

Jonathan P.Spiro

See alsoEnvironmental Movement ; Forest Service ; Forestry ; National Park System ; New Deal ; Wildlife Preservation ; Yellowstone National Park .

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Biological diversity throughout the world is being threatened by human activity: species are being driven to the edge of extinction; biological communities are being degraded, fragmented, and destroyed; and the genetic variation within species is being lost as populations are reduced in size and lost. Conservation biology is a multidisciplinary science that has developed in response to this biodiversity crisis. Conservation biology has three goals: (1) to investigate and describe the diversity of the living world; (2) to understand the effects of human activities on species, communities, and ecosystems ; and (3) to develop practical interdisciplinary approaches to protecting and restoring biological diversity.

Conservation biology arose because none of the applied disciplines, such as forestry, fisheries and wildlife management, zoo and park management, and agriculture, were comprehensive enough individually to address the critical threats to biological diversity. In general, these applied disciplines have developed methods for managing a small range of species for the marketplace and recreation. Conservation biology complements these applied disciplines by providing a broader approach and by having the long-term preservation of biological diversity as its primary goal, with economic factors often secondary. The academic disciplines of population biology, ecology, taxonomy, landscape ecology, and genetics constitute the core of conservation biology, with increasing inputs from economics, law, philosophy, anthropology, and other related fields.

Origins in the United States

The need for the conservation of biological diversity has been recognized for centuries in North America, Europe, and other regions of the world. Religious and philosophical beliefs concerning the value of protecting species and wilderness are found in many cultures. In the United States, philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau saw wild nature as an important element in human moral and spiritual development. Wilderness advocates such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold argued for preserving natural landscapes and maintaining the health of natural ecosystems.

The influential forester Gifford Pinchot developed the idea that commodities and qualities found in nature, including timber, clean water, wildlife, species diversity, and even beautiful landscapes, can be considered as natural resources, and that the goal of management is to use these natural resources to obtain the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time. In the twenty-first century, the concepts of ecosystem management and sustainable development have extended these ideas by emphasizing management practices that maintain ecosystem health and wild species now and for future generations.

Conservation at Many Levels

All levels of biological diversity are necessary for the continued survival of species and natural communities, and all are important for people. The diversity of species includes the full range of organisms on Earth, from bacteria and protists, through the multicellular kingdoms of fungi, plants, and animals. The diversity of species provides people with resources and resource alternatives.

At the finest scale, genetic variation within species allows species to survive in the face of a changing environment; this genetic variation is also crucial for the continued efforts to improve domestic plants and animals, and for the rapidly developing biotechnology industry. On a larger scale, biological diversity includes the range of biological communities in which species live, and the ecosystem-level interactions with the physical and chemical environment. Biological communities provide beneficial services such as flood control, protection from soil erosion, the production of new plant material, and the filtering of air and water. As each one of these levels of biological diversity is degraded and destroyed, the natural fabric of the living world unravels and its value to people also diminishes.

Threats to Biological Diversity

The major threats to biological diversity are all caused directly or indirectly by an ever-increasing use of the world's resources by the exponentially expanding human population. Because more people require more resources for their livelihood, many scientists have argued that controlling human numbers is the key to protecting biological diversity. A more equitable distribution of natural resources throughout the world, and reducing the excessive consumption of natural resources by wealthy countries, such as the United States, are also important targets for conservation efforts.

The major threat to biological diversity is loss of habitat, and the most important means of protecting biological diversity is habitat preservation. Eighty-one percent of the endangered species in the United States are threatened by habitat destruction. Tropical rain forests, wetlands, coral reefs, and temperate grasslands are all being eliminated by human activity. Even when habitat still remains, it is increasingly fragmented by roads, power lines, fences, farms, ranches, residences, and other human activities that restrict wildlife movement and alter the local environment.

Air and water pollution can also eliminate susceptible species, even where the basic habitat structure remains. Sewage, industrial waste, and agricultural runoff can severely damage aquatic communities.

Biological communities can be harmed when exotic species are transported by people to a new place deliberately or accidentally. In many areas of the world introduced sheep, cattle, pigs, and goats have driven native plants to extinction; introduced invasive grasses, agricultural weeds, and ornamental plants have escaped into the surrounding landscapes, replacing the native species. Diseases spreading from one continent to another are a significant threat decimating important tree species in North America and birds in Hawaii.

Global climate change is an emerging threat to biological diversity. If Earth's climate continues to change and warm as scientists predict, many species will not be able to migrate or adapt and will go extinct.

Numerous bird, mammal, and fish species continue to be overharvested. Entire communities of large animals have been removed for consumption or sale resulting in "empty" forests, lakes, and oceans. Certain species have been targeted by collectors and represent special conservation problems, such as shellfish, butterflies, tropical and coral reef fish, orchids, and cacti and other succulent plants.

Conservation Efforts

The single most important method to protect biological diversity is to establish national parks, nature reserves, and other protected areas. Such efforts to protect biological diversity in their natural habitats are referred to as in situ or on-site conservation. Approximately 6 percent of the world's land surface is designated as protected, with more national parks being designated each year. Many new marine reserves are being established to protect the nursery grounds for commercial fish species and maintain high-quality areas for recreation and tourism.

To be effective at preserving biological diversity, protected areas must be well-designed, be as large as possible, and contain a variety of vegetation types and water sources. Management practicessuch as regulating hunting, removing exotic species, and employing controlled burning to maintain habitat diversityneed to be developed and put into practice. One of the most rapidly developing areas of conservation management involves restoring native biological communities on degraded lands, often by planting the original species. Protected areas must be periodically monitored to make sure they are meeting their objectives.

Where species can no longer live in the wild due to continuing threats, they can be maintained in zoos and botanical gardens. In such places, information can be gathered about the biology of the species and the public can be educated about conservation issues. The goal of such captive breeding programs is to return species back into their original habitat, known as "reintroductions," once the original threat to the species has been identified and eliminated.

The greatest challenge involves developing projects in which conservation efforts are integrated with rural economic development. If local people benefit from conservation efforts through obtaining jobs, improved infrastructure , or new business and education opportunities, they will contribute to conservation objectives. But if local people perceive that the establishment of a protected area is harming their livelihood, they may actively oppose conservation efforts and damage the area.

Since the 1980s, conservation biology has become one of the most vibrant subject areas within biology. Enormous interest has led to whole new fields of knowledge being developed. However, conservation biologists are not simply content with developing new knowledge. The field of conservation biology will only be judged a success if this knowledge is used in a practical way to protect and restore the world's fragile biological diversity.

see also Biodiversity; Endangered Species; Extinction; Global Climate Change; Invasive Species

Richard B. Primack


Akçakaya, H. Resit, Mark A. Burgman, and Lev R. Ginzburg. Applied Population Ecology: Principles and Computer Exercises Using RAMAS EcoLab. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1999.

Meffe, Gary C., and C. Ron Carroll. Principles of Conservation Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 1997.

Primack, Richard. A Primer of Conservation Biology, 2nd ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2000.

Wilson, Edward O. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge, MA: Belkap Press of Harvard University, 1992.

, and Daniel L. Perlmann. Conserving Earth's Biodiversity. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999.

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conservation of natural resources

conservation of natural resources, the wise use of the earth's resources by humanity. The term conservation came into use in the late 19th cent. and referred to the management, mainly for economic reasons, of such valuable natural resources as timber, fish, game, topsoil, pastureland, and minerals, and also to the preservation of forests (see forestry), wildlife (see wildlife refuge), parkland, wilderness, and watershed areas. In recent years the science of ecology has clarified the workings of the biosphere; i.e., the complex interrelationships among humans, other animals, plants, and the physical environment. At the same time burgeoning population and industry and the ensuing pollution have demonstrated how easily delicately balanced ecological relationships can be disrupted (see air pollution; water pollution; solid waste).

Conservation of natural resources is now usually embraced in the broader conception of conserving the earth itself by protecting its capacity for self-renewal. Particularly complex are the problems of nonrenewable resources such as oil and coal (see energy, sources of) and other minerals in great demand. Current thinking also favors the protection of entire ecological regions by the creation of "biosphere reserves." Examples of such conservation areas include the Great Barrier Reef off Australia and Adirondack State Park in the United States. The importance of reconciling human use and conservation beyond the boundaries of parks has become another important issue.

Conservation in the United States

Conservation became part of U.S. government policy with the creation (1871) of a U.S. commissioner of fish and fisheries. The Forestry Bureau of the Dept. of Agriculture created the first national forest reserve in 1891. The Irrigation Division in the U.S. Geological Survey developed into the Bureau of Reclamation. The Geological Survey has cataloged and classified the resources of the public domain. In 1906 an act protected the Alaskan fisheries. Conservation as part of a total approach to the use of natural resources was first introduced by President Theodore Roosevelt and his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. In 1907 President Roosevelt appointed the Inland Waterways Commission, which emphasized the connection between forests, water supply, and stream flow. In 1909 he appointed the National Conservation Commission, which published the first inventory of the country's natural resources. Roosevelt in 1907 began withdrawing large areas of western public land from sale and settlement so that their resources might be investigated, and setting apart forest reserves, following the example of President Cleveland. Approximately one fourth of all timberland is held by the government. The National Park Service was created in 1916 to preserve landscapes of important aesthetic value. In the 1930s the erosion of much arable land in the Midwest underscored the need for land reclamation and for conservation in general. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 provided for conservation. The Civilian Conservation Corps, founded in 1933 to relieve unemployment, furnished the personnel for many conservation projects. The Tennessee Valley Authority, set up in 1933, was an outstanding attempt to apply principles of conservation, soil reclamation, and electrification to an entire area, although some critics claim that the extensive river damming and similar New Deal legislation did not, on the whole, have a positive effect on the environment. By 1960 the Soil Conservation Service, established in 1935, covered 95% of all farms and ranches in the United States. By the same year, under the Conservation Reserve Program, some 28 million acres of cropland had been returned to grass and forest cover. Throughout the 1950s attention was focused on the problem of conservation of water resources, particularly in the Southwest. In the 1960s pollution problems came to the fore in all industrialized countries. In the United States numerous laws were passed to protect the environment and its resources (see environmentalism).

Conservation Worldwide

The commitment of nations to conservation policies varies. Some nations, such as Iraq, Cambodia, and the republics of the former Soviet Union, have no protected areas, while 38% of Ecuador's land is protected and 44% of Luxembourg's is. (In the United States 7% of the land is protected.) Plants and animals have been protected through curtailment of whaling and the taking of porpoises in tuna seines and restrictions on logging. Endangered species have been protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, 1979). In addition to CITES, United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the "Earth Summit," 1992) produced an agreement to protect the world's biological diversity. The World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and other organizations also have been active in promoting conservation internationally.


See D. W. Ehrenfeld, Conserving Life on Earth (1972); D. Worsher, Nature's Economy (1977); R. Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (3d ed. 1982); S. P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. (1986).

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conservation. Retention of existing buildings or groups of buildings, landscapes, etc., taking care not to alter or destroy character or detail, even though repairs or changes may be necessary. Sensitive conservation (pioneered by Morris and others connected with the Arts-and-Crafts movement) is concerned to preserve as much original fabric as possible, and make overt what is new and what is old. Conservation does not necessarily mean preservation: it can involve considerable intervention, even much new building, but the key to success is in respecting existing character, and even enhancing it. A conservation area is one designated as of special architectural or historic interest, where all changes should enhance, rather than detract from, its character.


Huxtable (1970, 1986, 1986a)

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con·ser·va·tion / ˌkänsərˈvāshən/ • n. the action of conserving something, in particular: ∎  preservation, protection, or restoration of the natural environment, natural ecosystems, vegetation, and wildlife. ∎  preservation, repair, and prevention of deterioration of archaeological, historical, and cultural sites and artifacts. ∎  prevention of excessive or wasteful use of a resource. ∎  Physics the principle by which the total value of a physical quantity (such as energy, mass, or linear or angular momentum) remains constant in a system. DERIVATIVES: con·ser·va·tion·al / -shənl/ adj.

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conservation The maintenance of environmental quality and resources or a particular balance among the species present in a given area. The resources may be physical (e.g. fossil fuels), biological (e.g. tropical forest), or cultural (e.g. ancient monuments). In modern scientific usage conservation implies sound biosphere management within given social and economic constraints, producing goods and services for humans without depleting natural ecosystem diversity, and acknowledging the naturally dynamic character of biological systems. This contrasts with the preservationist approach which, it is argued, protects species or landscapes without reference to natural change in living systems or to human requirements. See also biological conservation.

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"conservation." A Dictionary of Ecology. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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conservation The maintenance of environmental quality and resources. The resources may be physical (e.g. fossil fuels), biological (e.g. tropical forest), or cultural (e.g. ancient monuments). In modern scientific usage conservation implies sound biosphere management within given social and economic constraints, producing goods and services for humans without depleting natural ecosystem diversity, and acknowledging the naturally dynamic character of biological systems. This contrasts with the preservationist approach, which, it is argued, protects species or landscapes without reference to natural change in living systems or to human requirements. See also BIOLOGICAL CONSERVATION.

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conservation The sensible use of the earth's natural resources in order to avoid excessive degradation and impoverishment of the environment (see desertification). It should include the search for alternative food and fuel supplies when these are endangered (as by deforestation and overfishing); an awareness of the dangers of pollution; and the maintenance and preservation of natural habitats and the creation of new ones (e.g. nature reserves, national parks, and SSSIs).

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"conservation." A Dictionary of Biology. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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conservation Preservation of nature and natural resources. Conservation includes protecting the landscape from change due to natural erosion; using soil conditioners and artificial fertilizers to maintain soil fertility; replacing topsoil and landscaping spoiled land and protecting threatened species of animals and plants by law or in wildlife parks and reservations.

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"conservation." World Encyclopedia. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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con·serv·an·cy / kənˈsərvənsē/ • n. (pl. -cies) 1. [in names] a body concerned with the preservation of nature, specific species, or natural resources: the Nature Conservancy. 2. the conservation of something, esp. wildlife and the environment.

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"conservancy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"conservancy." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (December 16, 2017).

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conservancy control of, (hence) commission controlling, a port, river, etc. XVIII. alt., by assim. to -ANCY, of †conservacy (XV–XVIII) — AN. conservacie — AL. conservātia (see -ACY), by-form of L. conservātiō CONSERVATION.

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"conservancy." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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conservation The artificial control of ecological relationships in an environment in order to maintain a particular balance among the species present.

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"conservation." A Dictionary of Zoology. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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natural resources, conservation of

conservation of natural resources: see conservation of natural resources.

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"natural resources, conservation of." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

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conservancyarsy-versy, Circe, mercy, Percy, pursy •colonelcy • verdancy • conversancy •conservancy, fervency •curtsy • controversy

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"conservancy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . 16 Dec. 2017 <>.

"conservancy." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. . (December 16, 2017).

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