Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Author: Emily Courtney
I remember one of the first times I had a deep philosophical debate with myself about the land ethic. It was during one of my college courses, as we were learning about the modern conservation movement and how the term itself came to be defined. We learned that Gifford Pinchot provided our most widely accepted definition, saying, “Conservation means the wise use of the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” I rolled that definition around for a bit, but I kept getting stuck on one part: “wise use.” I thought that sounded really good in theory, but I also knew that not all use is wise. Further, I knew I sometimes felt no use at all is the wisest choice.
Conservation versus preservation is a debate as old as the concept of conservation itself. They could be described as twins, fighting for the affection of the same parent, or opposite sides of the same coin. Pinchot’s philosophy was that resources could be infinitely sustainable, if his concept of conservation were carried out properly, therefore superseding the need for preservation. President Theodore Roosevelt hired Pinchot as the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and his work in that role made him to be known as the father of American forestry. He shaped our ideas about sustainable use of the land and forest resources and together with Roosevelt created a legacy of conservation that has endured to this day. They created the model for the agencies that still manage our federal lands and the policies that govern them. Pinchot believed that the greatest benefit of saving wilderness was it’s continued usefulness. He truly believed in infinite sustainability, and dedicated his life to creating and perpetuating a system of wise use.
However, there were other figures at the time that stood in opposition to Pinchot’s philosophy and held that some wildernesses should be preserved in their most untouched state at all costs. They believed that any use, even wise use, would alter the landscape from its original state and would therefore result in the loss of that wilderness. The most notable of these was John Muir. Muir was, and probably remains, the staunchest preservationist ever to walk the earth. Regarded by many as an eccentric, he felt very deeply about the land and wilderness, and seemed to foster a deeper connection to it than any other human could boast. Many consider Muir to be the father of the preservationist philosophy and environmentalism. He was noted as saying things like “I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.” And that’s what he spent his life doing. When he wasn’t out exploring the wilderness, he was writing, speaking, and working with organizations, imploring people to appreciate nature the way he did, hoping to move them enough that they would care to help protect it. He helped found the Sierra Club, and lobbied for many political measures involving the protection and use of lands and resources. His writings are credited as being one of the most influential forces in stirring public support for the first national parks. The Yosemite Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains were his first love, and would not exist as a national park today without his steadfast work and commitment to that cause. He fought so resolutely to save the places he loved because he believed that once wilderness is lost, it’s lost.
As I reflect on the lives and legacies of these two men, I can’t help but think they both really wanted the same thing. I realize that they both were only trying to protect the resources of our country. They understood that we stumbled upon an Eden on this continent, and though they had differing philosophies on how to go about it, both wanted to make sure the beauty and splendor of it would endure for future generations. Both were desperate to protect the riches of this land from destruction or development. Pinchot wanted to use the resources, but he wanted them to be useful for all the generations to come. He wanted to use the timber, but also to always plant more trees, and he was always looking to designate more and more acres as national forest land. Muir spent his entire life either living in nature, writing about his love for it, or campaigning to protect it. He was so desperate, that even he had to make compromises when it came to the national parks.
As a strict preservationist, Muir was disappointed to see the amount of development that occurred during the early years of Yellowstone and Yosemite’s establishment as parks. The roads, hotels, and train stations that sprung up seemed to him a far cry from the pristine wilderness he had lobbied to protect. However, he came to realize that they were a necessary evil. In order to garner support for their protection and achieve their status as national parks, the public had to be able to see them and appreciate their majesty. It’s a “catch-22” for many of our national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and other sites. In order for them to be preserved, they must endure some level of development in order to demonstrate their worthiness for preservation.
When examining the debate between preservation and conservation, it seems like there should be a compromise, but when it comes down to it, the realization emerges that conservation actually is the compromise between preservation and the reckless, wasteful, shortsighted use that preceded the modern conservation movement. But then I always come back to my original quandary about wise use. Who is to say what wise use actually is? And if we can’t use resources wisely, then should we use them at all? I believe that when Pinchot first conjured up the thought, wise use was something that could actually be achieved. By his definition, in order to practice conservation, wisdom must also be possessed. I believe that he and Roosevelt were both wise men. They both had a sincere love for the land and a genuine desire to provide caring stewardship. However, history hasn’t given us another pair quite like that since, and wisdom is becoming more and more scarce. It’s more important now than ever that those making the decisions about the use of our land and resources possess the wisdom to practice true conservation. Without it, we risk the legacy of Roosevelt and Pinchot and the millions of acres of national forests and other public lands they established, and the wildlife that inhabit them. We risk the legacy of Muir and his parks, and the inimitable wildernesses that once lost, can never be regained.