Should Natural Areas Be Preserved — or Conserved for Our Benefit?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | July 17th, 2012 | 7 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Yosemite National Park

In the environmental world, it’s characterized as the classic battle: Should wild areas be preserved for their intrinsic qualities or conserved for their resources? In other words, should nature be used for “the greatest good for the greatest number of people for the longest time,” as nineteenth-century progressive environmentalist Gifford Pinchot put it; or should the wilderness be protected and revered without human intrusions, a view espoused by romantic environmentalist John Muir?

Today, with a burgeoning population encroaching on our remaining wild areas and economic help scarce, many would say that Pinchot’s beliefs are more realistic for the modern world. In fact, there are even those, such as Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, who would take Pinchot’s notion a step further: Natural areas must be managed to benefit humans, if they are to survive at all.

Natural areas must be given human relevance


If the remaining wild areas are to be protected, people must see them as relevant to their lives. ©Ben Bressler

Although most of us are well aware of Muir’s sentiments that we should keep our remaining wild areas pristine because of their soul-stirring beauty and our inner need for such areas to escape to, few are familiar with Pinchot’s ideas. The first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Pinchot was the first American to take up the profession of forestry. He firmly believed that public wilderness areas could be used as a source of income if their resources were handled wisely.

In spring 2011, The Nature Conservancy’s Kareiva, who leads more than 500 scientists at the worldwide organization, shocked environmentalists when he said in an article in Nature Conservancy Magazine that safeguarding Earth’s biodiversity — or “species preservation” — should not be Job One. The ultimate goal, he said, is to better manage nature for human benefit, taking Pinchot’s tenets to the extreme.

Although the knee-jerk reaction to such a statement is that Kareiva is anti-environment, he and his supporters say he is not. He’s simply articulating his belief that it’s imperative that we meet humankind’s basic needs (water, food, shelter and clothing). If we don’t, nothing we say regarding the environment will have any impact. People must see nature as relevant to human lives if it is to be protected at all.

Grand Canyon

On a government expedition to the Grand Canyon, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot spent time sharing stories about wilderness adventures. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Kareiva — who’s not afraid to admit that he prefers cities to natural areas (blasphemy in some environmental circles) — says that the days of Muir’s pristine wilderness are long gone. Our fingerprints are found everywhere on the planet. But development and conservation, he states, aren’t mutually exclusive. We need to start focusing on creating healthy environments because they will benefit us.

As an example of Kareiva’s innovative thinking (or reverse psychology), in 2008 he and a co-researcher did a random-sample study of World Bank development projects. The results showed that the inclusion of a biodiversity component had no bearing whatsoever on a project’s ultimate success or failure. Therefore, he concluded, there was no excuse for the World Bank not to be a more active proponent of biodiversity.

What can’t be measured

But some feel that Kareiva is selling conservation efforts too short. Human beings aren’t always self-interested and will, sometimes, act with altruistic motives. Deep inside — and as important to our well-being as water, food, shelter and clothing — we desire places that remain almost as they did when the world was new, such as the Galápagos Islands, the remote Arctic or Yellowstone National Park. Our innate longings and  “better natures” still have sway with us.

It’s said that during one overnight government expedition to the Grand Canyon, Pinchot and Muir were walking together on a rocky, canyon trail when they came upon a tarantula. Gifford raised his boot to step on it, but Muir stopped him. Muir reportedly told Gifford that the tarantula had just as much right to be on the trail as they did.

That evening, the two men stayed up until midnight, telling each other stories about their adventures in the wilderness.

It seems that, at times, Gifford and Muir may have considered themselves as working on the same team, rather than as mortal enemies in the environmental battle. I’m not sure, however, that conservationists and preservationists think of themselves in the same way today.

Do you think that Kareiva’s ideas go too far off the environmental track? Should we put people — or pristine environments — first?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: John Muir expressed many of his preservationist beliefs when writing about Yosemite National Park. ©Colby J. Brokvist


  1. There has to be a balance between the two. So much has been logged now there’s enough room for plantations. We should preserve the old growth forests we have still standing.

    Chelsea | July 19th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  2. I concur. The only way to save the natural environment is to make it benefit people.

    Mwenesi | July 19th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  3. This is a classic debate between anthropocentric conservation and deep ecology.

    To understand, or rather feel, the necessity of wilderness for the sake of itself can only be felt when one connects with it at a spiritual level. Analogously, ask a real yogi, “why do you do yoga?” It’s not to get his cholesterol levels down, but for a “mystic experience,” although lowering of cholesterol and similar benefits are fall-outs.

    talegari | July 20th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  4. i think both are reasonable approaches towards natural resources but the most important is to ensure sustainability of these resources. for intrinsic values and for our benefit whichever the case but after all we should ensure sustainability.

    eston | July 20th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  5. The only Nature we are perhaps even capable of managing is our own human nature. Until we “tame” that, we are unsuitable stewards of the natural world.
    Without John Muir’s reverence for pristine wilderness and his influence upon our collective consciousness I doubt there would be any left to worry about preserving. This matter is not a case of “balance” for If the presence of the spoilers of the natural world were removed from the equation, nature would thrive on its own equilibrium just fine.

    john | July 30th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  6. With due respect, the question is asked as if in a vacuum…… As an ecologist who’s life’s work has been to include ‘humans’ in the conservation equation out of obvious necessity, it’s almost impossible to tease out the multitude of benefitst to humans related not just to conservation, but the mere existence of lands that are not open to resource exploitation – the natural world is integral to the health of humanity in ways that are just now coming to light (I prefer not to use the term ‘preservation’ because all lands on the planet at this time are ‘managed’ – even the decision NOT to manage is a management decision). ‘Putting people first’ without real consideration for holistic health of the landscape is anathema to putting the welfare of people first…… It feels to me like the issue underlying this question has to do with economics – if so, I think we need to be explicit….. I agree with Kareiva that ‘creating healthy environments’ is key – but that will be challenging enough…. Maybe we should have a conversation about human population numbers… :)

    meg | August 30th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  7. No has hear od heard of Pinchot’s natural resources philosophy? Except maybe the entire U.S. National Forest system, all Bureau of Land Management lands, almost all state land agencies, and virtually all private land in America. Only about 5% of the United States is managed as a park or wilderness. All the rest is managed as per Gifford Pinchot to provide natural resources to humans.

    James Turin | June 17th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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