Preservation Essay

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Preservation , or protection of ecosystems and biodiversity from injury or harm, is a form of resource management advocating the separation of humans from nature. Since the 19th century, there has been a schism in the American environmental movement over the best way to manage natural resources, with preservationists on one side and conservationists on the other. Preservationists believe that nature should be protected from the simplifying effects of human management. Conservationists believe that natural resources should be adequately used and managed by society in a utilitarian manner to achieve the highest possible benefit for the greatest number of people. The preservationist perspective believes that ecosystems and biodiversity can only be saved through nonuse, or full protection. Preservationists criticize the material aspects of the conservationist approach, arguing that they have compromised conservation values in the name of economic development.

Preservation-oriented policies raise an important corollary issue: what types of ecosystems and species warrant preservation? Most often, the answer is large wilderness areas that can support large carnivores, which are often seen as keystone species indicating overall ecosystem health. The association of wilderness with preservation adds another layer of complexity to the debate surrounding preservation; wilderness has become a highly contested concept as both social and natural scientists have demonstrated that there are no areas in the world that can be called “pristine,” or free from the influence of humans. Areas once considered to be “pristine wilderness areas” are often the product of many generations of human management.

The environmental historians Roderick Nash and William Cronon have drawn attention to the need to understand the cultural and historical rationale for preserving certain landscape elements. They demonstrate that associations with the concept of wilderness have not always been positive. In early American and European history there was a strong negative association with wilderness, which drove the desire to conquer or destroy wilderness rather than preserve it. Up until the late 18th century, the most common usage of wilderness referred to landscapes perceived as “barren,” “desolate,” “savage,” and “deserted.” Nash draws our attention to William Bradford’s first impression as he stepped off the Mayflower into what he saw as a “hideous and desolate wilderness.” Early American pioneers struggling to make a living on the frontier saw little in wilderness worth protecting; instead, wilderness was an obstacle to survival. Wilderness was considered a chaotic and immoral wasteland and the westward progress of pioneers found satisfaction in its destruction.

By the 19th century, however, there was a growing appreciation of wilderness areas in the United States. Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, was the world’s first instance of large-scale wilderness preservation. The emergent national interest in the preservation of landscapes was supported by a variety of different arguments. The Romantic Era, as the period has come to be known, is characterized by the writings of philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who sought inspiration in the solitude of nature. Thoreau felt that the American character benefited from living in the wilderness, a belief that later inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to establish federal protection for almost 230 million acres. Numerous artists, such as Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstaadt, and writers such as James Fenimore Cooper, found their main source of inspiration in wilderness. Transcendentalists such as John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, saw connections between religion and nature and sought evidence of the power and goodness of God in nature. Others saw the American wilderness as an important component of the American identity, distinguishing it from Europe. In the words of Michael Nelson, an environmental ethicist, “The United States is a place where the eagle flies, the buffalo roam, and the deer and the antelope play.” When making comparisons to Europe, America’s natural environment was one of the few areas in which the young nation could claim superiority.

The proposed construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam, which would provide water and electricity to the arid San Francisco region by damming portions of Yosemite Valley, became a landmark case representing the division between conservationists and preservationists. In 1907 Roosevelt supported the planned Hetch Hetchy Dam under the utilitarian argument that the dam was essential to the material development of the state and would result in the highest possible use of water resources for the growing San Francisco population. John Muir and other preservationists, refusing to accept this decision without a fight, launched an aggressive campaign, arguing that Yosemite National Parkincluding the valley that would be flooded by the dam-was an important “public playground.” The campaign proved temporarily successful and Roosevelt retreated from his endorsement of the reservoir, although it was later approved under Woodrow Wilson’s administration in 1913.

By the 1930s other preservationists adopted a more radical view, known as deep ecology, developed by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. In contrast to utilitarian argument, deep ecologists adopt an ethical argument to support preservation of biodiversity: all nature has an intrinsic worth, apart from its benefits to humankind. This view affects the preservationist-conservationist debate by shifting the perspective from anthropocentrismthe belief that man is the center of the universe-to biocentrism, in which mankind has a place equal to all other elements of the natural world.


Regardless of the philosophical underpinnings that motivate the preservationist approach to separating man from nature, preservation it is not always successful in its primary goal, protecting biodiversity. The growing evidence that humans have had a role in producing supposed “wilderness” areas raises the important question: What happens to the wilderness landscapes when people are removed? An understanding of the role that Native Americans had in shaping the ecosystem that now comprises much of Yosemite Valley in California provides a clue to this question. Ethnoecologist Kat Anderson and anthropologist Michael Moratta have demonstrated that for Native Americans in the Sierra Nevada region, “fire was the most important management tool employed to clear brush, maintain grasslands and meadows, improve browse for deer, enhance production of basketry and cordage material, [and] modify the understory species composition in the forest.” Given this knowledge, it is not surprising that the preservation policies in place at Yosemite National Park have resulted in a decline in biodiversity; forest succession, historically kept in check by Native Americans, has begun to overtake the meadowlands. The landscape in Yosemite Valley that American explorers sought to preserve was in part shaped by the management techniques of the Native American residents they expelled.

Population Displacement

It is not only the role of people in shaping the landscape that is overlooked by preservationist policies, but also the human and environmental rights of people who are displaced in the name of preservation of natural resources. A critical part of the history of both Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, often overshadowed by the magnificence of the landscape, is the fact that the eviction of Native Americans was a prerequisite to establishing the park.

Author Rebecca Solnit points to the fact that the naming of the principal landmarks in Yosemite was the result of the Indian War of 1851, in which Lafayette Bunnell and a battalion of about 200 men captured the Native American inhabitants and marched them to a reservation in the flatlands of San Joaquin Valley. For Solnit, this process of naming the landscape after the very people who were forcibly evicted is a bizarre mixture of romanticizing Native Americans while simultaneously annihilating their culture and settlements from the region. Just as the wilderness areas of United States could only be romanticized once they were “conquered,” the “savage” civilizations of the Native Americans could only be romanticized once they were extirpated.

For over a century, Yellowstone National Park became the model by which parks were established around the world. The American ideal of linking landscape, nature, and a national identity was replicated in nearly every country. The global movement to preserve landscapes and biodiversity was largely led by a group of wealthy, elite Europeans and Americans who saw themselves as gentlemen hunters-naturalists. Roderick Neumann, in his exploration of the political purpose that national parks played in colonial Africa, shows that Kruger National Park, established in 1926 in the Southern African Republic, played a significant role in formation of collective (white) national identity. He also persuasively shows that the very idea of wilderness protection in Arusha National Park in Tanzania was a European colonial construct, enforced at the expense of local livelihoods, that simultaneously strengthened the political power of the colonial administration. The preservationist model of conservation, as it is applied in much of Africa, not only evicts local people from their homelands, but also impoverishes them as the local elite invariably claim the profits from the tourism and safari hunting industries. Given this, it is not surprising that local residents resent protected areas and work to undermine the goals of preservation by continuing their reliance on protected areas for their livelihoods.

In other parts of the world, the separation of man from nature in the name of preservation has failed to garner the support it has in America. Ramachandra Guha has gone as far as to call the most extreme elements of the American wilderness preservation model a “frankly imperialist manifesto.” Guha and other scholars such as Vandana Shiva and Juan Martinez-Alier argue that wilderness and people should be allowed to coexist in a coherent whole; the separation of man from nature is an artificial dichotomy. They question who gave the conservation movement the moral authority to determine which areas need protection and which people need to be relocated to achieve protection.

Environmental Justice

In the 1980s wilderness preservation policies received a new critique from within the United States from the environmental justice movement. Environmental justice advocates seek to broaden the environmentalists’ perspective to include urban, work, and home environments, and the mitigation of hazardous resources. The goal of this group is to make environmental concerns more meaningful to a wider range of people living in varied environments, not just those who can visit remote national parks for pleasure. By drawing attention to the fact that many urban poor may never visit a national park, the American environmental justice movement emphasizes that the benefits of the traditional conservation agenda are not shared equally. This movement is creating a potential bridge to people in the developing world who feel that they have been unfairly burdened by the creation of protected areas.

Alternative Models

While the preservationist model of conservation has undoubtedly protected valuable and unique ecosystems and species in the United States, many conservation advocates recognize the poor fit between the American preservationist model and conservation goals of other countries. Consequently, many alternative models of conservation have been developed. These include extractive reserves, joint forest management, community-based conservation management, and integrated conservation and development projects. All of these alternatives promote benefit sharing in an effort to compensate local people for the resources they have given up by distributing income, employment, and other benefits from tourism. There is a growing awareness that conservation does not happen in a social vacuum, and that the preservationist’s model of conservation has a limited ability to protect biodiversity. Social and natural scientists are increasingly working together to rethink the traditional preservationist, or “Yellowstone model” of conservation with alternatives that capture a more holistic understanding of mankind’s place in nature.


  1. Jian Agyeman, Robert Bullard, and Bob Evans, Just Sustainability: Development in an Unequal World (Earthscan, 2003);
  2. Kat Anderson and Michael Moratta, “Native American Land-Use Practices and Ecological Impacts,” Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project: Final Report to Congress, VII, Assessment and Scientific Basis for Management Options (University of California, 1996);
  3. William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in William Cronon, , Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (W.W. Norton & Co., 1996);
  4. Ramachandra Guha, “The Authoritarian Biologist and the Arrogance of Anti-Humanism: Wildlife Conservation in the Third World,” The Ecologist (v.27, 1997);
  5. Ramachandra Guha and Juan Martinez-Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (Earthscan Publications, 1997);
  6. Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (Yale University Press, 2001);
  7. Michael Nelson, “An Amalgamation of Wilderness Preservation Arguments,” in Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston, , Environmental Ethics (Blackwell Publishing, 2003);
  8. Roderick Neumann, Making Political Ecology (Hodder Arnold, 2003);
  9. Rebecca Solnit, “Indian-White Conflicts over Yosemite,” in Carolyn Merchant, , Green Versus Gold: Sources in Californias Environmental History (Island Press, 1998).

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