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Conservation versus Preservation?

Posted by Robert Hudson Westover, U.S. Forest Service in Forestry
Feb 21, 2017
Gifford Pinchot standing with people and horses behind him
A portrait of Gifford Pinchot on a national forest. Pinchot was the first Chief of the US Forest Service which was founded in 1905. Photo credit: US Forest Service

Have you ever wondered why your favorite National Park is surrounded by a National Forest? Well, it didn’t happen by accident or guesswork. The fact is, it was all started over 100 years ago by two men I like to refer to as the founding fathers of America’s public lands.

Back at the turn of the 20th Century Gifford Pinchot and John Muir had radically contrasting views of how to manage America’s wild lands and they worked tirelessly lobbying Congress and convincing Presidents to agree with them to start protecting open space.

Muir promoted preservation and Pinchot advocated for conservation.

Pinchot’s vision of managed conservation basically meant that lands owned by the federal government could not only be used for recreation by the general public but could also be used, responsibly, by industry for logging, mining and many other purposes including extensive scientific research on tens of thousands of acres of land.

Pinchot, who would eventually start and serve as the first chief of the US Forest Service that now manages or conserves 193 million acres of forested and grass lands, prevailed overall. He had help, though. President Theodore Roosevelt agreed that conservation was the best practice for the majority of federally owned lands.

The adoption of the conservation model resulted in national forests being multi-billion dollar economic engines for hundreds of small towns and communities across America. If you like winter sports, there’s a good chance that your favorite ski run is on a national forest. The same goes for swimming, hiking and camping. And, there’s a good chance that the house you live in, and some of the furniture you sit on, was built by wood harvested from a national forest.

Another of Pinchot’s concepts from his wild lands conservation philosophies resulted in creation of the Forest Products Lab, the world’s preeminent wood research laboratory and a behemoth of technology and invention located in Madison, Wisconsin. Pinchot’s vision of managing forests for profit fit into his life mantra: The Greatest Good for the greatest number…”

But Pinchot’s success was not at the expense of John Muir’s preservation legacy aimed at permitting little to no industrial profit from the federal lands that have become our National Parks. In fact, Muir’s vision resulted in protecting forever some of the nation’s most iconic open spaces totaling over 100 million acres managed by an agency that was to be called the National Park Service.

Despite arguments by some, Muir’s preservation and Pinchot’s conservation philosophies are not at odds. In fact they play, together, a huge role in protecting our natural open spaces—for generations to come.

This “working together” philosophy of land management can perhaps best be seen by looking at a map of a large national park say Yellowstone or Yosemite or Shenandoah. You’ll notice that these parks (and many others) are connected to, or completely surround by, national forests or grasslands managed by the Forest Service.

For more than 100 years the success of the dual strategy of conservation and preservation has grown more and more obvious to the millions who benefit from jobs created and those who enjoy the wild places. Throughout the world other nations seek to emulate our federal land management system.

Thanks to Pinchot and Muir our federal dual system of conservation and preservation land management works in practical ways to keep our public lands open and productive.

John Muir sitting on a rock
John Muir was a founding father of the American outdoors preservation movement which resulted in the establishment of the US Park Service in 1916. Photo credit: US Park Service
Category/Topic: Forestry

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Ron Kuleck
Mar 23, 2016

Great read, but not enough, about two great men. I wonder how many people, old and young, would even recognize their names, let alone their accomplishments.

James Moffett
Mar 23, 2016

I agree with the benefits to people. Have the same benefits flowed to Nature?
Viewed in this light, I feel and think Muir's "preservation" is more long-term beneficial for Nature and Us.

Magaly Garcia
Jan 24, 2018

I found the article to be very interesting. I did not know that natural parks a protected by a dual system. That's something great to know. What would make this even better is if this system was used in more places around the US and other countries, in order to preserve the natural forests that we have left and to stop deforestation and to stop destroying the natural environments of many animals.

Scott B Peyton
Jan 23, 2019

Contrary to what is indicated in this article, The Shenandoah National Park in Virginia is surrounded almost entirely by private land holdings and NOT Nat'l Forest land. I cannot speak for Yosemite or Yellowstone.

hunter thomas
Jan 21, 2020

There is a lot of wildlife at live on land at its part of a state land there are made to protect wildlife and people went to visit the wildlife.

Avianna, Aguilar
Jan 21, 2020

It was interesting to read how Pinchot's conservation and Muir's preservation was able to work together. Although I would have liked to learn more about Muir and why he felt the way he did about preservation.

tameal malone
Jan 21, 2020

This is a very great article on how people can make a great influence on the world today. This article shows how two men made a change on forestry in just 100 years ago. Think of all the things we could do with every ones help.

Chloe Barbee
Mar 17, 2020

In the 20th century, two men by the names of John Muir and Gifford Pinchot had views on how to deal with the land of America. John Muir thought preservation of the land while Gifford Pinchot thought conservation would be more effective. Pinchot established and became the first chief of the US Forest Service. John Muir's preservation idea established the Nation Park Service. They disagree with each other but really their ideas work hand and hand.

Ci'mya Claiborne
Mar 24, 2020

Hunting and fishing would be an example of preservation. I say that it is preservation because it's preventing humans from messing up the economy even more. While conservation helps to it doesn't help fast enough or as quickly as possible. Conservation helps damages that have already harmed or affected the environment. Preservation is helping to prevent harm before it happen and protect the future generations of animals and their habitats. Also helping the soil to stay in check,because without humans messing it up then it can flourish into something better.

Maine Rufurt
Sep 30, 2020

Very cool!