Conservation vs. Preservation

The difference between two paths of approach to the values of nature.

Rain pops on the hood of your rain coat in the midst of a blissful late afternoon hike. The dawn begins to show its dark blue color through the shadow of a misty green canopy of pine trees and the soft soil sticks to the bottom of your sandals. The moment is peaceful and fluid. That is, however, until you come to a proverbial tree that has fallen in the forest. You weren’t around to hear it, but it’s more than a simple expression, because there it lays across the trail, and you can’t help but think of what a walloping sound it must have made as it came down to completely block your path. 

So the question becomes- what now? How does one intervene with the way that nature has laid herself before them? It’s a question as old as humanity itself, and the way that one answers that question in consideration of the environment is often categorized into one of two similar but distinctly different approaches: Conservation or preservation.


Perhaps that as you stand there, water beading in the folds of your raincoat, you gaze at this mangled collection of wet bark and sticky conifer needles and you find the best thing to do would be to cut this tree right down the middle. You remember that in the back of your rusty Tacoma is a saw, and that if you return with it you can remove the section of the tree obstructing the trail. You could even roll the cut round back to the truck and split it up for some fuel for the wood stove next winter.

This is a nice option because the rest of the tree can stay undisturbed, and other hikers can enjoy the trail without damaging the area around the tree by creating new trails to avoid it. Now you can open the trail for hiking and have some wood for warmth. Boom. Thanks tree.


Maybe, that while you stand indulging in the lingering odor of wet sap and freshly snapped pine perforating the humid air, you decide that this tree didn’t simply fall in front of you for your amusement. This tree has fallen as part of a design of nature, and to interfere with this design is to potentially spoil the entire portrait of the natural world that you appreciate so much.

So you turn around. That’s it. You return to your truck and decide that this trail ends where nature intended it to. There are more trails to explore and that’s ok with you. You feel that to alter the environment off trail or even in the trail itself would be over stepping a boundary of human interaction with wilderness in the modern world. You drive away to explore a different area of the forest, and tree or no tree in the trail, you feel thankful for what the environment has given you.

Same same, but different

Is it easy to see the contrast between the two? In American forestry, the differences were defined early on, and the decision of which ideology to adapt was a subject of debate among turn of the century naturalist icons. 

Although in nature it references different subjects and therefore has no single definition, conservation is most easily explained as the practice of using natural resources wisely to provide for the needs of the present generation without compromising a future generations ability to provide for the needs of their own. “Needs” is a broad term and often includes less consumptive practices like the “need” to simply be surrounded by nature as therapy, but also often includes the “need” for the use of natural resources like lumber and hydroelectricity. This was an ideology originally advocated for by Gifford Pinchot, Americas founding father of the National Forest Service.

Preservation, in contrast, still has natures sustainability in mind but takes on an even more “conservative” approach. Preservation refers to the designation of land to be human free, or free of marks of human influence like roads, bridges, dams, fire pits, etc. This often excludes indigenous humans, but often includes animals that are pets for humans like dogs. The advocate for this approach to managing Americas pristine wilderness was none other than the modern romantics most idolized (also quoted and misquoted) turn of the century adventurer, John Muir. 

A tree in the trail

The national debate over what to do with our “tree in the trail” came down to long and heated discussions under the stars as Pinchot, Muir, and none other than the infamous president Theodore Roosevelt all sat by the campfire deep in the Western American wilderness. Ultimately, Roosevelts broad and expansionist ideology weighted heavily on his side that leaned toward conservation over preservation. His decision to pursue the former shaped the political atmosphere toward the American wilderness into a picture of less than perfectly pristine sustainability. 

Gifford Pinchot. Source:


Thus, Roosevelt’s conservation initiative dissolved his iconic relationship with John Muir but helped build up the infrastructure that we use today to enjoy the lands around us. Things like hiking, biking, skiing and even the lumber in many American homes are all a resource made available to past and future generations due to the conservation ideology. It’s not always ideal for every wilderness, but with a careful, considerate and adaptive approach, conservation remains a popular concept regarding human interaction with the forest. 

Which approach is for you?

Though neither ideology is perfect, or for that matter perfectly defined, there are values taken from both that help humans pursue the ever virtuous balance between themselves and the places that they inhabit. 

So when you encounter the lands around you, around your misty green pines or arid blue sage brush, perhaps consider how you may be consuming this wilderness around you. Do you cut this tree in the trail? Do you leave it be? Is the decision even up to you based on local regulations? Understand that those who are educated of the environment around them can come to more responsible conclusions. Do you consider yourself truly educated? Truly responsible? Having such a knowledge of the local land you inhabit can help immensely to make conservative and preservative decisions. 

Theodore Roosevelt (left) and John Muir (right) overlooking the Yosemite valley in 1903. Source:

While there are differences between both, it is perhaps important to remember that their similarities regard respect toward the environment. So when standing in the rain, deep in contemplation among the sounds of the wind and the weather underneath a dark green canopy, it is best to remember that a tree in the trail represents a choice. A choice between two ideologies that are different in definition, but ultimately similar in nature. 


For more from author and photographer Sean Dronia, head over to his website at:

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