Debate Over the Purpose of Conservation Heats Up

December 1, 2014, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

Discussion within the parks and recreation field about the precise purpose of conservation is heating up, with two camps approaching the issue from very different perspectives.Who is conservation for? The debate over this age-old question has recently taken a surprising and unfortunately acrimonious turn. The feud between those in conservation who believe that nature should be protected for its own sake, or its “intrinsic” value, and those who believe that we should conserve nature to help man, or for the “instrumental” value of nature, has broken into the open in an embarrassingly public squabble. The January issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine provided background on how the issue has been brewing and its relevance to public parks and recreation. 

Clearly the issues about who conservation benefits have not been resolved, and as the debate has intensified and become more personal, there is a growing fear that the continuing arguments are harming the cause of conservation by chilling potential grantors and driving students away from entering a field that has become so divisive.

The simmering dispute was brought to a head recently with the publication of a commentary in the November 2014 journal Nature by two highly respected ecologists, Heather Tallis of the Nature Conservancy and Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of NOAA who is now at Oregon State University. In their commentary, co-signed by 238 other respected scientists, ecologists and biologists, the pair calls out colleagues in the field for their uncompromising stance and the increasingly vitriolic dialogue over the question of why we should conserve natural resources. 

Tallis and Lubchenco identify two sets of voices, namely the proponents of instrumental value and the proponents of intrinsic value. The instrumental value point of view is espoused by those who believe that protecting nature for its own sake has not slowed the loss of habitat or the extinction of species, and that the only prudent course of action is to directly couple conservation efforts with the goals of business, industry and agriculture, which will encourage more support for protecting what matters to people. They argue we should not worry about protecting all of nature for nature’s sake. 

Conversely, Tallis and Lubchenco identify the proponents of intrinsic value as those who believe that protecting nature for its own sake is right and proper and that partnering with business, industry or big agriculture is a craven sell-out, for it is those very industries that have led to species extinction and widespread loss of critical habitat. According to the intrinsic value point of view, protecting nature and all species within it for their own sake, even those that have no apparent value to man, is sufficient reason to promote the cause of conservation.

Tallis and Lubchenco decry the present state of affairs and forcefully call for an end to the destructive debate that is raging among a small minority of mostly men within academia, institutions and organizations. They advocate for the adoption of a big-tent philosophy that allows for acceptance of both views according to the context, and which addresses needs that align with the values of promoting diverse points of view. They claim that the very future of conservation science, practice and policy is at stake unless the hatchet is buried, and they state that there is plenty of room for a diverse and unified conservation ethic, “one that recognizes and accepts all values of nature, from intrinsic to instrumental, and welcomes all philosophies justifying nature protection and restoration, from ethical to economic, and from aesthetic to utilitarian.” They note that this combined, diverse set of ethics has guided conservation in America for more than 100 years and was the underpinning of the rationale to create Yellowstone National Park, perhaps America’s greatest conservation success. They pointedly note that there is little gender equity within this raging debate and that the views of women, minorities and other cultures are rarely heard. They call for more diverse voices and points of view, and for a more constructive dialogue.

The issue of who conservation is for is not just a philosophical or theoretical debate by ivory-towered academics. It has very real meaning to all of us in the field of parks and recreation. Increasingly, parks are viewed as protectors of biodiversity. A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund, the 2014 Living Planet Index, identifies the shocking loss of the word’s vertebrate wildlife species — more than 50 percent in the past 40 years. The greatest losses have been in freshwater species of fish, reptiles and amphibians — up to 76 percent decline, but virtually all species have shown significant downturns. 

Park and recreation agencies are coming to see that the public wants and expects them to conserve wildlife species and make this a priority of their mission. And there is ample evidence to show public support. Bond measures for land conservation and open-space protection passed at an astonishing 75 percent approval rate in the recent midterm elections. The Outdoor Industry Association’s annual report on outdoor recreation participation trends identifies wildlife viewing and birdwatching as among the top three favorite activities nationwide for youth and adults. Perhaps more tellingly, however, more than one-third of respondents, when asked why they did not participate in outdoor activities, replied, “Not interested.” This is an area of deep concern for those who believe conservation is important.

For parks and public lands, conservation is very much about what we do every day — it is about protecting habitat, educating the public, managing volunteers and being protectors of our natural resources and wildlife. Perhaps most importantly, it is also about connecting kids to nature and the outdoors and guiding youth to develop a sense of conservation ethics and responsibility for conservation stewardship.

The debate may continue to rage among academics and scientists about the purpose of conservation, but clearly the adults in the room are taking notice of how destructive some of it has become. For those of us in parks and recreation who manage conservation lands, frankly, we think it is more important to be spending our time making conservation matter to all people, all the time.

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.