Who is Conservation For?

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

It is in parks that people see and value the benefits of conservation.A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Paul Voosen titled “Who is Conservation For?” details the exceptional accomplishments of Gretchen Daily, a respected scientist who has worked to promote the value of conservation. The benefits of conservation certainly seem self-evident to us in the world of parks and recreation — we see the impacts of protected open space to communities on a daily basis in clean water, wildlife habitats, vegetative buffers, pollution control and more. But as Voosen points out, the benefits of conservation may not always be as evident to the public at large. In fact, some of the focus of contemporary conservation efforts to protect biodiversity and eliminate human impacts on sensitive ecosystems may actually be counterproductive, and may have even had the effect of dampening public regard for conservation rather than stimulating greater support.

NRPA has made a major commitment to promoting the cause of conservation. Conservation is one of our three strategic pillars, and through the work of the Conservation Task Force, the Connecting 10 Million Kids to Nature campaign and concerted efforts to engage our membership, there has been widespread acknowledgement and acceptance of the principle that conservation at the community level should be an essential part of the mission of every park and recreation agency.

But the question of who is conservation for is very relevant to parks and recreation. Some believe conservation should be solely for the sake of the natural resources being conserved. They say this trumps all other considerations because protection of biodiversity is of such critical importance. Once species and habitats are lost, they will never come back.

A central tenet of conservation biology has been that the goal of conservation should be centered on preserving nature from human influence. As a result, conservation biology was sometimes perceived as a “crisis discipline,” one that promoted the idea that as manmade changes to the environment cause ever more damage to ecosystems, dramatic action has to be taken to save species and habitats, and human impacts must be eliminated or at least minimized.

However, these crisis messages have sometimes met with public indifference. A weary public, bombarded with bad news about the environment, has a fatigue factor. People come to no longer care about the benefits of conservation because they only hear about the losses. And introduction of the term “ecosystem services” to describe the economic benefits of natural systems that produce clean air and clean water at no cost to man is almost guaranteed to press the snooze button in building public support.

So who is conservation for? The dynamic tensions created by conservation biology and considerations of ecosystem services and their economic value to man are very important to what conservation philosophy is all about today. This thinking drives a lot of contemporary conservation initiatives such as those implemented by The Nature Conservancy, the Smithsonian Institution, the Society for Conservation Biology, and other national and international conservation organizations. In practice, the focus of an organization like The Nature Conservancy, whose mission is to “to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends,” is primarily about saving the last of the of the best of what’s left. TNC engages in strategies that protect threatened ecosystems and species in need of conservation. They buy or protect the habitats of endangered species, create nature preserves and devise strategies to reduce negative human impacts on nature. 

And this thinking applies to the Endangered Species Act and other federal efforts to protect rapidly vanishing species. If populations of rare and threatened wildlife and plant species start to plummet, then action must be taken to cease the interfering human activity and let nature come back, however long it takes. Of course, these principles can drive industry and business crazy, because they take potentially beneficial human actions off the table in considering how endangered species can be restored or large landscapes can be conserved while still allowing agriculture, energy development, industry and other potentially negative uses of natural systems.

While some conservation biologists espouse protecting biodiversity at all costs, a more mature philosophy of conservation has been developing. Voosen points to the work of biologists and ecologists like Daily and others who are engaged in developing this approach — namely that with the incredible impacts coming from climate change, the development and overconsumption of existing natural resources, and how we take for granted the value that ecosystems bring us, i.e., the “ecosystem services” we gain from the natural processes that clean our water and air, moderate temperature and provide many other economically valuable services, then we are highly imprudent if we don’t start taking this value seriously and factoring it into how humankind will survive if we expect to continue living on this planet. In this viewpoint, conservation is for everyone.

These conservation scientists assert that the impact of human activity must be taken into consideration and accounted for since its impacts are all but inevitable. However, if we practice smart conservation, then we can benefit along with species and resources. In the process, we can make a powerful economic case for the value of what were heretofore thought of as “free” services provided by insects, mammals, birds, natural energy sources and other natural processes, and we may be able to more effectively build public support and save those very species and resources that we fear losing.

There is a valuable takeaway for parks and recreation in this message. One of the key findings from Daily’s research and life’s work is that conservation can and should be practiced everywhere, in every landscape and in every environment. For conservation to be successful, she asserts, it needs to be practiced everywhere, at all times, and everyone needs to understand the benefits that natural capital brings us. She says, “There was recognition within the science community, more and more, that we need conservation right in the thick of where people live and work and play and everything else….”

Daily’s statement resonates powerfully with what parks can do for conservation, because it is in parks that people see and value the benefits of conservation. While relatively few developed local, urban or regional parks are providing habitats for documented threatened and endangered species, these parks are providing proof-positive of the value of ecosystem services — they produce clean water; clean air; reduced ambient temperatures; habitat for valuable plants, wildlife and pollinating insects; and other important benefits to man and nature every day. 

NRPA’s commitment to implementing conservation at the community level through parks and recreation; giving our members the tools, resources and knowledge of how to do it; and explaining those benefits to the public is how we are answering the question: Who is Conservation For?

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