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  • Writer's pictureTerri Lane

Conservation vs. Preservation

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

John Muir, circa 1902, sitting by a lake
John Muir

Conservation and preservation may seem like the same thing, but there are important distinctions. The National Park Service points out that while both terms involve some level of protection, conservation “seeks the proper use of nature,” while preservation “seeks the protection of nature from use.”

I’ve been passionate about protecting nature for as long as I can remember.

As a young girl, the walls of my room were plastered with wildlife photos torn from the pages of Ranger Rick magazines. Stickers promoting everything from Smokey the Bear to the Crying Indian decorated the sides of a corner cabinet. I spent my free time exploring the woods around our small farm, knowing early on that I wanted to help save the untouched places where wildlife made their home.

As an adult, I am fortunate to live out my passion, working for a land trust and saving land. As we think about the philosophy of our work, broader questions are asked - what are we saving, who are we saving it for, and are we conserving or preserving?

I think back to John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Both were leaders in the early environmental movement of the 19th century, but the two men held very different views. Muir saw wilderness as a place to be revered and protected from the intrusion of humankind. Pinchot, on the other hand, was a pioneer in American forestry who saw wilderness as a natural resource to be wisely used and managed for economic gains.

The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 empowered presidents of the United States to set aside parcels of public land as national forest reserves. The Ken Burns film series, “The National Parks; America’s Best Idea”, describes how Muir considered forests sacred and wanted them treated as parks, with logging, grazing, and hunting prohibited, while Pinchot argued these lands should be used and managed like a crop, not preserved like a temple.

Pinchot's "utilitarian" forest conservation approach won favor with Congress at the time. National Forests became part of the Department of Agriculture, with Pinchot appointed as the nation’s first chief forester, in 1898.

Muir’s activism, on the other hand, among other preservation victories, helped secure the establishment of Yosemite National Park in 1890 and the preservation of Mount Rainier, the majority of which was originally included within the boundaries of the 1893 Pacific Forest Reserve where logging and grazing would have been permitted. After years of advocacy, Muir and his allies succeeded, and Mount Rainier National Park was established in 1899. Muir, who co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892, became known as the “Father of the National Parks”.

Gifford Pinchot stands over a desert region
Gifford Pinchot

Although Muir and Pinchot began a friendship and found common ground in the early years, their friendship ended in 1897 with public clashes over such issues as sheep grazing in national forests and the damming and flooding of the glacial Hetch Hetchy Valley, part of Yosemite National Park, by the city of San Francisco.

Differing views and tension over the use and treatment of natural areas continues today. On a local scale, the damming of streams, commercial agriculture in sensitive watersheds, and the type and density of trail development in natural areas all have spurred controversy on some level. Those supporting the use or expanded use of natural areas for human consumption or enjoyment can often point to significant economic gains and community development benefits, while those who advocate for preservation plead the intrinsic value of saving nature for nature’s sake and keeping wild areas wild.

There is a place for both, and balance is key. A balanced approach is favored by the land trust in making land use decisions. An informed balance. Even Muir recognized that the taking of timber from certain areas was essential to human survival. The important thing is to understand the difference and to ask the right questions - is this the right thing to do, right here, right now, and what are the future implications? (How do we know the answers? For more on that, watch for Part 2 of this Good Stewards blog series, “Broadening the Lens”.)

As for me, a spiritual and transcendental view of nature resonates deep within my soul and always has. Humans can be short-sighted and self-centered. It’s easy to view nature “for me” and fail to see the value in just letting it be. But nature is the very place, when approached with gratitude and an open spirit, that allows one to connect with something greater than ourselves. Nature gives in ways that can’t all be measured. Sometimes, we need to preserve the temple.

The above blog is the first in a series on land stewardship. Stay tuned for upcoming installments. As always, your feedback is welcome - let’s have a conversation about caring for our natural areas in Northwest Arkansas.


Terri Lane is Executive Director & CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, a regional nonprofit based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She has worked in the environmental field for over 20 years, serving at the helm of the land trust for eight. She applies her experience and passion toward saving the landscapes that matter most in the Ozark Highlands and Boston Mountain ecoregions of Northwest Arkansas.


D. K.
D. K.
2 days ago

Great read. Thank you, Terri! positive words that start with s


Joao Pimenta
Joao Pimenta
Oct 10, 2023

Hello, my name is João, from Brazil. I read your text just now and would like to thank you for publishing it. I believe that each one will position themselves more on the side of Muir or Pinchot. Very few will be able to balance well between the two. I personally feel closer to Muir. In doing so, I am aware of the implications and price to be paid, agreeing to move away from the consumerist model we have today, which is unsustainable.


Unknown member
Mar 30, 2021

I belive the key to well being of nature and life along with it lies in us being able to understand and imbibe how indigenous people interected with nature in a realationship founded upon holism.


Unknown member
Aug 12, 2020

Great article Terri. I particularly appreciate the concise synopsis of Muir and Pichot. For me, your statement "Humans can be short-sighted and self-centered. It’s easy to view nature “for me” and fail to see the value in just letting it be" begs the question "Are we loving our National Parks too much?" The preservation of and goals for our National parks are impressive, certainly requiring great financial support. This support comes in part from visitor income, creating a complex issue of how many people, how often? Increasing the monetary value to experience these Natural Wonders is NOT an option. Perhaps a combination of strategies to reduce the human impact and issues due to the ever-growing volume of users. Tho…

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