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The New Conservationists

Table of Contents

Executive Summary

Born in the late 1960s, the environmental movement grew to become one of the most potent political forces of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet today it is suffering its greatest crisis. It appears that the movement may be fragmenting into two distinctly different movements, one that focuses on preservation and central control and one that focuses on management and decentralization.

This would be a replay of history. From roughly 1890 to 1965, the conservation movement was the major political force shaping natural resource policy. Consisting of forest, wildlife, and other resource managers; biologists and other resource scientists; hunters, fishers, and other wildlife lovers; and a variety of other rural and public land users, the conservation movement believed in wise use of natural resources. Scientific research in many fields supported the notion that natural resources benefitted from human management.

At the same time, a smaller preservation movement was sometimes an ally and sometimes an antagonist to the conservationists. Made up of hikers, wilderness lovers, and national park supporters, the preservationists believed that some areas should be left unmanaged for anything except primitive recreation. They believed that "nature knows best" and that human management was generally harmful to natural resources.

The increasing awareness of pollution, pesticides, overpopulation, and endangered species in the late 1960s gave the preservationists a major boost and left the conservationists with a black eye for failing to anticipate and solve many environmental problems. Encouraged by a tolerance for different views within the environmental community, many conservation allies, including fish and wildlife groups, younger foresters and other professionals, and ecologists and other scientists, in effect defected to the preservationist view. Research in ecology, fisheries, soils, and other areas seemed to support the preservationist claim that "nature knows best."

The strengthened preservationists convinced Congress to set aside large areas of public lands as wilderness in the 1970s and early 1980s. The era climaxed in the early 1990s with the protection of millions of acres of Douglas-fir old-growth timber. Meanwhile, once highly respected conservation agencies such as the Forest Service were villified as land despoilers and seemed to lose their focus.

Two trends in the 1990s conspire to undo the preservationist hegemony. First, recent research in ecology and conservation biology is challenging the nature-knows-best philosophy.

All of these findings point to the need for environmentalists to support various forms of management both inside and outside of parks and wilderness areas. But the second trend is that environmentalists with an extreme preservationist view have become intolerance of any dissension from that view. In the early 1990s, several environmental groups embarked on a campaign of environmental correctness that sharply criticized other groups that were willing to support even limited management of public lands and anything less than strict federal regulation of private lands.

One group, for example, promoted the idea of ending all timber cutting in the national forests--the "zero-cut option." Rather than go the standard route of lobbying Congress, this group focused on lobbying other environmental groups, demonizing any group that did not support its position. The tactic of attacking other environmentalists was used by an increasing number of groups in the early 1990s. A 1990 Greenpeace policy called for a "grassroots revolution against compromise and pragmatism."

This revolution has apparently succeeded. By 1996, numerous groups, including the Sierra Club and Oregon Natural Resources Council, had adopted the zero-cut policy and other extreme views. Such groups more or less excommunicated environmentalists, such as Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund and members of the Quincy Library Group, who dared to negotiate with industry, private land owners, or pubilc land managers.

The simplicity of the zero-cut, cattle-free, and other no-management messages allowed environmentalists to rally their ardent supporters and flood Congress with messages calling for central planning and prescriptive regulation. Yet many of the allies that the preservationists developed during the 1970s and 1980s, including biologists and other scientists, wildlife groups, and foresters, are not likely to support this extreme preservation view. The movement is once again fragmenting into its pre-1970 form of conservationists and preservationists.

The new conservationists are unlike the old ones in many ways. Many view commodity extraction as a tool, not a goal, of land management. Their aims, such as biodiversity, ecosystem health, and sustainability, are often nebulous compared with the firm output goals of the old conservationists. But they share with the old conservationists a belief, backed by the latest scientific research, in the need for managing land, even wilderness, rather than just leaving it alone.

Meanwhile, the new preservationists are much more ambitious than their predecessors. Where the old preservationists simply wanted to preserve a cross-section of parks and wilderness areas, the new ones want to close all federal lands to further development and to strictly regulate private land use.

This schism offers people who care about natural resources a clear choice.

It is difficult to predict which side will ultimately claim the name "environmentalist" that is so fiercely defended by the new preservationists. But people who care about the land and people who believe that central planning and federal micromanagement are inefficient and counterproductive can do much to support the new conservationists, under whatever name they go by, through funding, research, and publicity.


The environmental movement is currently suffering its greatest crisis since it began in the late 1960s. Early indications are that the movement is fragmenting into two different movements.

While the first movement is currently dominant, at least in the media, it is also rapidly losing influence and support. It is too soon, however, to predict that the second movement will replace it. However, it is in the interest of conservatives and classical liberals to support the second movement.

The environmental movement's current crisis is not really new. Instead, it is inherent in the history of the movement, a history that extends back to the Progressive era of the late nineteenth century. This paper will describe that history and then review comments and opinions of environmental activists today. The paper focuses on the forest protection segment of the environmental community, but much of what it says is applicable to other areas as well.

The Conservation Movement: 1890-1962

The Progressive movement is responsible for the civil service system and the growth of the bureaucracy that now dominates the federal government. Progressivism was a reaction against both the spoils system that drove nineteenth century American politics and the growing influence of large corporations in industrial America.

But the Progressives may have had their greatest influence on natural resource management in this country. While socialists were unable to convince the U.S. to nationalize any major industry, the Progressives convinced Congress to at least hold on to what remained of the federal lands, which previously had been sold to encourage settlement and raise funds for the federal government.

Starting in 1891, with the creation of forest reserves (and some would say earlier with the creation of Yellowstone Park), some 600 million acres of federal land that might otherwise have been granted to the states or given or sold to private parties were withheld from disposal. These lands were to be managed by "scientific foresters," range specialists, hydrologists, and other experts. Since most of these experts were trained by publicly funded land-grant colleges and paid by the public out of tax dollars, they were presumed to automatically make decisions in the public interest.

But conservationists who promoted public ownership and scientific management were challenged by a small wing of their movement called preservationists. In most history books, the conservationists were embodied by Gifford Pinchot, founder of the Forest Service, while the preservationists were embodied by John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club. While Pinchot believed that resources should be managed for the public interest, Muir felt that at least some areas were best left totally unmanaged.

"The biggest difference between the conservation movement and the environmental movement is larger than any single issue," says North Carolina environmentalist Wallace Kaufman. "Conservationists believe that humankind can manage nature through the intelligent use of science. Environmentalists believe we must back off and let nature manage itself. It is the difference between optimism and pessimism."

This "wise use" versus "preservation" has now been the focus of public lands conflicts for more than a century. It is, in essence, a conflict between ruralites and urbanites. Rural dwellers, in touch with and dependent upon the land, oppose preservation both because it reduces their livelihoods and because they resent the idea that any management is necessarily destructive. Urban residents, out of touch with the land except for occasional vacations, are inspired by romantic ideals of the frontier and aesthetically repulsed by human management.

In the early part of this century, most Americans were ruralites, and the conservationists easily prevailed over the preservationists. Although the Park Service, which was created in 1916, leaned toward the preservation side, even that agency built or encouraged construction of roads, hotels, and other developments over the objections of Muir and other preservationists. In the 1930s the Forest Service embraced, for awhile, the idea of wilderness--but only to fend off Park Service raids on national forest lands.

After World War II, increased demand for public timber led the Forest Service to declassify and log some of the wilderness areas that it had created in the 1930s. The Park Service, meanwhile, embarked on a program of heavy capital investments in the parks, including roads, visitors centers, campgrounds, and other developments. Preservationists protested both agencies' policies to little effect.

The Environmental Movement: 1962-1974

The tables began to turn in 1962, when Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, led the preservationists to reshape themselves as the environmental movement. This movement exploded with the 1970 Environmental Teach-In, now remembered as Earth Day. Perhaps the most important thing about Earth Day was that it was an urban event--and by 1970, the vast majority of Americans lived in urban or suburban, not rural, areas.

The sudden public awareness of environmental problems allowed the preservationists to build alliances with several other groups. Health groups concerned about pollution and pesticides, for example, supported wilderness areas because no pesticide spraying was allowed and EPA air pollution standards were at their highest in these areas.

The most important factor influencing the explosive growth of the environmental movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s was demographics: This was when the baby boomers came of age. The Vietnam war and Ralph Nader inspired them to be politically active. Just as important, most of the baby boomers who entered the environmental movement were raised in urban areas by parents who took them hiking, camping, hunting, or fishing on public lands during their childhoods and fed them a romantic view of nature and wilderness.

Young environmentalists embraced the young science of ecology. They were particularly fond of ecologist Barry Commoner, whose "three laws of ecology" included the claim that "nature knows best." This "law" suppored wilderness because, if nature knows best, then anything humans do is less than best and no management was by definition the best form of management.

In 1967, the National Park Service made this idea especially respectable when it adopted an ecological policy called "natural regulation." Under this policy, Park Service managers would not try to regulate wildlife or vegetation on any national park. Instead, they would let the parks become "vignettes of pre-Columbian America."

Behind this policy lay a controversy over hunting in the parks. Eager to assure visitors of their safety, the Park Service had long forbidden hunting in the parks (though it allowed fishing). In the 1930s, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., bought several ranches south of Yellowstone and east of the Grand Tetons and donated them to the Park Service to form Teton National Park. But these ranches were on the route of a major elk migration corridor between Yellowstone Park and the Jackson Hole Elk Refuge that had been popular with hunters for many years.

Creation of the park closed the entire migration route to hunting, with the result that elk numbers zoomed upwards. Elk overgrazing was soon having visible effects on Yellowstone and Teton parks. To keep elk populations down, Park Service rangers killed thousands each year in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Hunters, already annoyed by the closure of the migration route to hunting, were outraged at the park's annual slaughter of elk. If rangers could shoot elk, why couldn't sportsmen? They protested to Wyoming Senator Gale? McGee, who held field hearings on the matter in 1965?

In his biography, then-Park Service director George Hartzog relates that, the night before the hearings, he had dinner with Senator McGee during which they reached a compromise. Sports hunters would not be allowed to hunt in the parks. But neither would Park Service rangers. Except for a few trout, no animals would be killed at all in the parks. To give this political compromise a patina of science, Park Service ecologists called it natural regulation and soon the policy was applied throughout the National Park System.

The national parks therefore became the standard against which all other public lands, including national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, and state lands, were judged. Since all of the other agencies had a management "ethic," all others fell short.

By and large, most of the preservationists cum environmentalists were still hikers and other recreationists who wanted to save wilderness and "the environment" just because it was there. But they were joined by numerous scientists who might previously have supported the conservationist wise-use philosophy.

For example, past generations of soils scientists saw their jobs as minimizing erosion. Baby-boomer soils scientists could see that almost anything people did to nature caused erosion. They wanted to end erosion, which meant no human activities.

Past generations of fisheries biologists embraced chemical poisons as a tool to purge lakes and streams of undesirable species of fish and replace them with game fish. Baby-boomer fisheries biologists could see that almost any erosion or use of chemicals was harmful to fish, and they wanted to let nature take its course. Even fish hatcheries, they pointed out, led to a weakening of fishery gene pools.

The Changing Movement: 1965-1980

All of this growth led to turmoil and shifting alliances within the movement. In 1965, the preservation movement consisted mainly of the Sierra Club (founded by John Muir) and the Wilderness Society (founded by Bob Marshall, a Forest Service official, in the 1930s when that agency was fending off the Park Service).

These were sometimes allied with wildlife groups, such as the Audubon Society (mostly birdwatchers) and National Wildlife Federation (mostly hunters). But the preservationists could not count on the wildlife groups, and the hunters in particular often supported the foresters, whose clearcuts provided habitat for deer and other game.

Several new organizations were created in the late 1960s, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund. But all of these groups were "national groups" with no regional or local focus.

In the 1970s, the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society realized that their names and reputations alienated many local people who might otherwise support wilderness preservation. So they promoted the formation of statewide wilderness groups, such as the Montana Wilderness Association and Oregon Wilderness Coalition.

The state groups created a not-in-my-back-yard grassroots network. Every piece of potential wilderness, no matter how small, had its group of supporters, often incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization.

The national groups urged the leaders of the state and NIMBY groups never to compromise. When the time came to compromise, the national groups would do the final negotiations. The national groups had to compromise because only groups willing to negotiate got seats at the bargaining table when Congress made its final decisions about wilderness and similar legislation. But if local groups compromised, they might unnecessarily give away lands that could have been saved as wilderness.

Yet this soon created tension between the national and local groups. The locals viewed the nationals with suspicion, worried that the nationals would negotiate their backyard wildernesses away in exchange for some other area. The nationals considered the locals to be politically naÔve and unrealistic, and often treated them with contempt.

The state groups were caught in the middle: If they grew large enough to negotiate on their own, as did the Oregon Wilderness Coalition (now the Oregon Natural Resouces Council), they risked the ire of no-compromise local groups. If they refused to compromise, they never got a seat at the bargaining table and so never grew strong enough to challenge the national groups.

These tensions masked a broad tolerance within the movement for a variety of views, policies, and tactics. Although resentments were many, they were mostly minor and most activists recognized that all of the different groups played an important role. This toleration strengthened the movement in two important ways.

First, the rapid proliferation of new groups gave the movement an edge over the centralized bureaucracies and industries that it regarded as its foes. There were literally thousands of different environmental groups each trying different tactics to achieve their goals. While this prevented any coherent strategy, it led to rapid innovation, and tactics that worked for one group spread through the movement like wildfire.

Second, the environmentalist's tolerance for minor differences in goals and objectives led many of the traditional conservation allies, particularly wildlife groups, ecologists and other scientists, and younger foresters and other professionals who grew up in urban areas, to identify more closely with the environmental cause. The Forest Service and other conservation agencies were increasingly discredited by controversy, and older foresters and other professionals were criticized for not having recognized and solved problems of endangered species and conflicts between recreation and commodity production.

By 1980, groups such as the Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation were firmly in the environmental camp. Scientists and professionals such as fisheries and wildlife managers were moving in that direction. This set the stage for the highly successful ancient forest campaign of the late 1980s.

The tensions between national and local groups became more serious after Reagan was elected. During the 1970s, environmental groups tended to hire from within. State groups recruited their low-paid staff from the most successful volunteers in the NIMBY groups. National groups recruited their modestly paid staff from the most successful staff of the state groups. The movement tended to be egalatarian, with national groups contributing funds to the state groups and state groups providing assistance to the local groups.

This changed when Reagan was elected president and hundreds of thousands of Americans suddenly joined the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and other national groups. Despite their large memberships which sometimes theoretically voted for boards of directors, the national groups were firmly controlled by their staffs. These people decided it was payback time for all the years of work they had done at below-market salaries. So instead of responding to this influx of money by hiring new staff from the state groups, they simply gave themselves huge raises.

Lacking national reputations, the state and local groups barely benefitted from the anti-Reagan reaction. The sudden huge difference in pay scales between the national and state groups increased the tensions over policy. The national groups used this increased tension as an excuse to reduce what little support they had previously provided to the state groups.

As it happened, a new national group was just getting started that would take advantage of this increased national-versus-local tension. In 1979, Dave Foreman, one of the Wilderness Society staff members who had climbed the local-to-national ladder, decided he was fed up with the compromising nature of the national groups. He and several friends decided to form their own national group, Earth First!, whose motto would be "No compromise in defense of Mother Earth."

Earth First!, of course, never got a seat at any bargaining table. But Foreman saw its role as one of being as extreme as possible so that the other national groups could push for more wilderness while still appearing reasonable compared with Earth First! Foreman's group drew tremendous support from the NIMBYs who all wanted their favorite areas to be saved through legislation and who resented the increasingly arrogant national staffs.

Earth First! drew support of a different sort as well. This support came from the romantic urbanites who didn't care about the scientific values of old growth, who didn't care about the economics of below-cost timber sales, who didn't care about the relationship between forests and elk or game fish. They simply wanted to save wilderness because they didn't like to see trees cut down or any kind of commodity extraction on any land, public or private.

The no-compromising Earth First! thus became a refuge for the anti-science, anti-economics, anti-hunting, anti-management wing of the environmental movement. Foreman, a half-way libertarian who worked on the Goldwater campaign in 1964, was so repulsed by this that he eventually quit Earth First!, which soon shrank to a shadow of its former self. It didn't matter: By 1995, the antis would become the dominant wing of the movement. But first, the scientists would have their day.

A few national groups, such as the Wilderness Society, did hire new staff during the Reagan years, but they were not experienced activists. Instead, they sought ecologists, economists, and other experts who would do respectable research. Although many of the state group staff were themselves trained biologists or other professionals, the nationals avoided them as "tainted." Instead, they often hired people from the timber or other industries just to prove that their experts were "objective."

Except for the Environmental Defense Fund, which had employed scientists effectively for years, and a few of the Wilderness Society's experts who played a role in the old-growth debates, most of the experts hired by environmental groups either turned into activists themselves or produced little of scientific value. The research papers they wrote were generally repetitions of previous work and were quickly forgotten. At best, these experts provided the environmental movement with a liason to the scientific community.

The Old-Growth Debate: 1974-1994

Among the scientists and professionals who joined the environmental movement in the 1970s were members of the forestry profession, which had invented the wise-use philosophy of the conservation movement. Before 1974, nearly all forestry school graduates had been raised in rural areas and had a rural wise-use land ethic. But Earth Day 1970 sent hoards of urbanites to forestry schools, the first of whom graduated in 1974.

I was in that 1974 graduating class of the Oregon State University School of Forestry--by far the largest graduating class in the school's history to that time--and I immediately went to work as a consultant for environmental groups. My idealistic goal was to make scientific tools available to environmentalists so that they could support their arguments with more than just aesthetics and the emotional impact of seeing beautiful forests turned to sawdust and exposed soil.

My subsidiary goal was to get environmentalists to focus on what I regarded as "the real issues," such as which lands should be cut and how much cutting should be done each year. I wanted to reduce the movement's dependence on emotional issues, such as clearcutting and aesthetics, which were popular among the old preservationists but not very persuasive to the general public.

In 1975, I attended the first annual conference of the Oregon Wilderness Coalition and found that I wasn't the only one with a dual mission. Among others, there was Fred Swanson, a geologist, who wanted environmentalists to understand the impacts of timber cutting and roads on forest soils, watersheds, and fisheries. There was also Glen Juday, a forest ecologist, who wanted environmentalists to understand the scientific values of old-growth forests. Both Swanson and Juday would later become important in the old-growth debates.

In 1974, it seemed that the timber industry and Forest Service had all of the scientific arguments on their side.

Meanwhile, the only argument of the environmentalists was the aesthetic or emotional view that uncut foresets were beautiful and clearcuts were ugly.

By 1981, scientists such as Juday and Swanson had completely turned this around. The scientists found that Northwest old-growth forests (meaning old growth west of the Cascade Mountain divide) were highly productive. Among other things, they were habitat for nearly 200 species of wildlife. While deer and many other species benefitted from clearcutting--and all the cutting on public land private lands had made such species abundant--the spotted owl and many other species needed vast expanses of uncut forest.

Old-growth forests were also critical for fish, both because uncut and unroaded forests produced the cleanest water and because large trees falling in streams turned out to be important parts of stream ecosystems, creating slow-moving pools where resident and migrating fish could rest. Meanwhile, economic analyses were showing that the Forest Service lost a lot of money on most of its timber sales.

In 1979, Juday and Swanson joined Jerry Franklin and a number of other scientists from a variety of disciplines documenting these values of old-growth Douglas-fir in a paper published by the Forest Service. Their research had been financed by the Forest Service as a coordinated project that the agency decided not to repeat in other ecosystems.

In 1981, a major conference on old-growth forests in Eugene, Oregon, saw the scientists refute every previous claim for why old growth should be cut. Even fire wasn't a problem, since it turned out that in the Douglas-fir ecosystem old growth was highly resistent to fire. The industry was left with just one argument, an emotional one: cutting old growth created jobs. Even that argument disappeared when the timber industry went bust in the recession of the early 1980s and many western states found they could get along without it.

The 1980s saw an extraordinary, and largely unspoken, coalition between environmentalists and scientists working for the protection of old growth. The Earth Day effect on the forestry profession had other influences as well. Andy Stahl, an urbanite who graduated from the OSU School of Forestry a few years after I did, first went to work for the timber industry, then switched allegience to environmentalists, for whom he coordinated a series of lawsuits that ended up shutting down the cutting of old-growth Douglas-fir.

Within the Forest Service, Jeff DeBonis--another urban graduate of forestry school--protested old growth cutting and was swamped with support from other Forest Service employees who communicated with the agency's new email system. DeBonis started the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (now directed by Stahl) to give the urbanite foresters a public voice.

By 1992, it was all over but the shouting. Led by Stahl, the environmentalist lawsuits had shut down logging of old-growth Douglas-fir on federal lands. The Northwest Congressional delegation, which supported the industry, found the scientists' arguments unassailable. The Forest Service, which in the past might simply have rolled over its opposition, was effectively neutralized by the rising young urbanite foresters represented by DeBonis. Fueled by the high-tech industry, the Northwest economy was booming, and few people outside of small, remote towns even noticed the closure of numerous sawmills.

In 1994, Clinton adopted the President's Northwest Forest Plan, which set aside millions of acres of old growth and limited management on millions more. But the President's Plan--which was really written by the scientists and not the older foresters--no more than affirmed the decision that had already been jointly made by Forest Service officials, the scientists, and the environmentalists.

The Closing of the Environmental Movement: 1992-Present

Heady with power, environmentalists told themselves that they had saved Northwest old growth all by themselves. So they tried to extend this victory to other regions of the country without nurturing alliances with scientists, younger Forest Service officials, or other supporters in the Northwest old-growth debate. This failure minimized their success in other parts of the national forest system.

Part of the problem was that the scientific research that had supported Douglas-fir old-growth protection had not been done in other parts of the country. This meant there was no scientific consensus to support preservation of old-growth ponderosa pine, old-growth spruce, old-growth hardwoods, or other old growth.

More important, new scientific findings were no longer supporting the environmentalists' "nature knows best" philosophy. This was particularly true in the arid West, which includes almost the entire West except for the Douglas-fir region.

Natural regulation had turned into a disaster for the national parks, where overpopulations of elk and other wildlife were destroying the diversity of ecosystems. The Park Service's effort to turn the parks into vignettes of pre-Columbian America failed to account for the fact that pre-Columbian America had an active Native American population that hunted wildlife and regularly burned vegetation.

Moreover, as documented by Daniel Botkin in his 1991 book, Discordant Harmonies, new research was trashing the ecological theories that supported "nature knows best." The ideas of the environmental movement "represented a resurgency of prescientific myths about nature," wrote Botkin, "blended with early-twentieth-century studies that provided short-term and static images of nature undisturbed."

The ecological manager of the 1970s, continued Botkin, "managed for constancy." The new ecologists managed "in terms of uncertainty, as well as in terms of change, risk (the inherent unpredictability of events, such as the risk of death and extinction), and complexity."

The new ecology said that what happened outside of wilderness preserves was at least as, if not more, important to ecosystem health and wildlife as what didn't happen inside those preserves. This meant that environmentalists who were truly concerned about ecosystem health would have to work with the people managing those lands outside of wilderness.

Many environmentalists were unable to integrate this into their thinking in the 1990s. To them, any management at all was an unacceptable compromise, and anyone who talked to managers was a traitor to the movement.

Even though Foreman's depature from Earth First! had reduced the influence of that group, the no-compromisers gained ground within the movement in the early 1990s.

Whereas Foreman had used the no-compromise policy simply to broaden the range of alternatives under discussion, the new no compromisers focused on demonizing any environmentalists who refused to support them. Pressures to be environmentally correct grew intense as these groups viciously attackedother environmental groups in order to build themselves up. Greenpeace even published a "Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations" that listed several environmental groups that had dared to compromise or support anything short of central control.

One of the factors promoting the extreme view may have been a movement of people from other, more traditional left-wing causes to environmental groups. Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore notes that, with the fall of the Soviet Union, leftists were discredited and people in the peace movement were redundant. "I remember the beginnings of this trend," says Moore, "when young activists in army fatigue and red berets began to show up in Greenpeace offices as volunteers."

Any resistance that might have come from the compromise-oriented national groups collapsed when Clinton was elected president. Clinton's victory led many of the people who had joined the national groups when Republicans held the White House to conclude that the crisis was over, and they dropped their memberships. This left the nationals in disarray and tilted the balance of power to the locals and other no compromisers.

For many local activists, 1993 would be the first time in their careers that Democrats held both Congress and the White House. Since national groups had done so much to demonize Republicans in the 1980s, these newer activists presumed that the environmentalists were now in charge and could do whatever they wanted.

What they wanted to do was fire the chief of the Forest Service and ban all timber cutting in the national forests. The fact that the chief had presided over a 50-percent decline in national forest timber sales between 1989 and 1991 mattered not a bit; he was chief of the Forest Service and therefore he had to go.

The president fired the chief, but he couldn't stop every timber sale. And while Democrats controlled Congress, that didn't mean they were environmentalists. Environmental activists were unable to get any legislation passed during the 103rd Congress, much less something as dramatic as ending the ninety-five-year old national forest timber sale program. Since timber sales continued, environmentalists demonized the new chief even though he had previously been the darling of the environmental community.

The Republican victory in 1994 did nothing to cool off the extremists. They quickly jumped on the demonize-Newt bandwagon, which also offered the national groups some relief from their budgetary woes.

The growth of foundation giving to environmental groups also contributed to the groups' loss of touch with reality. It is likely that many foundations in the 1990s were coming under the control of baby boomers with urbanite environmental ethics. These boomers were alert to the tensions between national and local groups and often heavily funded both.

One leading foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, insisted that environmental groups coordinate their strategies. This reduced the tactical diversity that had characterized the 1970s and 1980s. While Pew may not have deliberately favored the no-compromise view, the increasing dominance of that view combined with Pew's refusal to support dissenting groups discouraged people with other ideas. The foundation money also made environmental groups less dependent on their members for funding, allowing them to get out of touch with people who were uncomfortable with a no-compromise strategy.

By 1995, the zero-cut option had become the official policy of several major groups, including the Sierra Club and the Oregon Natural Resources Council. Such a no-compromise policy essentially forfeited the seats at the bargaining table that these groups had valued so highly during the 1980s.

Anyone who did sit down at the bargaining table was quickly branded a heretic and tossed out of the movement. This included Michael Bean, one of the national experts on endangered species; Michael Jackson, an environmental attorney in northern California; and Patrick Moore, one of the founders of Greenpeace. (One reviewer of a draft of this paper wrote that just quoting Moore cost the paper credibility among environmentalists.)

Outside the United States, environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International were learning that "community-based conservation" was an essential tool for protection of biological diversity. The African elephant, for example, thrived in areas where local villages had a say over elephant hunting, but steadily declined in areas where hunting was banned.

Such community-based conservation is practically unknown in the U.S. When local environmentalists in Quincy, California, and elsewhere decided to sit down with resource users, they encountered fierce hostility from other environmental groups.

The Quincy Library Group: 1995-1997

If the new ecology is correct, then recovery of endangered species and maintenance of healthy ecosystems will not be possible on existing wilderness or even on the entire federal land base. People interested in species recovery and ecosystem health must work with private property owners and public land users to improve land management.

Despite opposition from the mainstream movement, a number of environmentalists are doing so. Hank Fischer, of Defenders of Wildlife, is working with ranchers in Montana to insure wolf recovery. Tom France, with the National Wildlife Federation, is working with timber companies in Idaho to return the grizzly bear to a part of its range from which it has been gone for generations. Scattered across the United States are numerous individuals and groups that have opened dialogs with industry and community leaders.

The most famous such collaborative effort, and the one that has produced the most opposition from the environmental community, is the Quincy Library Group. A number of prominent environmentalists and timber industry leaders began meeting in the Quincy, California, public library to talk about the Plumas National Forest. Although the forest has a fairly high allowable sale level, timber sales were down in the early 1990s due to environmental opposition and bureucratic red tape.

Both sides had an incentive to come to the table: the industry to get more timber and the environmentalists because the reduction in timber harvests was only temporary. After many meetings, the group came to an agreement on how the forest should be managed. The level of timber sales they proposed was significantly lower than the Forest Service's allowable sale level, but higher than the volume sold in the early 1990s. They also agreed to support selection cutting instead of clearcutting and to reserve all nearly roadless areas from timber sales.

The Quincy agreement did more than divide up land and set a sale level. It took important steps to recover the forest from nine decades of ecological mismanagement. The most important mismangement problem was the Forest Service's fire suppression policy, which turns Sierra forests from open, park-like areas to dense thickets of shrubs and young trees. These thickets are prone to catestrophic fire and breeding grounds for insect pests.

Timber cutting is not the only way to treat such forests, but it is one tool. The Quincy Library Group plan called for a variety of tools aimed at restoring the forest to health and ending the fire and insect hazards.

Unfortunately, despite Clinton administration support, the Forest Service refused to accept the Quincy Group's plan. So the group sought a Congressional mandate to implement the plan. Environmental groups, who had viewed the Quincy Library plan with suspicion and hostility, vehemently opposed a legislative solution. Although the House almost unanimously supported the Quincy plan, environmentalists are still fighting it in the Senate.

The reasons for environmental opposition to the group are clear. First, the nature-knows-best philosophy dictates against any management. But it especially dictates against management by a local group.

If you believe, as the new ecologists do, that management is needed to sustain ecosystems, then you probably believe that local managers are the best informed about ecosystem needs. But if you believe that nature knows best, then you would oppose any local management as tainted by local needs for employment and income. This leaves the national government as the only one likely to insure that no management prevails.

Second, a no-compromise policy carries with it a no-retreat policy: Whatever is gained must not be given up no matter what the cost. Since Plumas Forest timber sales had declined, any plan that would even partially restore them was an unacceptable retreat.

The New Conservationists

The environmental movement is at a crossroads. One path is the extreme no-compromise, nature-knows-best policy. The other path is to work with landowners, land managers, and public land users to promote policies that restore and maintain ecosystems. It is always risky to predict the future, but it appears that the movement is redividing into the pre-Earth Day division of preservationists and conservationists.

The new preservationists differ from the old in several ways. They are intolerant of dissent; they have strong views on a variety of issues including free trade, immigration, and regulation of private lands; and they tend to be anti-hunting, anti-free enterprise, and anti-science. Like the old preservationists, they believe that some areas should be preserved. Unlike the old preservationists, they carry the nature-knows-best philosophy to its logical extreme. For example, Chris Manes, the author of Green Rage, objects to both industrial and agricultural society and would like humans to return to hunting and gathering.

The new conservationists also differ from the old in many ways. Many view commodity extraction as a tool, not a goal, of land management. Their often have nebulous aims, such as biodiversity, ecosystem health, and sustainability, rather than the firm output goals of the old conservationists.

The new conservationists are not as cohesive as the new preservationists. Some believe in "scientific management," that is, that resource decisions should be in the hands of experts. Others focus on incentives facing public and private land managers. Still others support "local control," whatever that means. The one thing they share with each other, and with the old conservationists, is a belief, backed by the latest scientific research, in the need for managing land, even wilderness, rather than just leaving it alone.

The new conservationists' lack of cohesiveness might be considered a weakness. But it could also be a strength. The diversity that made the environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s strong will also give the new conservationists an advantage over the environmentally correct new preservationists.

An important question is where the conservation biologists will go. While Edward Wilson, Michael Soule, Jerry Franklin, and other conservation biologists are reputable scientists, they freely admit (as David Takacs documents in The Idea of Biodiversity) that there is a strong religious element in their views. Even though they don't believe that nature knows best, this religious element could drive them into the presevationist camp.

Some might argue that this conservation-preservation dichotomy issimplistic. Of course it is. But ultimately, nature knows best is logically incompatible with management. Short of returning to hunting and gathering, the logical conclusion of nature knows best is that public lands should be wilderness preserves (zero cut) and private lands should be heavily regulated (to protect endangered species, more than half of which are not found on federal land).

On the other hand, the logical conclusion of nature doesn't know best is that some management is needed on both public and private lands. The public-private dichotomy is far more artificial than the preservation-conservation dichotomy.

In the long run, the no-compromise policy cannot possibly prevail.

Despite these problems, nature knows best could remain the dominant paradigm for the environmental movement for several years. Even if it remains dominant in the short run, however, the new conservationists will play an increasingly important role.

Suggestions for the Future

Despite differences among themselves, the various new conservationists should work together to mark out their territory in the public mind. One way they can do this is to return environment issues to the bipartisan status they enjoyed during the 1970s. The new conservationists share with all environmentalists the same goals: conservation of biological diversity, sustainability of resources, and maintenence of healthy ecosystems. But the means they support to achieve these goals are often closer to those supported by conservatives, including devolution of federal power and the use of markets and incentives rather than onerous regulation and bureaucracy.

In the public mind, environmentalists have succeeded in painting Republicans and conservatives as anti-environmental. Conservatives can reverse this trend by supporting the new conservationists. In part, this means financial support. But intellectual support is also needed. Rather than simply attack environmentalists, as some conservative groups do, conservatives should focus on finding and supporting conservative solutions to the many genuine environmental problems that exist.

Humans do not need to subdue every acre and every species of wildlife and plants on earth. But we do need to recognize that we have already so altered the earth that no wilderness area is large enough to survive on its own without some human management. Protection of what environmentalists call biodiversity will require new ways of thinking, new tools, and new incentives. This is what the new conservationists are all about.


Daniel Botkin, Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: Oxford, 1990).

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology (New York, NY: Knopf, 1971).

Wallace Kaufman, No Turning Back: Dismantling the Fantasies of Environmental Thinking (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1994).

Patrick Moore, Getting it Right: Environmentalism for the 21st Century, Speech to Canadian Public Relations Society, May 27, 1997, Vancouver, BC.

David Takacs, The Idea of Biodiversity: Philosophies of Paradise (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1996).

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