Where forest & forestry resources come together for all users!

Sponsored by Cookhouse Productions, Michigan Forest Association, Michigan State University Extension, and Michigan Technological University

Article #319 February 2021
By Bill Cook

Conservation is an old term.  The meaning has evolved over the past century.  Many practices have become controversial as goals and expectations have grown more complicated.

     American conservation consciousness was aroused in the middle 1800s, arguably by the likes of George Perkins Marsh and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  By the turn of that century, much of the American landscape had been wantonly cutover, wildfires were killing people, soils were eroding into waterways, big game was disappearing, and burgeoning cities had grubby physical environments. 
     The situation has markedly improved. 
     The desire to preserve of big game would help spearhead America’s response to these crises.  Theodore Roosevelt was, perhaps, the nation’s most important mover and shaker among those seeking to maintain and restore natural resources, especially forests and wildlife.  Roosevelt created over 200 federal lands, covering many millions of acres.  He was buddies with men such John Muir, John Burroughs, and Gifford Pinchot. 
     Forester Aldo Leopold came along in the next round of conservationists with his “Sand County Almanac”, wilderness ethic, and the science of game management. 
     Roosevelt’s initiatives did not sit well with big business.  He took-on industrial power-brokers such as Frederich Weyerhaeuser, Edward Harriman, John Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie.  The politics of the day were filled with as much intrigue and skullduggery as at any other time. 
     Out of this cauldron of conflict, many of today’s conservation issues were born. 
     In the Lake States, in the very early 1900s, the first professional foresters began working on problems of reforestation and wildfire control.  Since then, many other societal values have emerged such as sustained timber yield, quality habitat, exotic invasive species, water and soil protection, biodiversity, and climate change. 
     However, for most private forestowners, the notion of conservation is more restricted to what it means on their own property.  The big ideas and sweeping reforms fly past unnoticed or ignored, as more immediate issues present themselves.  However, these “philosophical principles” undergird much of our value system that determines how we respond to these immediate issues, and how the larger public views this robust and fluid term “conservation”. 
     No better example might be found than deer management.  When conservation was emerging into the American psyche, deer were scarce.  They were victims of rapid and uncontrolled agriculture and industrialization.  Groups such as the Boone and Crockett Club and Audubon Societies were funding programs and research across the nation.  Conservation proponents were sometimes murdered for their efforts. 
     Current deer conservation has not evolved in sync with the explosion of the deer populations over the past several decades.  The old ideas don’t fit well with the new ecological conditions.  Therein lies considerable conflict. 
     For forestowners, this conflict sometimes comes down to whether or not certain practices are “good” conservation, such as winter deer feeding, hinge-cutting, and the creation of food plots.  Researchers, and study after study, show that, at best, these practices are inconsequential to herd dynamics. 
     However, some landowners “feel” good about spending lots of money on such practices, thinking it’s good conservation.  And admittedly, deer can be attracted to food within view of a backyard picture window or just in front of a blind in mid-November. 
     But, that is not population management nor does it consider other woodland or forest values.  Nor is it really conservation. 
     Deer habitat varies across millions of acres in the upper Lake States.  Data reference points for most forestowners, and forest visitors, come down to a relative handful of anecdotal local observations of a tiny subset of the deer population.  Ebbs and flows of deer in the immediate area are too often erroneously projected across entire landscapes.
     Wolf impacts are good examples of the localized ebb and flow perception.  In a given year, a hunter sitting in a blind might see lots of deer, including a few nice bucks.  The next year, news of a wolf pack surfaces and the hunter no longer sees so many deer.  Conclusion?  The wolves ate all the deer.  More likely, however, is that the deer migrated somewhere with fewer wolves. 
     Regardless of reports from a broader landscape view, which includes an abundance of deer, some of these disenfranchised hunters will maintain that a handful of predators has decimated a herd of hundreds of thousands of deer.  Current wolf predation isn’t sufficient to significantly reduce deer populations.  The math is rather straight-forward. 
      As public activism in natural resources becomes more diverse, so do the challenges of education and critical thinking.  Similar debates can be found over clearcutting, species introductions, endangered species, visual appearance, invasive removals, and so on.  You name it.  
     In some ways, management is like playing three-dimensional chess, with time, space, and position as axes, with all three changing unpredictably.
     More often than not, “good conservation” versus “bad conservation” is viewed through a single-interest lens at single point in time, when the underlying ecological circumstances are far more complex.  Also, “conservation” and “preservation” are improperly expressed as synonyms. 
     Aldo Leopold offered a possible definition of conservation as “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
     In Roosevelt’s day, creating public forests, parks, monuments, and wildlife refuges came tagged with a range of fierce arguments, whose fire extends into today.  However, that seems rather simple compared to the arguments about how to manage, or steward, those lands, let alone how to best manage the majority of forests and other landscapes that lie largely in private ownership.  It’s interesting.  All the more reason to hire a professional forester.       

- 30 -  

TRAILER- This website was created by a consortium of forestry groups to help streamline information about forestry and coordinate forestry activities designed to benefit the family forest owner and various publics that make up our Michigan citizenry.  This website is maintained by Bill Cook, Retired Michigan State Extension Forester/Biologist.  Direct comments to cookwi@msu.edu or 906-786-1575.