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Paradigms of forest conservation

C. Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the Senior Forest Advisor for the World Wide Fund for Nature International in Gland, Switzerland. He is currently working on a Ph.D. dissertation in forest policy at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich.

This article explores how paradigms of forest conservation have evolved over time, mainly drawing on examples from European and American history It also reviews and compares today's dominant paradigms.

In the mid-1990s, unregulated exploitation of forests is still occurring in some regions around the world, despite the fact that almost all countries have forest policies with the stated objectives of conserving their forests. However, even if almost all policy-makers agree that unregulated exploitation should be stopped, conservation (sometimes referred to as "conservation and management") means different things to different people. The interpretation of the term and the implementation of forest conservation policies have led to numerous controversies.

Forests have always had a complex role in national and local economies because they provide a wide range of goods and services, and some uses inevitably conflict with others. Some historians have actually seen the origin of the concept of "conservation" in these conflicts over forest uses. As Glacken (1965) notes:

"The practice of transhumance often meant clearance of forest lands to increase mountain pastures at the expense of trees.... Another explanation for the growth of the conservation idea is thus to be sought in conflicts of interest with regard to [forest] use... in the [Western] writings from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century... [where] nature was conceived as a usufruct and man as the highest being in the creation had responsibilities as well as privileges in using it."

This vision of the human role as a steward of nature is closely related to modern dictionary definitions of conservation, for example "The planning and management of resources so as to secure their wide use and continuity of supply while maintaining and possibly enhancing their quality, value and diversity" (Allanby, 1993). It should be noted that this definition is not the same as "preservation" (which normally refers to the protection of a particular site from human activities such as logging and mining), although the terms are often used interchangeably in the mass media. In this article, preservation is viewed as one of several forms of conservation.

There have always been two distinct approaches to conservation. One, which could be characterized as "elitist", has its origins in the imperial hunting parks of Assyria and China. The other, which could be characterized as "populist", originated in the multiple arrangements the local communities have developed over time for the management of forests as common property resources. In the following sections, some of the different forms that forest conservation has taken through the ages are explored.

The history of forest conservation

Forest utilization at the national level generally goes through three stages: unregulated or at least uncontrolled exploitation, protective custody and conservation or stewardship. The custodial stage involves placing the forest under professional management, reducing or halting deforestation and initiating the forest's recovery after overexploitation. The conservation (or stewardship) stage is reached once the benefits of the custodial stage have been realized and the forest resources can be managed sustainably. Like all models, this one oversimplifies the situation, but it does provide a useful reference point.

Ancient paradigms of forest conservation (before AD 1200)

Humanity's complex and often conflicting relationships to forests have been recorded since writing was first invented. The earliest literary work known, the Epic of Gilgamesh, describes the adventures of a Sumerian king of the city of Uruk, who lived in about 2700 BC. He is referred to as the "builder of the walls of Uruk" and he made a "forest journey" outside the walls to the Cedar Mountain to slay the forest's guardian, Huwawa. The epic has been interpreted at a practical level as an account of a search for timber, which was a precious commodity for the Sumerians because, even at that time, the spread of agriculture in Mesopotamia had resulted in forest depletion or, alternatively, as an account of the destruction of the cedar forests of Lebanon. At a psychological level it has been seen as a description of an attempt of humankind to control nature.

The first clear records of forest conservation measures that have been found are those of Assyria in 700 BC where game reserves were set aside by decree for royal hunts (Dixon and Sherman, 1991). Forests in China were valued for more than just hunting: in about 300 BC the Chinese philosopher Mencius wrote of his concern about the deforestation of Bull Mountain owing to timber harvesting and overgrazing and its impact on stream flows (Waley, 1939).

The Greek philosopher Plato, writing in the fourth century BC, noted that with the removal of the trees in Attica "there has been a constant movement of soil away from the high ground and what remains is like the skeleton of a body wasted by disease" (quoted in Thirgood, 1981).

Medieval cosmology and forest conservation (about 1200 to 1500)

In medieval Europe forests were cleared on an increasing scale for agriculture and to provide fuel for the iron industry. At the same time, however, in Europe and elsewhere there were well-established traditions of forest management and parks for forest protection:

"Wooded commons... belonged to a landowner, usually the lord of the manor; but the right to use them belonged to commoners who were the occupiers of particular properties. Usually the grazing belonged to the commoners and the soil (including mineral rights) to the lord. The trees might belong to either: often timber belonged to the lord, and wood... to commoners (not necessarily the same persons as those that had the grazing). By the Middle Ages such rights already dated from time immemorial. They were administered, and could be revised, by the manorial courts, which were composed mainly of the commoners themselves and were seldom unduly favourable to the lord's interests" (Rackham, 1986).

The "scientific revolution" (about 1500 to 1700)

In 1543, Copernicus published On the revolutions of the Celestial Spheres which challenged one of the fundamental tenets of medieval cosmology - that the sun and planets revolved around the earth. This started a process which has come to be known as the "scientific revolution" which was to last for about two centuries. During this period, nature was viewed as a machine which operated according to universal laws.

The scientific revolution thus set the stage for a quite different attitude to forests from those that had prevailed in either ancient or medieval times. Forests, like any other part of nature, could be studied and analysed in terms of certain natural laws, and humans would be able to manage them accordingly for their benefit. By implication, this management would conserve forests for the future. because humankind understood, or would understand, how the "forest machine" worked. A leading advocate of this approach was John Evelyn, a member of the Royal Society; his Sylva, or a discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber, published in 1664, is perhaps the best-known forestry treatise of the period.

The application of the ideas of the scientific revolution to forest conservation led to tree planting in England for economic purposes (to sell timber to the Navy) in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Similarly, in 1661 in France, Louis XIV and his Minister of Finance Colbert instituted revisions of forest administration and laws with the intent of reversing the reduction of forest cover caused by overexploitation. The new scientific approach to forestry was accompanied by an increasing demand for forest products from society. It was resumed by Le Roy, the warden of the park of Versailles, in Diderot's Encyclopédie of 1766:

"In all ages one has sensed the importance of preserving forests; they have always been regarded as the property of the state and administered in its name: religion itself had consecrated forests, doubtless to protect, through veneration, that which had to be conserved for the public interest.... Our oaks no longer proffer oracles... we must replace this cult by care, and whatever advantage one may previously have found in the respect that one had for forests, one can expect even more success from vigilance and economy.... If one exploits woods for present needs, one must also conserve them and plan in advance for future generations.... It is therefore necessary that those who are charged with overseeing the maintenance of forests by the state be very experienced... they must know the workings of nature" (Le Roy, cited in Harrison, 1992).

The Industrial Revolution and the modern environmental movement (1800 to the present)

The scientific revolution provided the intellectual basis for the Industrial Revolution. The environmental effects of industrialization led to what has been called the beginning of modern concern about the impact of economic activities on the environment. The demands for timber and fuelwood caused by the Industrial Revolution in Europe led to increased imports from North America and, later, the beginning of imports from tropical regions. The impacts of European demands of timber on the forests of New Brunswick and other provinces in eastern Canada have been well documented and give an ominous hint of trends which were to develop in other regions of the world:

"The wealth that has come into it [New Brunswick], has passed as through a thoroughfare... the persons principally engaged in shipping the timber have been strangers who have taken no interest in the welfare of the country... the forests are stripped and there is nothing left in prospect but the gloomy apprehension, when the timber is gone, of sinking into insignificance and poverty" (Lower, cited in Mather, 1990).

It should be noted, however, that Grove (1992) has traced the roots of modern forest conservation measures to earlier work by French scientists under the influence of Rousseau, reacting to deforestation in Mauritius in the 1760s. The botanist Commerson, who was trained by Linnaeus, took an innovative approach to forest conservation in two ways. First, he perceived a relationship between deforestation on the island and local climate change, and he was able to persuade the local authorities to pass an ordinance in 1769 which called for the reforestation of degraded forest areas and the protection of montane forests to reduce erosion. Second, he supported the establishment of a professional forest service on Mauritius in 1777. These ideas spread to British colonies such as Tobago, where 20 percent of the island was set aside as forest reserves for climate stabilization.

In the United States, the depletion of forests in the nineteenth century led to calls from both artists and scientists for protection against almost uncontrolled timber exploitation in the western part of the country. In the 1830s, the painter George Catlin called for the creation of a "magnificent park" to protect "nature's works which are destined to fall before the deadly axe" (cited in Shabecoff, 1993).

Later, Muir (1898) wrote: "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, overcivilized people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life."

Partly because of pressure from Muir, who founded the Sierra Club in 1892, the Forest Reserve Act was passed by the United States Congress in 1891 authorizing the establishment of the National Forest System.

John Muir (1838-1914)

Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) were two of the pioneers In promoting modern resource conservation

Muir's hope of protecting the National Forests was, however, challenged by his contemporary Pinchot who founded the United States Forest Service. Pinchot agreed with Muir that public resources should be protected from overexploitation by private interests, but was promoting a form of conservation based on "rational use".

"The central thing for which conservation stands is to make this country the best possible place to live in, both for us and our descendants. It stands against the waste of natural resources... and most of all it stands for an equal opportunity of every American citizen to get his fair share of benefit from these resources, both now and hereafter... it demands the complete and orderly development of all of our resources for the benefit of all the people" (Pinchot, 1901).

The differences in perspective between the followers of Muir and Pinchot continue to cause controversy about forest management in the United States today. The scientific school of ecology argues that humankind's attempts to manage natural systems should be based on an understanding and even an imitation of natural processes. This cautious approach of saying that whatever we do to nature may rebound on us is quite different from Francis Bacon's (1561-1626) views of humans' domination of nature. In the first case, knowledge should be used to achieve harmony over nature; in the second, to achieve power over it. It is also different from the romantic view of Muir and his followers that we should know nature subjectively and respect it for its own sake. These views of nature coexist today, at least in Europe and North America, and have led to the different concepts of forest conservation discussed below.

Modern forest conservation paradigms

Various typologies of conservation paradigms have been developed. The typology used here draws on that of Eckersley (1992) because of its relevance to forest conservation. Eckersley has identified a number of paradigms (which may be subdivided) ranging on a spectrum of decreasing anthropocentrism, from traditional "resource conservation" to "egocentrism". These paradigms draw on the elitist and populist streams of conservation in varying degrees.

Resource conservation

Gifford Pinchot is usually referred to as the first proponent of modern resource conservation (Eckersley, 1992). Pinchot saw conservation as prudent use of nature's bounty, in opposition to the unrestrained forest exploitation. He had been trained as a forester in Europe and believed in the complementarily of conservation and development. Pinchot saw conservation as being based on three principles: the development of natural resources under scientific management, the reduction in waste and equity in access to resources.

Today the term forest conservation can mean anything from intensive timber production to total preservation (a)

Resource conservation is an anthropocentric approach and relies heavily on scientists and professionals to manage resources sustainably. The concept of "multiple use", as used by the United States Forest Service, has its origins in resource conservation (Kennedy and Quigley, 1994).

Because of Pinchot's emphasis on conservation being linked to development, resource conservation has influenced the concept of "sustainable development" (IUCN, 1991). Resource conservation is still the dominant paradigm in the private sector in forestry and is still influential in governments and international agencies, although the influence of human welfare ecology is increasing and recent international statements and resolutions on forests are influenced by both concepts (e.g. the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development Forest Principles of 1992 and the Helsinki Resolutions of 1993).

Human welfare ecology

Human welfare ecology places humanity at the centre of conservation. It has taken different forms in developed and developing countries, but there are some elements in common. Proponents have been concerned with "environmental quality" and the social issues which may be neglected by resource conservation such as democratic rights, equitable access to natural resources, recreation and spiritual and psychological needs (Eckersley, 1992). Unlike resource conservation, however, human welfare ecology based on "ecosystem management" has been critical of both economic growth and the abilities of science and technology to solve environmental problems.

Ecosystem management differs from resource conservation in terms of who is supposed to make decisions about forest management: for resource conservationists this is largely the function of the professional forest service; in ecosystem management an explicit effort is made to bring the public into the process.

Today the term forest conservation can mean anything from intensive timber production to total preservation (b)


If resource conservation is the basis for multiple use and may be traced back to Pinchot, preservationism has its modern origins in John Muir who wanted to preserve forests from development. Preservationism is different from both resource conservation and human welfare ecology in that it is less anthropocentric and gives weight to the perceived rights of other species to exist.

Preservationism has had a major impact on the establishment of national parks and other protected areas around the world. It is estimated that there are now almost 8500 major protected areas around the world covering 5.2 percent of the earth's land area (WCMC, 1992). Many of the larger protected areas are in tropical moist forests (Sayer, 1991) and it has been estimated that, worldwide, 5 percent of forests are in protected areas (FAO, 1995).

At the fourth World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas in 1992, a resolution was adopted calling for more protected areas so that each country would protect 10 percent of each biome within its own territory (IUCN, 1993). It is noteworthy that internationally accepted criteria for designating protected areas now recognize a wide range of human uses (IUCN, 1994) in addition to the strict protection advocated by preservationists.

Preservationism has always attracted criticism from the proponents of economic development, despite arguments that protected areas are reservoirs for biological diversity and may also generate income through non-consumptive uses such as ecotourism. More recently, they have also been challenged by some environmentalists and social scientists on the basis that they may deprive local communities of their livelihood (Colchester, 1994; Pimbert and Pretty, 1995).


Ecocentrism is a concept based on a holistic world view in which the reductionist approach, characteristic of modern science, and anthropocentrism are rejected:

"According to this picture of reality, the world is an intrinsically dynamic, interconnected web of relations in which there are no absolutely discrete entities, and no absolute dividing lines between the living and the non-living" (Eckersley, 1992).

Ecocentrism seeks to go beyond preservationism in that the concern is to protect species, populations, habitats and ecosystems wherever they are situated and irrespective of their value to humans. Ecocentrism stresses the interrelationships between organisms and their environment and is based on the awareness and acceptance of natural limits to economic growth.

Ecocentrism has provided the intellectual basis for "deep ecology" and for the forest protection activities of groups, such as Earth First!, which have engaged in the "ecological sabotage" of logging equipment to protect "old growth" forests in the States of Oregon and Washington in the United States. The emphasis is, first and foremost, on reduced consumption of wood products, protection of forests (particularly old growth forests) and management based on:

"A new relationship with the forest - a relationship based on respect and humanity... first, love the forest... second, protect all pans of the forest while using the forest wisely, third, trade or barter the excess bounty of the forest" (Hammond, 1992).

Ecocentric thinking that places a low value on, or even opposes, economic development has proved controversial in many instances.


Today the term "forest conservation" is subject to a wide variety of interpretations. It can mean anything from intensive timber production to total preservation. It sometimes appears as if the only thing users of the term agree on is that it means that forest should not be permanently convened to another use, such as agriculture. Under these circumstances, perhaps some new terminology is called for. The paradigms outlined in the previous section might provide a basis for this.

The different forms of conservation are usually incompatible on a single forest site. Many of the forestry conflicts around the world today (in which all of the participants declare themselves to be in support of forest conservation) are about specific sites. If these conflicts are to have an outcome that gives some measure of satisfaction to all parties, the solution will usually involve two components. First, the creation of a forum in which the panics can have a real dialogue on the problems and options facing them, going far beyond general statements in favour of conservation.

Second, a willingness to go beyond the boundaries of the particular controversy, to think at the level of the landscape rather than the site. At the landscape level it may be possible to find ways to satisfy preservationists by protecting old growth forests, and the timber industry by managing other forest areas more intensively. In this respect the "ecosystems management" approach currently in vogue in the United States may have much to offer.

In New Zealand, the timber industry and environmentalists have signed a Forest Accord under which significant areas of old growth forests are protected while plantations are established on abandoned pastures. In Nepal and India, forest departments and local villagers have explored options for the joint management of forest resources. In Sweden, non-governmental organizations are working with the forest industry on certification standards. In Colombia, more than one-half of the country's rain forest has been allocated to indigenous people living in the forest. None of these developments is perfect; however, all have involved dialogue and a search for new solutions to old forest management problems.

Amid increasing global concern about the future of forests and depressing figures on deforestation, these examples may point to ideas for a more positive way forward.


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