Conservation or preservation? A qualitative study of the conceptual foundations of natural resource management

Few disputes in the annals of US environmentalism enjoy the pedigree of the conservation-preservation debate. Yet, although many scholars have written extensively on the meaning and history of conservation and preservation in American environmental thought and practice, the resonance of these concepts outside the academic literature has not been sufficiently examined. Given the significance of the ideals of conservation and preservation in the justification of environmental policy and management, however, we believe that a more detailed analysis of the real-world use and understanding of these ideas is needed. In this paper, we describe the results of a qualitative, semantic study of the concepts of conservation and preservation undertaken in the context of the Chattahoochee National Forest (CNF), located in northern Georgia (USA). Thirty in-depth interviews were conducted with scientists and north Georgia residents either interested or involved in the future management of the forest. Respondents were asked to define conservation and preservation in their own words and to indicate which approach they felt was more appropriate for the management of the CNF. Qualitative content analysis was used to elicit a set of recurring themes for each foundational concept. Taken together, these themes help to flesh out the meaning of conservation and preservation for citizens and scientists today, and illustrate the evolving nature of two of the more significant and venerable ideas animating US environmental policy and management.
Keywords Chattahoochee National Forest  conservation-preservation debate  national forest management  philosophy of resource management  public attitudes toward nature
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