it's only language part II – "conservation" is like scotch broom

My estimates suggests that conservation is roughly the number one most used word in discussions surrounding wild salmon – apparently, it is also the legal foundation of salmon management in Canada. I know I’ve used the term a lot over the years. Yet, if we stop to think about it for a moment  – what do we mean by this term (as I’ve asked in other posts)? And, what are we conserving and why (as I keep asking)?

If  a government agency uses the word, does it mean the same thing as a volunteer streamkeeper working to keep the last few coho spawning in their neighborhood stream?

Has conservation become so common place, and even an invasive species that looks kind of pretty, but may actually be sort of dangerous?

Like the invasive plant species scotch broom. It looks kind of nice in bloom, but damn it can drown everything else out around it. Broom may also spread like mad, it releases nasty chemicals in its roots that can kill endemic plant species (the plants that have been in an area for eons), and it is incredibly tough to kill off and get out of an area.

Then of course add in the politics of killing off broom. Just like the blog where I got this photo asks: “anyone know how to get rid of scotch broom?” Some folks, especially those in the field of ‘restoring’ ecosystems see scotch broom as akin to polio – banish it at all costs. Other folks see it as a pretty plant that has the right to live like any other plant: “it’s pretty and it makes my yard look nice.”

There’s probably some controversy out there when one group of folks is trying to get rid of all broom and down the road some home and garden shop is selling scotch broom as a yard ornament. We can draw a parallel between folks that wish for world peace and the shop down the street that employs 100,000 people manufacturing weapons such as land mines and tools for “homeland security.”

Who’s right? Things like globalization start to complicate these sorts of issues. And when ‘complicated’ sets in, it becomes even more important to be clear in what we say, and to mean what we say.

When we say salmon conservation what does this mean?

Going by various dictionary definitions, and that conservation is a form of conserve, let’s take a look. The website suggests conservation means:

  1. the act of conserving; prevention of injury, decay, waste, or loss; preservation: conservation of wildlife; conservation of human rights.

Merriam-Webster defines conservation as:

  1. a careful preservation and protection of something; especially : planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect

OK, so, if Fisheries and Oceans, scientists, environmental organizations, and various salmon advocates say conservation we can imply that we are talking about ‘the act of conserving’.

Conserve, according to various definitions means to:

to keep in a safe or sound state; especially : to avoid wasteful or destructive use of. e.g. conserve natural resources.

Or as the Free Dictionary online suggests:

1. a. To protect from loss or harm; preserve.
b. To use carefully or sparingly, avoiding waste.

Now, here’s one of the challenges. This preceding definition of conserve seems like a contradiction. If we are conserving wild salmon then we have to protect wild salmon from “loss or harm; preserve”. Does this not imply that killing salmon goes against the definition of the word?

Call it harvesting or killing – it’s still the same thing.

The second half of the definition then seems to imply: “well, it’s ok if we kill a few; just do it sparingly and avoid waste.”

This is getting a bit confusing and I can’t say some of the other definitions included above are helping; such as “careful utilization of a natural resource in order to prevent depletion.” Careful utilization by who’s definition – the folks way upstream that see the last remnants of a salmon run, or the folks at the mouth of a river (i.e. the Fraser River) that see the full force of the run?

“Careful utilization” as defined by a politician in the hallowed halls of Parliament in Ottawa (e.g. a rookie Minister of Fisheries from Prince Edward Island who’s previous career was with Revenue Canada) – or “careful utilization” as defined by a 90-something year old First Nation elder that has seen the whole range of salmon runs?

Or, let’s take it a step further into the realm of the new buzzword, ecosystem-based planning/management (EBM as the advocates call it) – “careful utilization” as defined by the needs of a grizzly bear, or a merganser, or a wolf?

This is where I suggest the term conservation is like scotch broom; it is a toxic invasive species in our language. It looks pretty and yellow in bloom and  nice to look at; yet, it drowns out any natural simple words that have existed for a long time but were forced out of town. And when we look at the roots we start to see where some of the problems are. The roots of the word conservation and conserve raise issues of ambiguity. We then start to say things, without saying much at all.

Maybe by making sure we yank all the roots out of the ground we could rid ourselves of these invasive species.

Some of the natural species could then re-populate our discussions. And this is where we need lots of good conversations open to everyone to make sure we’re all talking about similar things and we aren’t simply planting invasive species that become so common that they drown everything else out.

This is the issue with obscure terms such as conservation, stewardship, ecosystem values, and the like. These terms are  not accessible to everyone and when we break them down – they look nice but they don’t really say much – and yet they give the false appearance that everything is fine.

And now they have become so pervasive – like rabbits in Australia, or rats in coastal seabird colonies – that everyone sees them and thinks they must be ‘natural’; yet they are causing damage.

One thought on “it's only language part II – "conservation" is like scotch broom

  1. LAL

    Language is meant to communicate, not confuse. The frustration with some of these terms is the confusion that arises when words are subject to being lost in translation. Your ‘school of fish’ is very insightful.

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