In what seems now ages ago I started my (combined)  B.Sc./M.Sc. education at Wageningen University in Forest and Nature Conservation, an education similar to the M.Sc. in Environmental and Resource Management here at SDU, with the difference that the technical side was focused on ecology and conservation biology rather than environmental science.

One of the first questions we were confronted with as students was: “What is nature?” Although at first this seems a very trivial question it is actually quite tricky to answer. Most people when asked, would answer something like “parts of the environment untouched by humans.” However, then immediately a follow-up question arises: “Are humans therefore no part of nature?”  The ambivalence of humans being part of nature or not is clear even in an authoritative source as the Oxford dictionary which has among others the following entries for nature:

11. a. The phenomena of the physical world collectively; esp. plants, animals, and other features and products of the earth itself, as opposed to humans and human creations.

b. In wider sense: the whole natural world, including human beings; the cosmos.

One may wonder why it is important to exactly define what nature is, and whether or not humans are part of that. The main reason is that the study program is about nature conservation, and if we don’t know what nature is, we don’t know what it is we should conserve and how we should conserve and manage it. This question of humans being part of nature or not, and as a consequence, what to conserve and how lies at the heart of nature conservation in the Netherlands, and two visions about it that continue to spark debates: nature conservation versus nature development.

Originally nature conservation in the Netherlands started more or less in the 1900’s with as goal the conservation of areas for birds,other wildlife and plants. Natuurmonumenten, literally: monuments of nature, a Dutch conservation society, was founded in 1905 to prevent the conversion of a lake into a landfill for the city of Amsterdam. The society bought the lake and, interestingly, paid off the loan with the receipts from fishery and reed.

Ruben Smit
(C) Staatsbosbeheer / Ruben Smit

Over the years Natuurmonumenten and many other societies, including the State Forestry Service, have bought areas such as heath lands, forests, and moors, to prevent development and actively managed these to conserve wildlife and plants. The management is dependent on the area type and includes mowing, cutting, burning, scraping off top-soil (“plaggen”), hunting and fishing. The reason given nowadays for this active management in many of these areas is that otherwise the area would not be maintained as it is, but evolve into (mostly) forests.

In the 1980s this pure conservation view began to be challenged in the Netherlands, most prominently by Frans Vera: if humans are not part of nature then these areas should not be managed. In fact what we are preserving is not nature, but cultural landscapes in which a few species that were able to survive and thrive in continue to exist.

Vera postulated that, contrary to the dominating view of the time, that should nature be restored by reintroducing large ungulates, the grazing pressure would be enough to keep a half-open landscape. In some areas thorny bushes and other natural barriers would be enough to reduce this pressure and small pockets of forests would appear. No further management would be required. This view has been worked out in most detail in a natural area on newly acquired (“ingepolderd”) land: de Oostvaardersplassen. This is a large natural area, where Red deer, Konik ponies and Heck cattle were introduced to keep the area open, and further management is kept at a minimum. Vera describes his view, as well as the reserve and trend here in article in the journal British Wildlife. The area itself has been beautifully filmed by a former teacher of mine Ruben Smit in his film: the new wilderness.

This became the beginning of a new trend in nature conservation in the Netherlands called nature development. The idea is to restore the original system as it was, usually by restoring the water table, reintroducing some ungulates and sometimes removing dikes or digging new water streams. After that the system is left alone, and humans are supposed to stand back watch nature develop itself. During my study time we called this: folding chair management.

However, nature development is not uncontroversial either. The ungulates in the Oostvaardersplassen have increased in number and each year large numbers of them die because of hunger (in practice if underfed or ill animals are spotted they are shot) and each year there is a discussion whether these animals should be fed, or reduced in number — that is, culled. This debate occurs almost yearly, and started a few days ago again because the responsibility for the area was transferred from the central government to the provincial government, and two political parties presented a plan (in Dutch) to cull a number of animals in order to give the vegetation time to recover itself, and make the area more attractive for tourists.

Proponents of the culling argue that the area is overgrazed, that it is inhumane to let animals suffer hunger, and that the ecological food web is not complete as there is no regulating predator, like wolves. The latter argument is debated by ecologists, there is no clear answer whether predators actually regulate ungulate populations or that the relation is bottom-up: the amount of ungulates is regulated by food availability as is the amount of predators, see e.g. here.

Nature development has also been enthusiastically embraced as a good way for nature compensation projects. However, in a number of cases these nature development projects involve buying out farmers, and returning previously “ingepolderd” land to the sea and “let nature take its course”. Within the Netherlands this has caused an enormous debate especially in the province of Zeeland, which was flooded badly in 1953, and where many of the farmers are being forced out of their farms by a combination of nature development projects in compensation for the harbour of Antwerp, regulation and general intensification. A very personal, beautiful and painful description of that process is written by Chris de Stoop in his (Dutch) book: Dit is mijn hof

Where does that leave me? Am I a pure conservationist or a development person? I would argue that humans are part of nature, which makes me probably more in line with conservationists. Then again, I don’t think there is anything wrong with also having areas where we don’t interfere, because you never know what will happen there, which makes me more of a nature development guy.

Most of all, though, I guess I’m an economist and that means that I ask the nasty question: for whom do we conserve it? Do we think we as humans have a responsibility to let nature run its course in certain areas? Or do we think it more justified to create a park like landscape where we try to manage nature and conserve whatever precious little that we have? We have to make-up our minds because there are bound to be trade-offs.

Cover Image credit:

© Martien Sleutjes,