Santa Cruz Island An island scrub-jay on Santa Cruz Island © Morgan Heim/Day's Edge Productions


Style Guide: Nature and Conservation Terms

Conserve vs Protect

While some writers use conserve, preserve, protect and save interchangably, these words have different meanings and connotations.

Conserving: ensuring that something is used wisely (with land for instance, it's ensuring something is used wisely to benefit nature on a local-global scale)

Preserving: keeping something as it is

Protecting: conserving or preserving something from a threat. When using, be specific about what the threat is (e.g. development)

Saving: similar to protecting, but with a more dramatic quality. Protecting and saving should be used carefully in regions where land conservation is a heated subject, like in the western United States.



When referring to plants or animals, indigenous should be left uncapitalized.

When referring to people, Indigenous should be capitalized out of respect for their humanity, and to differentiate them from plants or animals.

As a collective noun, Indigenous peoples can be used (as opposed to people) to reflect a diversity of individual Indigenous cultures.


Pristine / Wilderness

Avoid this adjective as much as possible. It typically overstates the untouched quality of a landscape. In reality, most landscapes have been inhabited or shaped in some way by (often Indigenous) human existence. 

The same concept should be used for "wilderness." In the U.S. there are public lands that are classified as Wilderness (part of the National Wilderness Protection System). Outside of those lands, refrain from using wilderness as a descriptive term.


Plant/Animal Common Names

Lowercase unless they contain a proper name that would be capitalized in a normal context.

No proper name e.g. burrowing owl, black-capped vireo, sandhill crane

Proper name e.g. Florida panther, Kirtland’s warbler, Black Mountain salamander


Plant/Animal Latin Names

Common names are acceptable everywhere. Latin names are at author’s discretion. The genus name is always capitalized, while the species, subspecies and variety names never capitalized, even when used alone (except at the beginning of a sentence). Italicize.

Genus species

Panthera leo

Ursa actos horribilis


Geographic Names

Subsequent mentions of specific geographic bodies like the Atlantic Ocean or the Mississippi River should not be capitalized. e.g. the ocean or the river


The Gulf of Mexico – the Gulf

The Panama Canal – the Canal

Niagara Falls – the Falls

at Brooks Falls, Alaska.
Brown bears fishing for salmon at Brooks Falls, Alaska. © Ami Vitale/The Nature Conservancy

Some specific usages to know

buffalo vs bison – Bison is the scientifically correct term for the American bison. Buffalo is an acceptable American colloquialism

cactuses – not cacti

clear-cut – hyphenated

decision-maker – hyphenated

Earth – the planet, capitalized
earth – dirt and mud, not capitalized

floodplain – no hyphen

flyway – capitalize if part of a specific flyway e.g. Atlantic Flyway

forestland – one word

freshwater – adj, e.g. freshwater ponds
fresh water – noun, e.g. supply of fresh water

hot spot ­– two words

nearshore or offshore ­– one word, no hyphen

pinyon – not piñon

riverbank – one word

runoff – one word

salt marsh – two words

saltwater – adj, e.g. saltwater intrusion
salt water – noun, e.g. filled with salt water

sandstone – one word

savanna – not savannah

scrub-jay – hyphenated

sea grass – two words

stormwater – one word

stream bank ­– two words

wastewater – one word

waterfowl – one word

water fund – two words