Reading: Use and Conservation of Resources


Natural resources may be living or non-living. Their value may be tangible, such as the price of an ounce of gold, or intangible, like the psychological value of being able to visit pristine natural areas. Some natural resources must be used and used wisely, but some must be preserved to maintain their value.

Mystery in the Forest

Like all forests, the Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia is an important natural resource. A forest is a resource in ways that are obvious and ways that are not so obvious. This forest is used for many things including:

  • Recreation, such as hiking, camping, and picnicking.
  • Habitat for many organisms, including nine endangered species and 50 species of rare plants.
  • Streams [207 kilometers (129 miles)] for fishing, particularly trout fishing.
  • Wildlife management areas for hunting deer, squirrels, turkeys, rabbits, mink, and foxes.
  • Mineral and energy resources such as coal, gas, limestone, and gravel.
  • Hardwood trees used for timber, which brings in over $7 million a year.
The Monongahela National Forest

Figure 1. The Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia contains many natural resources. Notice the air pollution that obscures the view.

But Monongahela National Forest has a problem; for several years, trees in the forest have not grown well. What are some reasons that trees might not grow well (figure 1)?

Scientists have been working for several years to solve the mystery. The scientists suspected that the soil is missing nutrients that the trees and other plants need to grow. Can you design an experiment that scientists could do to test this hypothesis? (There is a clue in the caption for figure 1.)

The scientists sampled the soil and tested it for important nutrients. They discovered that the soil has very low levels of plant nutrients, such as magnesium and calcium. Can you develop a hypothesis for why these nutrients might be missing from the soil? The scientists thought that air pollution from nearby factories had released chemicals into the environment that removed the nutrients from the soil and carried them away. How would the scientists test that hypothesis?

Scientists in the Monongahela National Forest are still researching the missing plant nutrients. They are trying to learn what they can do to help keep the nutrients in the soil so the trees will grow better.

Two hikers with backpacking gear in front of a stream

Figure 2. We use Earth’s resources for many purposes, including recreation and natural beauty.

Like the Monongahela National Forest, people use parts of the Earth for many reasons, such as food, water, building materials, timber, recreation, and energy (figure 2). As you’ve already learned, human activities can degrade natural resources, just like air pollution from factories is speeding up the loss of soil nutrients in West Virginia.

For natural resources to continue to be available, they need to be protected. We also need to conserve natural resources so they will last longer. When we practice conservation, we make sure resources will be available in the future, both for ourselves and for other organisms.

Renewable versus Non-Renewable Resources

In the Earth’s Energy chapter, energy resources were classified as renewable or non-renewable. How do you think other natural resources, such as minerals and forests, are classified? Like energy resources, all natural resources are divided into renewable and non-renewable. Can you define these terms?

Photograph of a rainforest.

Figure 3. An old growth forest, like this tropical rainforest in Malaysia, is a complex ecosystem with many types of plants and animals. When a forest is destroyed by logging, it takes hundreds or thousands of years for the forest to regenerate.

Renewable resources can be regenerated or grown so rapidly that they reappear at the same rate or even faster as they are being used (figure 3). Are forests a renewable resource? Why are they a renewable resource? Why aren’t they a renewable resource? Although new trees can grow to replace logged trees, their growth is often too slow for the trees to be of use for a long time. Loggers just move to a new area rather than wait for the forest to regenerate.

Other examples of resources that are renewable but not entirely renewable include soil, wildlife, and water. How do these resources fit in both categories? Soil has a very slow renewal rate, so they are often non-renewable. Fish and other wildlife can reproduce and so are a renewable resource, yet it is possible to take so many of these creatures that the populations are not able to rebound, making them a non-renewable resource (figure 4). Organisms can be over-hunted, over-fished or have populations decline because of habitat loss so that their numbers go so low they are no longer a renewable resource.

Chimpanzee sitting in a tree eating.

Figure 4. Chimpanzees are eaten and taken as pets so their numbers in the wild are declining.

Non-renewable resources are resources that cannot be regenerated on a useful timescale. Fossil fuels and most minerals are non-renewable resources. We can (and eventually will) run out of these resources.

Resource Availability

From the table on the previous page you can see that many of the resources we depend on are non-renewable. Non-renewable resources vary in their availability; some are very abundant and others are rare. Materials, such as gravel or sand are technically non-renewable but are so abundant that running out is no issue. Some resources are truly limited in quantity: When they are gone, they are gone and something must be found that will replace them. There are even resources, such as diamonds and rubies, that are valuable in part because they are so rare.

A desalination plant

Figure 5. Tampa Bay, Florida, has one of the few desalination plants in the United States.

Besides abundance, resource value is determined by how easy it is to locate and extract. If a resource is difficult to use, it will not be used until the price for that resource becomes so great that it is worth paying for. For example, the oceans are filled with an abundant supply of water, but desalination is costly, so it is used only where water is really limited (figure 5). As the cost of desalination plants comes down, more will likely be built.

Politics is also part of determining resource availability and cost. Nations that have a desired resource in abundance will often export that resource to other countries, while countries that need that resource must import it from one of the countries that produces it. This situation is a potential source of economic and political trouble.

Of course the greatest example of this is oil. Only 12 countries have approximately 80% of all of the world’s oil (Figure 6). However, the biggest users of oil, the United States, China, and Japan, are all located outside this oil-rich region. This leads to a situation in which the availability and price of the oil is determined largely by one set of countries that have their own interests to look out for. The result has sometimes been war, which may have been attributed to all sorts of reasons, but at the bottom, the reason is oil.

Map of the world showing the 12 producers of oil.

Figure 6. The nations in blue are the 12 biggest producers of oil; they are Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.

Garbage, mostly metal and plastic items, piled on top of each other

Figure 7. Pollution from discarded materials degrades the environment and reduces the availability of natural resources.

The topic of overconsumption was touched on in the Ecosystems and Human Populations chapter. Many people in developed countries, such as the United States and most of Europe, use many more natural resources than people in many other countries. We have many luxury and recreational items, and it is often cheaper for us to throw something away than to fix it or just hang on to it for a while longer. This consumerism leads to greater resource use, but it also leads to more waste. Pollution from discarded materials degrades the land, air, and water (figure 7).

Natural resource use is generally lower in developing countries because people cannot afford many products. Some of these nations export natural resources to the developed world since their deposits may be richer and the cost of labor lower. Environmental regulations are often more lax, further lowering the cost of resource extraction.

Besides obtaining resources, we also dump waste on these nations. Many of our electronic wastes, which we think are being recycled, end up in developing countries where they pose a problem for human health and the environment. Electronic wastes are sent to developing nations where people pick through them for valuable materials. These wastes contain many toxic compounds and are hazardous.

Conserving Natural Resources

Three different bins. One for cans, one for plastic and glass, and one for paper.

Figure 8. Recycling can help conserve natural resources.

So that people in developed nations maintain a good lifestyle and people in developing nations have the ability to improve their lifestyles, natural resources must be conserved and protected (figure 8). People are researching ways to find renewable alternatives to non-renewable resources. Here is a checklist of ways to conserve resources:

  • Buy less stuff (use items as long as you can, and ask yourself if you really need something new).
  • Reduce excess packaging (drink tap water instead of water from plastic bottles).
  • Recycle materials such as metal cans, old cell phones, and plastic bottles.
  • Purchase products made from recycled materials.
  • Reduce pollution so that resources are maintained.
  • Prevent soil erosion.
  • Plant new trees to replace those that are cut down.
  • Drive cars less, take public transportation, bicycle, or walk.
  • Conserve energy at home (turn out lights when they are not needed).

National Geographic videos found on this site in Environment Videos, Environmental Threats, Deforestation.

  • “Sustainable Logging”

Or Environment Videos, Habitats, Rainforest.

  • “Mamirarua” is a sustainable development reserve that is protecting the Amazon
  • “Vancouver Rain Forest” explores an alliance between conservationists and logging companies

Or find ways to go green from National Geographic videos, Environment Videos, Going Green.

  • The problem with plastic bags is discussed in this Conservation in action, “Edward Norton: Bag the Bag”
  • Trying to mitigate problems caused by intensive logging in Ecuador while helping the people who live there improve their standards of living is in “Ecuador Conservation”

Lesson Summary

  • We use natural resources for many things. Natural resources give us food, water, recreation, energy, building materials, and luxury items.
  • Many resources vary in their availability throughout the world. Some are rare, difficult to get, or in short supply.
  • Natural resources must be preserved and protected from pollution and overuse.
  • Buying fewer new products and recycling will help to conserve resources.


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