What is Conservation? | Economics NRCS

What is Conservation?

"Conservation" is often used vaguely, is frequently confused with other ideas. Sometimes the word is applied to projects that are not conservation. On the other hand, we may limit it too strictly by thinking only of what it means in a particular situation.

Conservation does not mean non-use

When it is not used with resources, "conservation" means preservation - keeping something from changing. Some people speak as though conservation of resources could likewise be restricted to this meaning. But can it?

First of all, conservation does not mean non-use. Resources, as we know, are things which people plan to use for satisfying their needs. Something that is conserved for no use would cease to be a resource. Thus conservation is always concerned with an aspect of use. Some people believe that this aspect is keeping use constant over time. Conservation does not only mean keeping use constant over time.

Conservation does not only mean keeping use constant over time

If a good farmer takes over a badly eroded place, he may try not only to stop further erosion, but also to build up his soil. He may try to increase crop yields, not just prevent them from decreasing. But he would say that he was practicing conservation.

When a rich virgin soil is first cultivated, it may have an abundant productivity that is the result of years of undisturbed accumulation of organic matter It is difficult, and seldom economical, to keep such a soil as productive as in its virgin state. But it may be economical to slow down the decrease in crop yields. A farmer who does that would say that he was practicing conservation.

In special cases conservation does keep the use of a resource constant at the present level. For example, a farmer may plan a fertilizing program designed to balance the depletion of plant nutrients caused by the harvests. But conservation cannot be restricted to such special cases.

Conservation is concerned with the WHEN of use

Conservation, then, may increase use of a resource above the present level, may keep it constant, or may slow down the decrease. The important point is that conservation practices change the when of use: they change the time distribution of use. This is the aspect of use we are concerned with here.

Conservation (or depletion) always implies comparison of two or more time distributions of use. We may compare expected yields if new practices are adopted with what yields would have been if the old practices had been continued. We may compare several production plans merely by calculation, by budgeting. Or we may compare two or more practices that have already been carried out.

In all such comparisons, we need to take account both of the amounts of the changes and of their distribution over time. The more distant the future in which use is increased by a given amount, the greater the degree of conservation. Conversely, the greater the distance a given amount of use is shifted from the future toward the present, the greater the degree of depletion. In a workable definition of conservation and depletion, the when of use is no less important than the amount.

Conservation may be achieved in several ways

A farmer can conserve his resources by reducing present use, which means that he foregoes some present returns in order to realize greater future returns; or he can conserve resources by expending present effort or costs without reducing present use - sometimes even with increases in it. Sometimes he has a choice; sometimes only one is possible; sometimes he uses both. Thus a cattleman may conserve a depleted range simply by deferred grazing, or by reseeding and fertilizing, or by cross-fencing and rotation grazing.

Conservation may be wasteful

Conservation is not always economical. There is an economic limit, somewhere in conservation: there is a point beyond which increasing future use by reducing present use or by expending present cost' will not pay. The most profitable state on conservation for a given resource depends on the cost in other resources - natural cultural, and human.

The farmer cannot afford to practice conservation of one resource that is wasteful of his other resources. How does he decide what conservation practices to adopt - which ones would be wasteful which ones would make sense?

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