Natural resource management [NRM], is the process of deciding how natural resources can be exploited whilst retaining the health, resilience and productivity of the environment.
Natural resources are materials or conditions occurring in nature that are capable of economic exploitation. Not just the likely suspects of minerals, coal, gas and oil but also soils, biodiversity, rivers, estuaries, wetlands and coastal and marine environments.
NRM also includes the services that nature provides from clean water to pollination and plant growth that delivers crop production — all based on a foundation of natural capital.
Management that strikes a balance between use and conservation in ways that keep production going without degrading the ability of nature to keep supplying services that support environmental values, including the renewal of natural resources.
In the past this was not much of a challenge.
Imagine you are a sheep farmer from rural England just arrived in Australia on a convict ship.
The journey was tough and long enough to leave behind the misdemeanor that got you transported. The east coast of the new and remote continent comes into view. It is a blue-green land of trees, gentle hills and endless beaches with freshwater inlets. At first glance, it seems like a good place to start a farm. The land is pristine and seems to flow on forever.
You came from a place where sheep grazed fields the size of postage stamps and wandered across bracken-covered moorlands. There is bracken here too and take away the trees and you could have thousands of fields and more sheep than you could count.
It must have seemed like a miracle.
Of course, it turned out to be a bit more challenging than that first impression suggested. The soils were poor and it was usually intolerably hot. Water supplies were unreliable and often there was drought. There were flies and very troublesome snakes.
Yet because there was land, seemingly endless uncharted acres of it, nobody imagined that there would be a shortage of resources.
Nor did the colonists think there was any need for management of resources other than to get sheep production underway as soon as possible. The market for wool and meat back in Europe was growing faster than the whirling flywheels on the new steam engines in factories from Birmingham to Berlin.
It took some time but Australia became a giant sheep farm with little thought for NRM.
Fast forward to today.
sheep on Lake George Australia
There are still plenty of sheep in Australia, some 73 million in 2011, but this is far fewer than before. There have been millions of sheep eating their way across the continent for a couple of centuries.
There is still drought, poor soils and flies — but happily there are anti-venoms for the dangerous snakes.
In such a brittle environment the primary production that supports the sheep has been pushed hard using up reserves of nutrients and carbon in the soil. In other words using up the resource.
Resources have also been used grow crops and timber, create infrastructure and support a modern economy.
There is now a growing tension between this resource use and the conservation of natural capital together with recognition that the environment provides many more values than just production.
Natural resource management is the development of options to achieve the right balance between use and protection and the decision support to make management real. This takes good science, technical skills and engagement with the people who use and value the resources.
NRM is the discipline where it all happens.
lone ram on stony gibber plain, Sturt National Park, NSW, Australia
NRM is currently for specialists and there are not very many.
And that is the challenge. For such an important concept we are under resourced and arguably under prepared.
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