Where humans go, development follows, but in the Western area of the United States, known for its expansive monuments and swaths of natural land, the threat of human encroachment looms especially large. A new report that tracks human development paints the picture of our ecological footprint in no uncertain terms.
According to the study produced by scientists at Conservation Science Partners and funded by the Center for American Progress, “Every 2.5 minutes, the American West loses a football field worth of natural area to human development.” That number rises steadily by a tenth every quarter second, which translates yearly into 432 square miles, or an area of land roughly the size of Los Angeles.
Using satellite imagery from nearly three-dozen mapping sources, scientists traced the progress of human activity across 11 Western states. The report, which can be found at https://www.disappearingwest.org/, identified the four most prominent sources of development as urban sprawl, agriculture and logging, energy development and transportation.
California Being Consumed by Urban Sprawl
While Wyoming and Utah reported the largest percentages of land loss due mainly to foresting and agriculture, California’s numbers point the finger at urban sprawl. In the state, between 2001 and 2011, urban sprawl grew by 13.1 percent due in part to the factors like the elevated cost of living.
With California’s population ballooning, and the price of real estate at a premium, young families seeking starter homes within their budget have chosen to do so away from more expensive urban areas. Governor Jerry Brown has said the High-Speed Rail will act as a catalyst to discourage urban sprawl, but in the interim, developments like the 3,432 home housing project near Bakersfield have been popping up on the outskirts of cities. Urban sprawl may be the most salient threat to the preservation of natural lands, but development in all of its forms impacts adjacent ecosystems.
Roads Are Causing Habitat Fragmentation
A map of the Western United States shows arteries of tiny red lines that represent new roads. Think of these areas as the seedlings of development. As the lines jut out into different directions, penetrating large areas of previously untouched land, the fracturing destroys natural pathways that animal species use to navigate their surroundings. In a process called habitat fragmentation, human encroachment threatens the survival of species that require large areas of open land to roam freely and rely on their habitats to remain intact.
According to the report, a bear walking a random path through natural areas in the West is an average of only 3.5 miles from significant human development. In just 10 years, that buffer between natural and developed areas shrunk by nearly one-third of a mile. Also at stake are resources that make up the first line of defense against greenhouse gas emissions. A study by the Nature Conservancy on climate change notes that carbon rich soils and shade-providing trees that naturally mitigate greenhouse gas emissions become destabilized when fragmentation occurs and throw the surrounding ecosystems into flux.
Nicole Gentile, deputy director for the Public Lands team at American Progress and project manager for the Disappearing West report, says the study’s goal is to help planners become better decision makers and plan more strategically. “I think what we learned here is that not only is development happening, it’s happening in a haphazard way,” she says.
To counteract both drivers, planners propose expanding vertically as opposed to horizontally by building on existing urban infrastructure instead of spilling outwards into undeveloped territory. Another course correction is to encourage environmentalists to lease land from private owners for conservation.
The Federal Land Action Group
The age of westward expansion might be far behind us, but the urge to conquer nature, to seek a space apart from the masses, persists. Standoffs between cattle ranchers and the federal government over the private right to occupy federally protected land are just one symptom of a movement taking hold among certain members of Congress. Supporting efforts to privatize federally protected land is a small but vocal group of anti-conservationists made up of Tea Party members and their affiliates – what American Progress dubs the Anti-Park Caucus – that call themselves the Federal Land Action Group (FLAG).
Members of FLAG have waged public protest against President Obama’s power to grant monument status to natural lands under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Theodore Roosevelt cemented the act by making the Grand Canyon a national monument and set in motion a tradition of conservation and environmental jurisprudence that continues today.
Gentile calls FLAG’s rhetoric dangerous, but thinks their rallying cries have largely fallen on deaf ears. “[The members of FLAG] are completely out of step with the American public. People love public lands… polls time and time again show that they want to protect these places, keep them for future generations, make sure that they stay in public hands, that we all have access to them…[FLAG is] not respecting the very core American values, so it’s hard to think that they’re going to get very far.”
The consensus is that more needs to be done on a federal level to protect existing lands and safeguard them for the future. Against a gridlocked Congress, Gentile calls President Obama’s actions to protect natural space a linchpin in the fight to curb anti-preservationist sentiments.
“There’s not a lot of wilderness protection and other public land protection happening out of the House and Senate,” she says, “its very important that the president protect these areas and put them off limits to make sure they are protected for future generations.”