Between 2001 and 2017, the lower 48 states lost more than 24 million acres to human development. This figure, detailed in a new report published by the Center for American Progress (CAP) in conjunction with Conservation Science Partners (CSP), amounts to a loss of roughly one football field-sized patch of land every 30 seconds.
According to the report, human activities including urban development, energy and transportation are responsible for the drastic decline in natural expanses. Largely preventable, the losses—steepest in the southern and midwestern United States—pose a significant threat to the country’s clean air, drinking water supply, and ability to protect against extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.
“In losing our natural landscapes, we’re losing a part of the American soul—especially in the West,” CSP President Brett Dickson tells the Denver Post’s Bruce Finley. “We’re eating away at our cherished landscapes. And we’re at risk of losing the places that provide Americans with things like clean water and landscapes for recreation that allow wildlife populations to persist and move freely.”
Jean Lotus of UPI writes that CSP researchers used data from road networks, as well as satellite images of vegetation, energy infrastructure and nighttime light pollution, to determine what percentage of the continental U.S. has undergone human modification since 2001.
The results, Dickson explains to Lotus, are not wholly discouraging. Although 40 percent of the contiguous 48 states is developed to some extent, another 60 percent remains undeveloped. Based on this number, the report suggests that the U.S. should set a goal of preserving 30 percent of remaining natural land and oceans by 2030. If successful, this ambitious campaign would lower animal extinction rates, help maintain food and drinking supplies, and contribute to efforts aimed at preventing global temperature rise.
If national development trends continue unchecked, however, report author Matt Lee-Ashley warns that a “South Dakota-sized expanse of forests, wetlands, and wild places in the continental United States will disappear by 2050.”
As Earther's Yessenia Funes notes, North Dakota and Oklahoma experienced the largest losses over the time period studied. Nevada and Maine, meanwhile, underwent the least amount of change.
In terms of broader regions, the report states that human development now covers 59 percent of the Midwest, 47 percent of the Northeast, 47 percent of the South and 19.6 percent of the West. Per the paper, human activities such as building cities, farms, roads, houses, pipelines and power plants have driven this decline in natural land. Finley of the Denver Post further identifies urban housing, commercial construction, logging, grazing, and oil and gas extraction as major culprits in landscape modification.
Reaching the target set by CAP will require collaborative action by policymakers, scientists, conservationists and the public.
“The country will need to act in all domains, in all geographies, and in the interest of all communities,” the report concludes. “In so doing—by advancing locally led conservation initiatives, building a more inclusive, equitable, and just approach to stewardship, and responding to an ambitious national call to action—the United States can fulfill its promise as a conservation nation and serve as an example for the world to follow.”