America’s Wildlands and Open Space Continue to Vanish at Alarming Rates
As environmental issues go, urban sprawl has lost much of the “sex appeal” or “bragging rights” it possessed two decades ago, when then-vice president Al Gore barnstormed the country speaking so passionately about it. Early in the new millennium, Mr. Gore – and America’s environmental establishment – jilted sprawl for the far sexier and more fashionable issue of global climate change.
Sprawl, after all, was merely a parochial concern – reeking of rank middle-class “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) politics, while global warming effuses global and globalist pretensions and boasts the support of all the glamorous celebs, A-listers such as Leonardo DiCaprio, AOC, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (aka, Harry and Meghan).
In the meantime, everyday Americans were deluded into believing that “smart growth” was riding to the rescue, allowing us to continue unabated population growth even while curbing incessant, wildland-devouring urban expansion. In effect, allowing us to eat our cake and have it too.
Yet just because sprawl has been ignored for two decades doesn’t mean that it has gone away.
In fact, sprawl lurks still – stalking and inexorably devouring America’s beleaguered wildlands and open spaces.
Between 2002 and 2017 – a mere 15 years – America lost 17,800 square miles (11.4 million acres – more than five times the area of Yellowstone National Park’s 2.2 million acres) of natural habitat and open space to urban sprawl – an area equivalent to New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware combined. This is a key finding of a study I recently co-authored for NumbersUSA: From Sea to Sprawling Sea: Quantifying the Loss of Open Space in America.
Over the full 35-year period of our study, sprawl consumed more than 68,000 square miles – an area larger than Florida.
Developers are chopping down our forests and paving over our grasslands to accommodate our insatiable demand for more and more subdivisions, offices and warehouses, data centers, factories, strip malls, schools, and roads. Our study documented that population growth accounted for 67% of the recent loss of open space for the U.S. as a whole.
If politicians and environmentalists are really serious and not just giving lip service about keeping America beautiful and making it sustainable – preventing purple mountain majesties, wilderness, and wildlands from being converted into subdivisions, strip malls, office parks, and freeway interchanges – they’ll need to support the cessation of U.S. population growth. As some readers may recall, environmentalists were once both convinced and outspoken that halting population growth was a sine qua non of sustainability.
Environmentalists have long worried about and opposed the loss of natural habitats to sprawl. But in recent years many have claimed that we could solve the problem through a combination of greater urban and suburban densities and more environmentally-friendly lifestyles.
Constructing more high-rises, rather than single-family dwellings in the suburbs, certainly helps reduce sprawl at urban and suburban margins, though this “pack ‘em and stack ‘em” approach often imposes severe quality-of-life costs on existing residents. Yet as our study revealed, even though 26 states successfully reduced their per-capita urban land use over the past two decades thanks to denser living – all 26 still lost open space. U.S. population growth – 37 million additional people from 2002 to 2017 – more than offset any per-capita improvements.
Even if we could pack everyone into existing towns and cities – which would be politically difficult, given many Americans’ long-standing cultural preferences for single-family homes with yards – we’d still need more farmland, fertilizer, and irrigation water to feed all the extra mouths. We’d still need to dam(n) more watercourses and inundate bottomland hardwood and riparian forests to create reservoirs to supply drinking water. We’d still need more factories, power plants, schools, hospitals, wastewater treatment plants, and solar and wind farms plastered over vital habitats and wildland.
The Global Footprint Network estimates that Americans’ per capita ecological footprint is almost 60 times greater than our per capita consumption of developed land. While each U.S. resident directly accounts for one-third of an acre of developed land, on average, each American’s ecological footprint indirectly expropriates about 20 acres of bioproductive land.
Simply put, sprawl, associated habitat loss, and fewer of our wild brethren are an inevitable consequence of human population growth; it’s what ecologists call competitive displacement.
Many or most American political and environmental leaders once understood this or at least claimed to. As recently as the late 1990s, back when the U.S. population was “only” about 280 million – more than 40 million less than today – President Clinton’s Task Force on Population and Consumption of his Council on Sustainable Development emphasized that we needed to “move toward stabilizing the U.S. population.”
If we failed to do so, the task force projected that the “U.S. population is likely to reach 350 million by the year 2030; a level that would place even greater strain on our ability to increase prosperity, clean up pollution, alleviate congestion, manage sprawl, and reduce the overall consumption of resources.”
But the corrupted environmental establishment refused to heed that report, even though several representatives of Big Green participated on the task force that produced it. The U.S. population currently exceeds 332 million people – and we’re on track to reach the predicted 350 million by the end of this decade and top 400 million by 2060.
So how could we actually slow and then stop U.S. population growth, if American women already average fewer than two births per female?
The answer is straightforward, albeit politically challenging. Migration from other countries – rather than domestic births – is now the primary driver of U.S. population growth. In fact, the Pew Research Center stated in 2015 that “the nation is projected to grow to 441 million in 2065 and that 88% of the increase is linked to future immigrants and their descendants.” Note that it says future immigrants, not those 45 million who have already migrated here in recent decades.
The upshot is that whatever else we do, whatever lifestyle changes and sacrifices we urge or regulations we impose, we will not curb the staggering loss of wildlands and wildlife that continues in America unless we can muster the political will to curb mass immigration, which has quadrupled since the 1960s. As I have written elsewhere:
“That’s not a reflection on our immigrant friends, neighbors – or in my own case, family members – who are overwhelmingly law-abiding contributors to our society. It’s simply an acknowledgement that the current influx of foreign nationals – about 1 million legal immigrants and 2 million illegal ones last year alone – is driving our population growth, which in turn is destroying our open spaces.”
Our leaders can help save wildlands and wildlife by stabilizing America’s human population and eventually reducing it to more sustainable levels. Or they can maintain the status quo and let sprawl’s march across the countryside continue unchecked. But they can’t do both. Those who claim they can are deceitful, delusional, or ignorant.
Leon Kolankiewicz is Scientific Director of NumbersUSA and Vice-President of Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization. His career as a wildlife/fisheries biologist and environmental scientist spans more than 30 years, 40 states, and three countries. He has worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Alaska Department Fish and Game, Orange County (California) Environmental Management Agency, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras, and as an environmental consultant preparing environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for more than 10 federal agencies. He is also the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska’s Raincoast, which New York Times outdoor columnist Nelson Bryant called “a celebration of wilderness.”