Open Spaces Are Disappearing—And There’s Little We Can Do

A new study paints a grim picture of how vulnerable open areas in the West are to all types of developments. Stopping it is out of the question. But maybe we can slow it down.
By: Devon O’Neil Jun 30, 2016

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The broad if inconvenient truth is we’re not going to stop losing Western open space at an alarming rate. Photo: Peterscode/iStock

The West is losing open space to human development at an alarming rate—one football field’s worth every two and a half minutes, and an area larger than Los Angeles each year. That’s according to a new study from the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., that sought to tabulate how much land really is unavailable to mineral extraction and other uses.

“Development” here takes many forms: it could mean residential or commercial construction on a once-vacant lot, drilling for oil, connecting a power line, or relatively low-impact uses like livestock grazing. The study, titled “The Disappearing West,” was put together by a team of researchers from Conservation Science Partners who examined changes in land use from 2001 to 2011 using nearly three dozen datasets, as well as satellite imagery. Their findings chronicle a sobering if not entirely surprising reality: wildlife corridors are getting strangled, urban sprawl is raging, and, perhaps most significant, there is little that can be done to stop the loss of natural areas.

Predictably, the changes corresponded with rampant population increases. For the decade between 2000 and 2010, the four states with the fastest population growth were all in the West: Nevada (35.1 percent growth), Arizona (24.6), Utah (23.8), and Idaho (21.1). During roughly the same period, Western cities expanded their footprint by 17 percent, despite the fact that the U.S. population increased by only 9.7 percent from one census to the next, the lowest growth rate since the 1930s. CAP commissioned the study to counter a common claim by conservative lawmakers that most of the West is protected from commercial and industrial use, like mineral extraction.

“We hear a lot of talk that these lands are locked up and off limits, and that’s just not true,” says Nicole Gentile, deputy director of CAP’s public lands project and one of the study authors. “We’re losing them very quickly.”

In fact, only 12 percent of land in the West is protected permanently from development, either through designations (like national monuments or national parks) or conservation easements. Meanwhile, 39.1 percent of Western land is privately held (of which the vast majority, 77 percent, remains undeveloped); and according to the study, the oil and gas industry can drill on nine out of 10 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees more than 250 million acres across the West.

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