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.

Jun 30, 2016
Outside
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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. 

The most contentious battles happen over public lands—owned by states and the federal government and managed by agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, the BLM, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, among others—where permanent protection is unlikely and political will could determine whether it gets developed or is preserved in its natural state.

A range of organizations, mostly those that are pro-conservation or pro-wilderness, are trying to stem the development expansion, but few are succeeding. In early June, a bill called the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act—which would designate as wilderness 23 million acres of roadless lands in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon—was introduced in the Senate for the first time by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and cosponsored by seven other senators. 

“We all depend on our forests and rivers for our health and wellbeing,” Whitehouse says. “This legislation would preserve an important and productive wilderness for future generations, secure important habitat for wildlife, and help to reduce climate change in the process.” The bill had been stalled in the U.S. House since 1992. So far it has seen little support. 

The biggest challenge with slowing the loss of open space, Gentile says, is that most development happens on private land. Three quarters of the natural areas lost to development during the decade CAP studied (2001-2011) was private. Such was the basis of a recent editorial in High Country News that argued in favor of grazing on federal property, which has become a lightning rod in the public land-management discussion. “If these ranches are able to stay in business, that’s 100 million acres of open space, habitat, and ecosystems spared from the developer’s bulldozers,” Andy Rieber wrote. “Put a price tag on that, if you can.” 

Voters continue to support preservation of open space, which is one reason why we are nowhere close to developing all of the West’s private land. According to the annual and bipartisan Conservation in the West poll (which is commissioned by Colorado College and is unrelated to CAP’s study), 80 percent of voters in seven Western states favor a future in which presidents protect lands via national monument designations, and 60 percent oppose selling large tracts of public land to decrease the budget deficit.

But it is hardly as simple as protecting what is already public—or, for that matter, buying private lands with public funds. Consider the case of neighboring Douglas and Jefferson counties in the Denver Metro Area in Colorado. Human development covers an almost identical portion of each county: 29.7 percent in “Jeffco” and 29.4 percent in “DougCo.” 

Jeffco, which includes 28 regional parks and 227 miles of trails near Denver and Boulder, including the popular White Ranch and Deer Creek Canyon parks, is widely recognized as having one of the most successful open space programs in the country, in terms of the strategic swaths of land it has shielded from development. A half-percent sales tax generates $28 million annually for the program, which has purchased or helped to protect 55,000 acres of open space since 1972, or roughly 11 percent of all land in the county. 

Most of Jeffco was developed decades ago, before CAP’s study was conducted. And yet the county still lost open space to development at 143 percent of the average rate in the West from 2001 to 2011. This shows how inevitable the loss of natural areas is, even in places with money to spend on preservation and the political will to support it. 

Douglas County, like Jeffco, has a funding source in the form of a one-sixth of a percent tax, which generates about $9 million per year. The county has bought or protected 48,000 acres of open space since the fund’s inception in 1994. It is also in the midst of a development boom. Its population has more than quintupled in the past 25 years. During CAP’s study purview, DougCo lost open space at 474 percent the average rate, almost entirely due to urban sprawl.

“You have the feeling that you’re losing open space, and the traffic on I-25 is totally ridiculous,” Douglas County open space and natural resources director Cheryl Matthews says. “But if we hadn’t had all that development and its sales tax, we wouldn’t have the money to buy open space.”

As such, the broad if inconvenient truth is that we’re not going to stop losing Western open space. But there are ways that have been proven to slow down the rate of loss, and most take place on the local level. 

First, create a funding source, says those interviewed for this story. Citizens value open space, so getting some sort of tax on the ballot is the best way to start. 

In addition, think big picture, Jeffco open space and parks director Tom Hoby recommended. “What we try to do every day is be strategic,” he says. “What are the really important places that we need to preserve? What provides for wildlife and certain ecosystems to thrive, versus taking a more piecemeal approach?”

Population growth isn’t about to stop. Neither is development. But understanding how fast natural areas in the West are disappearing could help save them. “I think the perfect end result of this study,” Gentile says, “would be to ensure that land-management decision making is based on the reality on the ground.”

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