The Disappearing West

Every 2.5 Minutes, a football field of natural area is lost in the West.

Every 2.5 Minutes, A Football Field Of Natural Area Is Lost In The West

A football field worth of natural area in the West is disappearing every two and a half minutes. And every year, the Western United States loses an Los Angeles-sized amount of natural area to development. That’s according to a new study out yesterday from the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners. The project, called the Disappearing West, is the first comprehensive analysis of human impacts on lands in the American West.


When most people think of the Western U.S., they think of large, open spaces and untouched landscapes. But until now, no one knew the extent to which Western land has been lost to development in the West. The project finds that roads, energy infrastructure, agriculture, urban sprawl and other development covered 165,00 square miles of land in 2011. As part of the project, an interactive map enables users to investigate patterns of natural area loss across the West at the local, county, and state levels and to explore the impacts of a variety of development activities.

The study analyzed nearly three-dozen datasets covering 11 types of human activity to determine the disappearance of natural areas in 11 western states between 2001 and 2011. California lost the most natural area to development, with Colorado close behind, losing 785 and 525 square miles respectively. The analysis found that urban sprawl was responsible for the largest amount of natural area loss in the West—2,343 square miles—followed by energy development, which resulted in the loss of 1,530 square miles. This amount of land loss means a lot of habitat fragmentation. As an example, a bear walking a random path in the American West could not go farther than three and a half miles on average before encountering significant human development.

Many proponents of seizing and selling off public lands argue that private landowners will be better stewards of the land. But the Disappearing West project disproves that argument: according to the analysis, development on private lands accounted for nearly three quarters of all natural areas lost in the West that disappeared. On the other hand, public lands like national parks and wilderness areas had some of the lowest rates of natural area lost. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of Americans support public lands: 83 percent of Americans and nearly 80 percent of Western voters say they would have a “favorable” reaction to their representative in Congress taking “a strong stand in support of policies to protect and strengthen national parks.”

This analysis comes as the Department of Interior started to hold a series of public meetings to help decide the future of the federal coal-leasing program on public lands. This new data shows the serious consequences unbridled coal mining has on lands: in Wyoming alone the energy footprint increased by nearly 40 percent between 2001 and 2011.

BOTTOM LINE: With this much land converting to development every year, we must invigorate land planning in order to protect natural areas across the West. As we enter a second century of American conservation, we need our leaders to act and protect our public lands so they may be enjoyed by generations to come.

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