Categorized | Agriculture, private lands

Losing Choices for Our Conservation Future

Development in Colorado. Image courtesy of the National Resource Conservation Service

Development in Colorado. Image courtesy of the National Resources Conservation Service

The United States is on track to lose more than 54 million acres of its rural open space to development by the year 2030. That comes to more than 2 million acres per year, 5,500 acres per day, and almost 4 acres per minute lost during each of the next 17 years. Most alarmingly, this developed land is rarely ever converted back to open space, so the lands are no longer available for the conservation actions that we may need sometime in the future.

These losses are driven primarily by land conversion to build additional housing. As the U.S. population grows, development spreads at higher rates. Each additional housing unit in this country costs on average about 1.2 acres of lost land.  But even more land is used for the housing units that are built in the south central and Great Plains regions of the U.S.

Between 1982 and 2003, the United States lost an additional 35.1 million acres to development. In other words, in just less than a half century, our country will lose almost 90 million total acres to development, slightly less than 5% of all land area in the entire lower 48 states. These 90 million acres also represent about 10% of all agricultural land (grazing and crop lands combined).

Land-use legacies may persist for hundreds of years, influencing everything from the plant types that are present, to nutrient cycles, water flows, and even local climate. Once land becomes converted, it is extremely difficult to change it back to an original, native state. For example, a study of recovery of land in Wisconsin from 1935 to 1993 found almost no recovery of habitat on lands that had been left alone for over 60 years In other words, there was little gain back to natural forest in the upper Midwest even after factoring in the abandoned farmland resulting from changing socio-economic trends.

That study illustrates the importance of wildlife restoration funding – many lands left alone do not recover naturally.  To adapt to climate change we need existing and new funding to restore habitats to their previous levels of natural diversity in order to provide resiliency as other areas of the same habitat disappear.

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- who has written 4 posts on dotWild.

Chris Haney oversees Defenders’ Conservation Science program as its chief scientist. He provides research and analysis to guide and support Defenders’ science-based policy and advocacy needs for endangered species, marine science, wildlife biology, forest ecology and management, and conservation policy. He has published extensively, with his work featured in Conservation Biology, Natural History, Ecological Economics, Limnology and Oceanography, Marine Policy, Natural Areas Journal, and others.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.