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The American West Is Rapidly Disappearing

Fossil fuel development in Utah. CREDIT: ANDREW SATTER
Fossil fuel development in Utah. CREDIT: ANDREW SATTER

A new study released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Conservation Science Partners (CSP) found that every 2.5 minutes, the American West loses a football field worth of natural area to human development. This project, called the Disappearing West, is the first comprehensive analysis of how much land in the West is disappearing to development, how quickly this transformation is taking place, and the driving factors behind this loss.

Many people’s view of the American West is of large, untouched landscapes and protected areas set aside by conservation leaders such as John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt. This common misconception is a routine talking point for anti-park politicians, like Rob Bishop, who are working to undercut protections on, sell off, and give away national forests, parks, monuments, and other public lands. But the truth is, until now, nobody knew the status of lands lost to development in the West.

The data further disproves statements made by the Bundys, Ken Ivory, and other land seizure proponents that land in the West is already “locked up”. According to the analysis, as of 2011, development in the West covered around 165,000 square miles of land — an area about the size of six million superstore parking lots.

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Advocates for seizing and selling off public lands often argue that private landowners will be better stewards of the land. Yet the data from the analysis shows that development on private lands accounted for nearly three-fourths of all natural areas in the West that disappeared between 2001 and 2011, while public lands like national parks and wilderness areas had some of the lowest rates of development.

Sprawl in Arizona. CREDIT: Andrew Satter
Sprawl in Arizona. CREDIT: Andrew Satter

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. This information, critical to making informed decisions about development, protection, and wildlife has so far been only an estimate.

“We have developed comprehensive measures of the loss of natural areas in the West due to human activities on both public and private lands, which is unprecedented in scope and detail,” said David M. Theobald, senior scientist at CSP, a non-profit scientific collective. “Knowing the cause of those changes is vital to informing actions to address them.”

The project features an interactive map that allows users to explore where and how quickly natural areas disappeared in their own backyards and across the West at the state, county, and local level. The map also lets users explore the different development stressors responsible for natural area loss — energy, urban sprawl, roads, transmission lines, logging, and agriculture.

The redder the county, the more of its land has been developed. CREDIT: CAP and CSP
The redder the county, the more of its land has been developed. CREDIT: CAP and CSP

The energy development information from this study is especially relevant this week. On Tuesday, the Department of Interior is kicking off a series of public scoping meetings on the recent ruling that put a moratorium on the federal coal leasing program on public lands. The first meeting is Tuesday in Casper, Wyoming.

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From 2001 to 2011 the energy footprint in Wyoming increased by nearly 40 percent, primarily from coal mines and oil and gas wells, which are visible on the interactive map in the northeastern part of the state.

This new data helps illustrate the serious effects that unbridled coal leasing has had on lands in the state and the benefits that can come from reform of the federal coal program.

Idaho’s Snake River. CREDIT: Andrew Satter
Idaho’s Snake River. CREDIT: Andrew Satter