The Disappearing West

A new report shows the extreme rate at which we are losing natural areas to development in the American West. Learn more at this interactive website:

Report details West’s loss of natural lands

By Hilary Corrigan / The Bulletin/ Published May 22, 2016 

Photo by John Kees

Photo by John Kees

The American West lost a football field of natural land — including forests, wetlands, deserts and grasslands — every two and a half minutes between 2001 and 2011, according to a new report.

About 4,300 square miles disappeared due to human development during that time, said the report from the research nonprofit Conservation Science Partners and the Center for American Progress, an educational institute in Washington, D.C. Most of that loss took place on private lands, followed by federal lands. Much of the total loss stems from housing and commercial building construction, followed by energy and mineral development.

“Across the West, patterns of development are carving natural landscapes into smaller and smaller areas. This process, called fragmentation, has severe consequences for the movement and survival of wildlife and the provision of clean water,” the report said.

The fragmentation means that now, a bear walking a random path through natural areas in the West is an average of about 3½ miles from significant human development, the report said. Without habitat protection, more wildlife will need the Endangered Species Act’s legal protections, it said.

The report also notes the amount of permanently protected areas, finding that “only 12 percent of lands in the West are actually protected from development.” Of more than 250 million acres of land that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees in the West, for instance, the oil and gas industry can drill on 9 out of 10 acres, the report said.

The project analyzed data and reviewed over a decade of satellite imagery across 11 Western states. It involves an interactive website that lets users look at the data from each of the studied states. For instance, Oregon lost about 412 square miles during the time period studied. Much of that stemmed from transportation and urban sprawl.

Conservation Science Partners senior scientist Dave Theobald called the study unprecedented in that it looked at all land types and ownerships.

“Many groups have a partial view of what’s going on,” Theobald said, but “issues in the West really require an all-lands approach.”

Such an all-encompassing review is needed because many issues — such as water and wildlife, for instance — cross boundaries of land types and ownership, he said. The effort sought partly to ensure consistent data on landscapes, so that decision-makers can get a fuller picture, and to identify the “stressors” leading to the development of lands, he said.

People “need to know what the cause is,” Theobald said.

The report offered suggestions for better protecting natural lands. For instance, private landowners and land trusts could use conservation easements to protect natural areas; cities could plan for smart growth; states could establish permanent funding to protect open space and wildlife habitat; and state and national land management agencies could better guide energy development, logging, transportation and mining, the report said. It also called for permanently protecting more public lands as wilderness, national parks and monuments to ensure large, contiguous and “ecologically healthy landscapes across the region.”

The effort aims to provide people with a better understanding of how human activities alter the West — “and how they can better engage in that discussion,” Theobald said, adding that visitors to the website can play with different parts of it and see the raw data.

“Our hope is to inform the dialogue,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,