Disappearing West


Construction Eliminating Plants and Animals

Urban Sprawl--Los_Angeles

Every 2.5 minutes, the American West loses a football field worth of natural area to human development. This project maps a rapidly changing landscape, explores what is being lost, and profiles a new movement for conservation that is gaining ground.

Natural areas in the West are going fast. With each flight home, we get a bird’s eye view of sprawling new roads, oil wells, and pipelines. The Oregon woods we explored as kids are now stumps without songbirds. We see fewer stars through Santa Fe’s brightening lights.

Yet, from governors’ mansions to the halls of Congress, questions about land and wildlife conservation command relatively little attention today. The conventional wisdom seems to hold that the most consequential battles over America’s wild places are already settled. President Theodore Roosevelt, Sierra Club founder John Muir, and the environmental activists of the 1960s won protections for national parks, national forests, and wilderness areas. In the eyes of some politicians, the West’s open spaces are not only well protected, but too well protected. An anti-parks caucus in the U.S. Congress, for example, wants to block new national parks and sell off the West’s national forests to private owners.

Natural area loss, by state

State Total area modified by human development, in square miles Natural area lost, in square miles Percent change in area modified by human development
2001 2011 2001-2011 2001-2011
Wyoming 10,378 10,873 496 4.8%
Utah 8,248 8,624 376 4.6%
Oregon 12,431 12,843 412 3.3%
Washington 13,812 14,269 456 3.3%
Arizona 11,560 11,931 371 3.2%
Colorado 18,428 18,953 525 2.9%
California 29,856 30,641 785 2.6%
New Mexico 12,587 12,905 319 2.5%
Nevada 8,345 8,490 145 1.7%
Idaho 11,240 11,391 151 1.3%
Montana 23,485 23,770 285 1.2%
Source: Conservation Science Partners, “Description of the approach, data, and analytical methods used to estimate natural land loss in the western U.S.” (2016), unpublished technical report, available here
Source: Disappearing West

GR:  Go to the Source for more facts on the loss of natural areas to construction in the U.S.


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