Study Quantifies Land Loss in the West Over Time, and the Results are Alarming

mystic hill DSC00208Natural areas are vanishing in Colorado and across the American West.  YVLT has dedicated over 20 years to countering this concerning trend – before opportunities vanish along with the land.

Urgent Call for Land Conservation in the West

Natural areas are disappearing throughout the American West at an astonishing rate, according to a multi-year study released this spring by Conservation Science Partners. 

“At the broadest level, we found that between 2001 and 2011, approximately 4,300 square miles of natural areas in the West disappeared because of development – that loss amounts to an area bigger than Yellowstone National Park,” say the authors.

“The Disappearing West” study emphasized the need for proactive land conservation as a means of slowing the rate of ecosystem conversion and natural area loss.

 “The good news is that, although natural areas in the West are disappearing quickly, there are still opportunities to protect what is left. Private landowners and land trusts can help safeguard remaining natural areas through conservation easements and wise agricultural practices,” the researchers say.

The results of this study further validates YVLT’s 20+ years of dedicated service in preserving large, healthy, connected landscapes throughout Northwest Colorado – permanently protecting our irreplaceable open land and freshwater resources.  These opportunities may not always be here, the authors suggest.

What the Numbers Tell Us

For the first time in our nation’s history, researchers quantified the cost of urban expansion and ecosystem fragmentation in terms of total “natural area lost” in the Western United States.  The study also analyzed the driving forces behind the land loss to illuminate why this is happening in Western states.

The Disappearing West reveals that human development now covers more than 165,000 square miles of land in Western states – about the size of “six million superstore parking lots.”  The rate of ecosystem conversion is also concerning.  Every 2.5 minutes, a natural area (meaning forest, desert, wetland, etc.) the size of a football field vanishes.  Over the course of a year, that adds up to about 432 square miles – nearly the size of Los Angeles.  Approximately three-quarters of all land lost during this time was privately owned, demonstrating the critical need for market-based incentives for landowners to conserve land (i.e. conservation easement programs).

Researchers analyzed ten years’ worth of satellite imagery data to determine the scope of human development in the American West between 2001 and 2011.  They discovered that Colorado was second only to California in total natural area lost during this time.  137 square miles were lost in Colorado “due to human activity,” with urban sprawl “account[ing] for more than half of all open space that was lost” over the ten-year period.  Over time, the cumulative land loss may result in catastrophic consequences to our environment; straining our land and freshwater resources as well as the wildlife that depend on these ecosystems.

Colorado sat in the bottom-three of states analyzed in terms of land under permanent protection – only 10 percent of Colorado is permanently protected – far below California’s 24 percent, underscoring both the opportunity and the urgency in safeguarding these critically important resources.

This study proves that land conservation is as important now as ever, with the long-term security of our natural resources in jeopardy.  YVLT has  permanently protected over 55,000 acres in 74 conservation easements across Northwest Colorado, but there is still so much work to be done.  Donate today and we will invest your conservation dollars into our region’s working agricultural lands, open spaces, and natural areas, for today and for the future.