The loss of natural land isn’t just a problem for the Amazon or the rainforests of Southeast Asia. The United States is losing its forests, grasslands, wetlands, and deserts at a truly startling pace.
Between 2001 and 2017, some 97,124 square kilometers (24 million acres) of natural land – around the size of Indiana – were destroyed in the US to make way for roads, infrastructure, industry, farms, and other hallmarks of human civilization. That’s equivalent to a football field-sized piece of land being lost every 30 seconds.
Some of the most profound losses have been experienced in the South and Midwest, where human development took over 47 percent and 59 percent of all land area, respectively, in the 16 years studied.
These findings come from a new report published by The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank and public policy research organization, this week. Using available satellite data and open-source databases, they calculated the rate of loss of natural lands and its relationship to oil and gas extraction, road construction, urban sprawl, agriculture, and other human-related activities.
“If national trends continue, a South Dakota-sized expanse of forests, wetlands, and wild places in the continental United States will disappear by 2050,” the study authors write.
In the face of a growing climate crisis and further infrastructure development, the report looks to answer the question: How much nature should America keep?
Currently, only 12 percent of the country’s land area has been conserved as national parks, wilderness areas, national monuments, or other protected areas, while 26 percent of ocean territory is safeguarded from oil and gas extraction. According to this report, it's now time to extend this level of protection even further. Keeping in line with current scientific recommendations, they conclude that the US should aim to protect at least 30 percent of lands and oceans in a natural state by 2030.
However, it isn’t all apocalyptic doom and gloom. The authors conclude on a remarkably optimistic note (well, relatively optimistic for an environmental report, at least).
“The United States is entering an era in which it will rely more than ever on the integrity and stability of the natural world to provide economic prosperity, safeguard the health of communities, and weather the effects of a changing climate,” they write.
“America’s remarkable track record in solving environmental problems should provide reason to be confident that the United States can conserve enough lands, waters, and wildlife to support a healthy, just, and prosperous society for future generations."
Though they caution: "Yet the scale and scope of the challenge ahead is substantial. To protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030, the country will need to act in all domains, in all geographies, and in the interest of all communities."