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Suburban sprawl could destroy up to 34 million acres of forests, says new study

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 8, 2013

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  sprawl meets forest in East Birmingham (by: weary as water/lacinda, creative commons)

Scientists at the US Forest Service and partners at universities, non-profits and other agencies predict that urban and developed land areas in the US will increase 41 percent by 2060.  Forested areas will be most impacted by this expansion, with losses ranging from 16 to 34 million acres in the lower 48 states.  The agency highlighted the results of a new study in a press release issued last month.

The researchers also concluded that, over the long-term, climate change could have significant effects on water availability, making the US potentially more vulnerable to water shortages, especially in the Southwest and Great Plains.  Population growth in more arid regions will require more drinking water.  Recent trends in agricultural irrigation and land­scaping techniques also will boost water demands.

The assessment’s projections respond to a set of scenarios with varying assumptions about domestic population and economic growth, global population and economic growth, global wood energy consumption and US land use change from 2010 to 2060.  

  Frederick County, MD (by and courtesy of Kai Hagen)

The study is part of an assessment mandated under the federal Resources Planning Act.  It summarizes findings about the status, trends, and projected future of forests, rangelands, wildlife and fish, biodiversity, water, outdoor recreation, wilderness, and urban forests, as well as the effects of climate change upon these resources.  Key themes from the findings include these:

  1. Land development will continue to threaten the integrity of natural ecosystems;
  2. Climate change will alter natural ecosystems and affect their ability to provide goods and services;
  3. Competition for goods and services from natural ecosystems will increase;
  4. Geographic variation will require regional and local strategies to address resource management issues.

In 2010, a study by the American Farmland Trust found that 41 million acres of rural land had been permanently lost in the preceding 25 years to highways, shopping malls, and other development.  The rate of recent farmland loss at the time of AFT’s report was an astounding acre per minute.

  sprawl in New Jersey (by: Rebecca Wilson, creative commons)

As troubling as the trends and forecasts are for forests and farms lost to development, it does not have to be this way.  We need to stop the madness.  Market preferences are now trending in favor of closer-in, more walkable living.  Let’s build future development that responds, conserving the landscape in the process.

In particular, we need to get more serious about revitalizing the disinvested areas of our cities so that they can absorb growth that would otherwise take the form of sprawl.  We need to use land more efficiently in our suburbs.  As Lee Epstein and I have written, smart growth advocates need to return to our conservation roots and work more diligently to conserve land outside of current development footprints.  And, for their part, high-minded urbanist planners must eschew leapfrog development; giving sprawl a more orderly design or calling it a “new town” does not make it environmentally benign.  Sprawl is sprawl.

Thanks to my colleague Larry Levine for pointing me to this study.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in other national media.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.  Please also visit NRDC’s Sustainable Communities Video Channels.

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Steve MouzonJan 10 2013 07:52 AM

That could happen, if we keep doing what we've been doing. But given the move you noted back to close-in locations, we could also do much better... IF there are those who continue to tell the story (as you do) of why the quality of life is so much better.

I'm actually of the opinion that a vibrant downtown surrounded by crumbling outer-ring suburbs is actually likely to become more vibrant, and foster inner-ring recovery and redevelopment as well.

Ammar NajiJan 12 2013 03:13 AM

implement something similar to the impact fee and based on distance form the city center and added to the property tax , , The farther the more charged...

Jon ReedsJan 14 2013 08:42 AM

Well, at least the smart growth philosophy seems to have taken root with many of the politicians on your side of the Atlantic.
Over this side, the planning minister Nick Boles recently announced an aspiration to expand the urban area of England by one-third. That's about 1,500 square miles.
And he was adamant this should be low-density garden suburb development; none of those efficient densities for him. It would be acceptable, he says, so long as developers produced "beautiful" developments.
“Contrary to media myth, we’ve got plenty of undistinguished, undeveloped land to spare," he says.
And that's in a country (the UK) with a rising population which already needs to import a significant amount of its food.

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