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California Leads Western States in Habitat Loss

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Logging is a major factor in converting western landscapes from useful habitat to something else. | Photo: pfly, some rights reserved

The Western United States lost a staggering amount of formerly natural land to human development between 2001 and 2011, enough to average the loss of a football field's worth of habitat every two and a half minutes. That's according to a soon-to-be-released study by the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners announced in an article posted on the blogging site Medium by the Center, which says it will be releasing a giant pile of data from the study in the weeks to come.

According to the study, the Western US — the 11 westernmost contiguous states excluding Alaska and Hawaii — lost more than 4,300 square miles of what it calls "natural lands" in that decade-long period to human development such as logging, mining, road-building and urban development. That's an area bigger than Yellowstone National Park, as the Center points out.

And of all the eleven states studied, California lost the largest amount of natural land to development between 2001 and 2011. Californians sacrificed 784 square miles of natural landscape to human industry in that decade, an area just a hair smaller than Los Angeles and San Diego combined, almost a fifth of the total land lost across the West. 

That's a huge amount of land lost just in California. Comprehending the 3,535 square miles lost in the other ten states —  Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming — fairly boggles the mind. To equal the acreage of converted natural land in the rest of the west we'd have to take our comparison to Los Angeles and San Diego, above, and then add San Jose, Bakersfield, Fresno, Sacramento, Palm Springs, Lancaster, Riverside, Fremont, Apple Valley, and Victorville in California, then Phoenix and Tucson, Albuquerque and Las Cruces, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Colorado Springs, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, and Butte, Montana.

Too hard to picture? How about this: It's an area larger than Los Angeles County. It's enough land to stretch from LA to Denver in a swath more than five miles wide. 

It's a lot of land, and we developed it in one way or another within just 10 years.

Just what kinds of development are included in the study won't be clear until the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners release more data, which they say they will be doing shortly:

Conservation Science Partners and the Center for American Progress will release the full results of the Disappearing West project in the coming weeks, including interactive maps and data about natural area loss at the state and county level.

But there are a couple of hints in the Medium piece. One is a straightforward statement of examples of the development they've tracked, which they count at "a dozen types of human activity":

Over the course of the decade, new human infrastructure in the West — including roads, mines, commercial and residential buildings, and logging operations — consumed an area bigger than Yellowstone National Park.

Another hint can be inferred from a teaser graphic included in the Medium piece, a map of the degree to which land in central California and a slice of western Nevada has been altered from its natural state:

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Courtesy Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners

The largest blond areas in the map — the areas modified the least, according to the study — are found in the Coast Ranges, the Sierra Nevada, and the Great Basin Desert to the east of the Sierra. Much of the landscape in all those places has been grazed, sometimes intensively, for more than a century, with significant resulting changes in the landscape — erosion, loss of habitat for species like the sage grouse, and influx of invasive species.

Given the way the study examined the vast landscape of the West — through comparing datasets and aerial and satellite photography — it's perhaps not surprising that grazing might not have made the list of those "dozen types of human activity." It'll be interesting to see how that most widespread of all resource extraction industries gets mentioned in the study.

The study itself got some incredibly prominent mention scant hours after the Medium story was published Tuesday morning. At 11:00 Pacific Time, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell cited the study twice in the course of a speech at the National Geographic Society in which she called for a "conservation course correction," primarily aimed at making sure the National Parks have continuing public support in the century ahead.

After talking about ways to make the parks more attractive to a younger, more diverse range of potential visitors and supporters, Jewell said:

The second course correction we need to make is to think big. It’s simply not enough to protect a few isolated places. The same analysis I cited earlier by Conservation Science Partners found that, if you were to randomly drop a pin in a natural area in the West, on average it’d be only 3.5 miles from some form of human development. Think about that. That’s a great statistic if you’re a lost hiker looking to be rescued. But it has highly alarming implications for the mule deer or the grizzly bear who need connected corridors of land to survive.

And for desert bighorn sheep, for that matter, like those whose migration paths will be truncated by the Soda Mountain Solar facility recently green-lighted by the Interior Department on a tract of mostly unaltered natural habitat right next to the Mojave National Preserve.

In the Medium article, the Center for American Progress pointed out that the study's maps, when made available, may well serve as a useful tool to identify intact migration corridors like those the deer, bear, and sheep require. 

For example, these data and maps can provide the foundation for identifying and conserving a functioning network of large, intact, and connected natural lands, or for aligning local conservation actions with regional patterns of wildlife habitat that stretch across jurisdictional boundaries.

Sounds good on the face of it, though Californian habitat protection activists might be forgiven for wincing hard when imagining the other side of the equation. In the world of Western land management, formally identifying critical wildlife habitat and linkages often goes hand in hand with designating less-"critical" areas as ripe for more of the kind of development  that stripped the West of those 4,319 square miles of intact habitat in just 10 years.

Take for example the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which Jewell promised to finish in Tuesday's speech:

That’s why, this year, I look forward to getting a number of things across the finish line to cement the forward-thinking path we have embarked upon. That includes completing the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan [DRECP], where the Bureau of Land Management is working with state and local partners to map out our part of 22 million acres in the California desert where we want to encourage wind and solar projects, and where we want to manage for conservation.

Landscape-level development and conservation plans are only effective if you follow them, of course, which wasn't the case for Interior's recent approval of Soda Mountain, planned for a location the DRECP doesn't deem suitable for solar development. But ignore that detail for now. As written, the DRECP would allow as much as 276 square miles of public lands in the California desert to be developed for solar, wind, and geothermal energy, as well as the infrastructure necessary to run the plants and get their power to consumers. That's not 276 square miles of development areas, some of which will still be available as potential habitat in the spaces between projects: that's 276 square miles of project footprint, of pavement and mirrors and bladed gravel where once there was habitat.

That's more than a third of the astonishing amount of habitat California lost to all kinds of development in the first decade of the 21st Century, expected to be sacrificed for one industry.

The study's data will almost certainly be fascinating, and it's likely we'll use it here for one bit of reporting or another in the months to come. And the Interior Department, at least, is already spinning the data before it's even been publicly released. In a season where sobersided ecologist Edmund Wilson has called for preserving half the Earth as habitat in order to mitigate the ongoing mass extinction we've caused, it seems a shame to promote the Center For American Progess and Conservation Science Partners study — before the public even sees it — as a useful guide to places where we might destroy even more habitat.

Banner photo by John K, some rights reserved.

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