A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) reveals that more than 24 million acres of nature have been lost from the contiguous United States between 2001 and 2017 due to human development; the equivalent of one football field every 30 seconds.
The fastest rate of destruction occurred in the South and Midwest, where the human footprint of housing, agriculture, roads, power plants and other infrastructure increased from 47 to 59 percent of the total land area.
The report states that if these trends continue, an additional area of forests, wetlands, and other natural habitats the size of South Dakota (roughly the same size as the United Kingdom) will disappear by 2050.
Thanks to its vast size and strict rules regarding protected areas, the United States currently ranks as one of the top five countries in the world for total amount of remaining wilderness-quality land. However, only 12 percent of US land is currently under protection in the form of national parks, wilderness areas, state parks, wildlife refuges, and other conservation areas.
According to the report, 60 percent of lands in the continental United States are still in a “largely natural condition” or “could plausibly be restored” to a natural condition. Based on E.O. Wilson’s theory that saving the majority of species will require setting aside half of the Earth’s surface for nature, CAP is urging policymakers to set a target of protecting at least 30 percent of US land and marine areas by 2030 – a goal which the vast majority of US voters support regardless of political orientation, according to a recent CAP-commissioned survey.
“The losses documented pose a direct threat to the nation’s clean air and clean drinking water supplies, the prosperity of its communities, and its ability to protect itself from severe weather, floods, wildfires, and other effects of a changing climate. Moreover, climate change is itself accelerating the decline of nature in America. As human development constricts America’s remaining natural areas, rising concentrations of greenhouse gases are deforming ecosystems, poisoning the oceans, and rendering the American landscape unlivable for many plant and animal species.”
– How Much Nature Should America Keep?, CAP
As stated in the CAP report, these grim national trends are reflected globally – the recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found that three-quarters of the planet’s land area has been damaged by human activity and approximately one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction.
“Unless the country takes ambitious action to better safeguard and restore natural systems, the forests that filter drinking water, the insects that pollinate crops, and the estuaries that supply seafood will continue to deteriorate and disappear.”
Unfortunately, the report never mentions increasing human numbers as the underlying driver of nature decline. Since 2001, the US population has increased by 44 million to over 329 million today. Like everywhere else, with every additional person requiring a home, food, energy and their share of public infrastructure, the erosion of America’s natural heritage can only be stopped for good by ending population growth and slashing unsustainable consumption.