As retirees and industries flock to the West, many fear the loss of the region's open spaces and wildlife habitat.
Officials from extractive industries such as farming, ranching and timber capitalize on this fear, warning that if environmentalists and others who are demanding an end to subsidies are successful, subdivisions will proliferate as farmers, ranchers and timber companies sell out.
It's an effective threat. Many conservation groups now wonder if an overgrazed meadow or a clearcut hillside is preferable to a row of houses or recreational cabins. Some have taken this to the extreme and now see the extractive industries as the last holdout against creeping urbanization.
All these organizations accept the premise that it is better to reform than eliminate environmentally destructive practices. The result, we are told, is a "win-win" situation. Ranchers, farmers and loggers get to keep their jobs, society gets their products and open space and wildlife habitat are maintained.
Unfortunately, they are wrong. The extractive industries have been in place so long we accept them as part of the landscape. But they are far more destructive, if for no other reason than the vast acreages they influence.
Livestock production (including irrigated hay production and pastures) degrades a significant proportion of the West's native biodiversity and ecosystems. According to the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, some 410 million acres of both public and private rangelands in the West are in unsatisfactory condition or ecologically degraded. This equals 21 percent of the United States outside Alaska.
By comparison, subdivisions affect a tiny percentage of the landscape. For example, urbanization, including all highways, affects 3 million acres, or about 2 percent of the total land area in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. In contrast, croplands affect 18.6 million acres, or 12 percent of the total land. This figure does not include the 6.8 million acres of irrigated cropland, the 4.6 million used for pasture, the 21 million acres of private rangelands nor the 30.4 million acres of public rangelands. All told, agriculture affects 62.8 million acres, or 40.3 percent of the land in the region.
Industry is also far more damaging to the environment than housing tracts. Croplands, for instance, are biological deserts. They are typically planted to one species, sprayed with fertilizers and pesticides and annually plowed up. Wheatfields that cover millions of acres in Montana, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and elsewhere destroy functioning ecosystems to a far greater extent than subdivisions. In fact, a housing tract built on a wheatfield creates more habitat diversity than the farm crop it replaced.
In Montana, the blame for the decline of endangered or threatened species can be laid squarely on the shoulders of industry, not urban development. These species include grizzly bear, Arctic grayling, Columbia sharptail grouse, wolf, bison, black-footed ferret, and swift fox, to name a few. If the only land use in Montana were for urban dwellings and summer cabins, most of the state would be as wild and full of wildlife as Alaska.
In the long run, the best way to prevent subdivisions is to prevent population growth. Beyond that, we need to work with conservation easements, outright fee purchase of lands, strong zoning and other permanent methods of keeping land development from inappropriate locations. New subsidies, like tax breaks or cash payments, will only delay the day of reckoning, ultimately driving up the eventual cost of acquisition or conservation easements.
Subdivisions are not necessarily more desirable than farming, ranching or logging. Poorly designed and located, they increase congestion, destroy some wildlife habitat and reduce the sense of open space. But let's not kid ourselves. For every acre of land paved over or covered up with a housing tract, there are 10,000 acres being plowed up, cut up or pounded to death under the hooves of livestock.
George Wuerthner is an environmentalist, photographer and writer.