« Return to this article

Know the West

Mapping the large-scale loss of natural areas in the West

Urban sprawl, energy development, agriculture and forestry have an ever-larger footprint on the West.


Zoom in on northwestern Colorado, near the town of Rifle, on a new website called disappearingwest.org and you’ll see a dramatic change on the landscape between 2001 to 2011. What looked like largely untouched terrain became dotted with hundreds of well pads with new dirt roads connecting them like arteries.

Energy development was the biggest force transforming landscapes in Colorado and Wyoming in recent years, according to an interactive mapping project called the Disappearing West released earlier this week by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C.  Some 362 square miles of Colorado and 491 square miles of Wyoming were altered by energy development between 2001 and 2011, increasing the total land area covered by energy development in those states by 33 percent and 38 percent.

The area around Rifle, Colorado, shows the traces of a decade of energy development.

These findings were part of an unprecedented effort conducted by researchers at the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners and funded by CAP to quantify the rapid decline of natural landscapes across the West and identify the type of development that impacted the land. It's the most recent of a string of reports from progressive groups defending the value of public land as some conservative politicians and sagebrush rebels argue for increased local control – or outright transfer – of federal lands.

The maps show roads, energy development, urban sprawl, and agriculture and forestry leaving ever-smaller splotches of open land. “Fragmentation of the West is a threat to everything from wildlife and clean water to the remoteness that characterizes the West,” says Matt Lee-Ashley, director of public lands for the Center for American Progress.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell promoted the new research, even before the website went live. In a speech last month, Jewell cited Conservation Science Partners’ finding that Western natural areas are disappearing at the rate of a football field every two and a half minutes. She warned: “If we stay on this trajectory, 100 years from now, national parks and wildlife refuges will be like postage stamps of nature on a map; isolated islands of conservation with run-down facilities that crowds of Americans visit like zoos to catch a glimpse of our nation’s remaining wildlife and undeveloped patches of land.”

Jewell called for a “course correction in how we approach conservation,” and stressed that the West needs to start planning its future through landscape-level approaches that pay attention to what’s happening across public and private lands.

The new analysis found that development is happening at a faster clip on private and state lands than on federal parcels. More than 3,100 square miles of private land were developed, representing a 3 percent increase between 2001 and 2011. Over the same time period, The amount of state and federal land developed increased 2.8 percent and 1.9 percent.

A big factor, says Michael Dombeck, a former Forest Service chief under President Bill Clinton who sits on the board of Conservation Science Partners, is that most federal lands are managed for mixed uses, while state lands prioritize bringing in revenue and private lands are used largely as owners see fit.

The new mapping tool helps visualize the impact this can have on the landscape. If you zoom in on the forests east of Eureka, Oregon, you see before and after images of how timber harvests on private land were so intense that the border of the Willamette National Forest, where the landscape remains a swath of deep emerald green, is apparent.

What isn’t visible is the impact on waterways. “The real take-home is that on the one side of the line, you have fairly intact watersheds with minimal disturbance and those are the watersheds that give you clean water,” says Dombeck.

Dombeck believes the new data will be invaluable for federal land managers as they plan the future of national parks, forests, refuges and BLM land. It also could be used by ordinary people looking for data to inform efforts to influence local or state land use changes. Paul Beier, a conservation biology professor at Northern Arizona University, said, “It’s very apparent to me living for 40 years in the West how fast things are changing.” But what the data offers is “ammunition to get the attention of a county planner who has the authority to make” development decisions.

The mapping project has not yet undergone a formal peer review and some scientists said the website is probably too coarse to be used in research. “It’s not detailed enough and the legends aren’t clear enough,” said Barbara Buttenfield, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. But she stressed that it could be very helpful to high school students or anyone else trying to understand if what they see out their car windows reflects broader changes underway in the West.

Even for longtime researchers, the Conservation Science Partners' work reinforces the drastic changes the West is undergoing. Just last weekend Wally Macfarlane, a geographer and senior research associate at Utah State University, was driving through what seemed like endless urban sprawl in Utah County, where in the 1980's had been rural and largely undeveloped land. It drove home the report's findings: “The rate of landscape change is alarming and I'm worried about what the next ten years will bring, said Macfarlane, who does similar mapping work. What we do with this information will determine what type of landscape we leave our children. 

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC correspondent.