For too long, the environmental left has pushed a narrative that undeveloped land and wildlife are disappearing. This narrative has justified programs that expand government land ownership and the regulation of natural resources. The current Administration’s “30 by 30” proposal—that 30 percent of the nation’s land be conserved by 2030 to protect biodiversity—is a good example.
However, the reality regarding U.S. lands, habitat, and wildlife is encouraging, with many positive trends. Using actual data, this Special Report will show:
Forests, grasslands, range, and other lands in a generally natural state are not disappearing to development at an alarming rate, and urban sprawl is not a threat at the national level.
Government, predominantly federal, already owns over a third of the nation, and the federal government has regulatory powers that apply to likely hundreds of millions of acres of private lands. Additionally, private lands provide hundreds of millions of acres of habitat without necessarily being removed from tax rolls and often contribute to the economy. There is no reason to expect these private lands to be developed on a massive scale.
Many species have increased in population and range within the last century, indicating the availability of habitat and, for carnivores, the availability of prey necessary to support them.
This report serves as a detailed but concise primer for understanding land-use trends, land ownership, and management regimes, and it provides some information on wildlife populations as an indicator of habitat availability. The data provided here stand in stark contrast to what one typically hears in discussions of many environmental policies including the current Administration’s 30 by 30 proposal, which will also be addressed. While the Administration’s proposal is promoted as directed to threats to biodiversity and climate, the latter is not within the scope of this report.
II. 30 by 30
The Administration’s 30 by 30 proposal is a perfect example of the need for policymakers to have additional context and baseline data to be used as a measure of conservation and land-use policies.
A campaign to get nations to commit to protecting 30 percent of their land by 2030 gained momentum just prior to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. A National Geographic press release notes that “key world leaders announced their support for the science-based target to protect 30% of the planet by 2030…days before a United Nations Biodiversity Summit—where Heads of State will lay down their proposals to curb biodiversity loss before next year’s 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Kunming, China.”
News release, “Top Leaders Endorse the Goal to Protect 30% of the Planet by 2030,” National Geographic, September 28, 2020, https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2020/09/28/top-leaders-endorse-the-goal-to-protect-30-of-the-planet-by-2030/ (accessed June, 9, 2021).
The “United Nations Summit on Biodiversity: Urgent Action on Biodiversity for Sustainable Development” was convened in September 2020.
United Nations, “United Nations Summit on Biodiversity,” https://www.un.org/pga/75/united-nations-summit-on-biodiversity/ (accessed April 9, 2021).
The summit website states:
The main direct causes and impacts of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation are well known…. The underlying causes include consumption and production patterns, human population dynamics, trade, and the use of technology, which are all affected by societal values, inequality, and behaviors. Although sustainable production practices exist, our food systems are currently the single biggest underlying source of decline in nature, responsible for three-quarters of deforestation.
United Nations, “United Nations Summit on Biodiversity,” Leaders’ Dialogue 1, Key Issues, https://www.un.org/pga/75/united-nations-summit-on-biodiversity/ (accessed April 9, 2021). The summit website also states, “Sustainable consumption and production will require decoupling the concept of a good life from perpetual economic growth.”
Within a week of the Biden Administration assuming power, ambitious action came in the form of Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, which states:
We must listen to science—and act…. It is the policy of my Administration to organize and deploy the full capacity of its agencies to combat the climate crisis to implement a Government-wide approach that…conserves our lands, waters, and biodiversity.
Executive Order 14008, “Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad,” January 27, 2021.
Under the section titled Conserving Our Nation’s Land and Waters, the executive order calls for the Secretary of the Interior to prepare a report “recommending steps the United States should take, working with State, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen, and other key stakeholders, to achieve the goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.”
An accompanying Department of the Interior press release states, “Approximately 60% of land in the continental U.S. is in a natural state, but we are losing a football field worth of it every 30 seconds.… The U.S. Geological Survey reports that only 12% of lands are permanently protected.”
News release, “Fact Sheet: President Biden to Take Action to Uphold Commitment to Restore Balance on Public Lands and Waters, Invest in Clean Energy Future,” U.S. Department of the Interior, January 27, 2021, https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/fact-sheet-president-biden-take-action-uphold-commitment-restore-balance-public-lands (accessed November 2, 2021).
These statements are intended to buttress the Administration’s dramatic policy adoption, but without additional context they do little more than provoke an emotive response. Are only 12 percent of the nation’s natural lands protected, and is a football field of land in a natural state lost every 30 seconds?
III. Land Use in the United States
Land-use trends do not support claims that natural lands in the United States are disappearing at an alarming rate or portend of an ecological disaster. These trends are discernable through satellite imagery.
Landsat, a joint effort of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), is a series of satellites that has acquired images of the earth’s land surface, producing the world’s longest continuously acquired collection of space-based moderate-resolution land remote-sensing data.
News release, “Landsat Archive Hits 8-Million,” U.S. Geological Survey, August 2, 2018, https://www.usgs.gov/core-science-systems/nli/landsat/august-2-2018-usgs-landsat-archive-hits-8-million?qt-science_support_page_related_con=2#qt-science_support_page_related_con (accessed April 12, 2021), and NASA, “Landsat Overview,” https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/landsat/overview/index.html (accessed April 12, 2021). Landsat 7 and Landsat 8 are currently in a near-polar orbit, with the offset satellites repeating orbital patterns every 16 days, enabling each spot on earth to be measured by one of the satellites every eight days.
The National Land Cover Database (NLCD) has been created and continually expanded using these Landsat images and supplementary data.
Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium, https://www.mrlc.gov (accessed April 12, 2021).
Conterminous United States (48 States)
Using data from the NLCD, USGS, and other researchers recently published an assessment of the land cover change patterns from 2001 to 2016 for the 48 conterminous U.S states.
Collin Homer et al., “Conterminous United States Land Cover Change Patterns 2001–2016 from the 2016 National Land Cover Database,” ISPRS Journal of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, Vol. 162 (April 2020), pp. 184–199, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924271620300587?via%3Dihub (accessed April 12, 2021).
The analysis divides the area of the conterminous United States among land cover classes that are depicted for 2016 in Table 1.
The agricultural land classes (cropland and pasture and hay) combined account for 22.5 percent, and all the development land classes combined account for only 5.3 percent. The combined area of the remaining classes—over 70 percent—is, with some exception, composed of a variety of generally natural landscapes. On some of these lands, human-related activity—such as cattle grazing, timber harvest, or, on a small fraction, surface mining—is taking place, but generally these areas are more reflective of natural processes than intensive management.
Land change is constantly occurring as a result of both natural and human activities. The rate of change can be immediately apparent or so slow that it is more difficult to observe. For example, natural grassland may transition to shrub/scrub that is eventually succeeded by climax forest. At the other end of the cycle, forest cover may change back to grassland following fires, loss to insects or disease, or timber harvest. Agricultural use may change pasture to cultivated crop or to shrub/scrub if farming is abandoned, fields are idled, or land is entered into easements, or it may be developed. A unit of land may change from one land cover class to another over time.
However, as can be seen in the accompanying graphic and table, between 2001 and 2016, the land area within each land cover class remained rather stable. Forest cover decreased the most in absolute terms, and developed land increased the most on a percentile basis. Each of the classes showed some change between 2001 and 2016, with the sole exception of a small area of permanent ice and snow that remained a constant 198.5 square miles over the decade and a half.
The authors reported no land cover change for the vast majority of remaining land—about 92 percent—from 2001 to 2016.
(See Chart 1.)
Of the 7.6 percent where change was observed, nearly half involved forest change driven by harvest, fire, disease, and pests resulting in an overall forest decline.
“The bulk of this change,” covering an area somewhat smaller than West Virginia, “is because of forest harvest and regrowth…with much of the rest coming from stand-replacing forest fires primarily in the West.”
Alaska and Hawaii
Separate land cover data for Hawaii and Alaska show that only a small percentage of land is developed and intensively managed for agriculture in the two states. In Hawaii, developed land classes and agricultural land cover account for 6.7 percent and 4.8 percent, respectively.
Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium, “National Land Cover Database 2001 (NLCD2001) Statistics,” https://www.mrlc.gov/data/statistics/national-land-cover-database-2001-nlcd2001-statistics (accessed April 13, 2021). Figures do not total 100 percent due to rounding.
The remaining 88.4 percent is accounted for by shrubland, forest, grassland, open water, and other generally natural land covers.
Only 0.08 percent of Alaska is developed, with just another 0.02 percent in agricultural land cover.
Ibid. Other land covers in Alaska include 38.37 percent dwarf shrub and shrub/scrub; 22.42 percent forest; 14.18 percent open water; 7.65 percent bare rock, sand, or clay; 6.53 percent grassland, herbaceous, or sedge; 6.46 percent wetlands; 4.26 percent perennial ice and snow; and 0.03 percent moss.
This leaves almost 99.9 percent of Alaska, which accounts for about 16 percent of total U.S. land, in generally natural landscapes.
Ibid., and U.S. Census Bureau, United States Summary: 2010, Population and Housing Unit Counts, 2010 Census of Population and Housing, September 2012, Tables 1 and 18, pp. 1 and 41, https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/cph-2-1.pdf (accessed April 7, 2021).
To give some sense of just how immense and “untouched” Alaska is, the land area of Connecticut, which is over 60 percent forested, would fit into Alaska over 117 times, even though it has 45 percent more roadway (total lane miles) and almost five times the population of Alaska.
U.S. Census Bureau, United States Summary: 2010, Population and Housing Unit Counts, 2010 Census of Population and Housing, Tables 1 and 18, pp. 1 and 41; Federal Highway Administration, “Highway Statistics—2017,” Table HM-60, August 23, 2018, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2017/hm60.cfm (accessed April 13, 2021); U.S. Census Bureau, “Annual Estimates of the Resident Population for the United States, Regions, States, and the District of Columbia: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2020,” https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/popest/technical-documentation/research/evaluation-estimates.html (accessed April 12, 2021); and U.S. Forest Service, “The Forests of Connecticut,” April 2004, https://www.fs.fed.us/ne/newtown_square/publications/resource_bulletins/pdfs/2004/ne_rb160.pdf (accessed April 21, 2021). In this instance, and generally elsewhere when the area of a state is used for comparative purposes, total land area is used.
Developed Areas and “Urban Sprawl”
Development, referred to in some cases as “urban sprawl,” is not a national threat. In 2016 only 5.3 percent of the conterminous United States fell within one of the four developed land classes, leaving almost 95 percent of the lower 48 states for agricultural covers, forests, and other generally natural settings.
Homer et al., “Conterminous United States Land Cover Change Patterns 2001–2016,” Table 2, p. 188.
The developed land classes are differentiated from one another by the percentage of impervious surface, which includes “constructed surfaces such as buildings, roads, parking lots, brick, asphalt, and concrete.”
ESRI, “Impervious Surface Analysis,” https://www.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=6dcd43f424f94e9b81f52ac829cd000d (accessed April 13, 2021).
The greater the man-made impervious surface area inhibiting plant growth, the more intense the development is considered. The four developed land categories are:
“Developed open space” (< 20 percent),
“Developed low intensity” (20–49 percent),
“Developed medium intensity” (50–79 percent), and
“Developed high intensity” (80–100 percent).
Homer et al., “Conterminous United States Land Cover Change Patterns 2001–2016,” p. 187.
As depicted in Chart 2, over half (54 percent) of all developed land in the conterminous United States is developed open space, which the USGS states most commonly includes “large-lot single-family housing units, parks, golf courses, and vegetation planted in developed settings for recreation, erosion control, or aesthetic purposes.”
Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium, “National Land Cover Database 2019 (NLCD2019) Legend,” https://www.mrlc.gov/data/legends/national-land-cover-database-2016-nlcd2016-legend (accessed November 2, 2021).
In the decade-and-a-half between 2001 and 2016, all developed land classes combined increased as a percentage of the conterminous 48 states by just 0.3 percent.
Homer et al., “Conterminous United States Land Cover Change Patterns 2001–2016,” Table 2, p. 188. Some of Table 2’s “% of CONUS 2016” and “Net Change, 2001–2016” figures appear to be miscalculated and were recalculated for this analysis.
At this rate, it would take another four decades for developed areas to encompass about another 1 percent of the conterminous United States. While some of these acres may be “lost” from the Biden Administration’s perspective, for others these lands now have neighborhoods, schools, grocery stores, churches, or places of work. Further, for the 2001–2016 period, the “overall trend is a declining rate of urbanization, suggesting that such factors as the 2008 global recession may have dampened urban growth.”
High-intensity developed land, where 80 percent or more of the land area is impervious, took up an additional 0.05 percent of the conterminous United States in the 2001–2016 period and accounts for just one-quarter of 1 percent of the lower 48.
When the United Nations states that “our food systems [are] currently the single biggest underlying source of decline in nature, responsible for three-quarters of deforestation,”
United Nations, “United Nations Summit on Biodiversity,” Leaders’ Dialogue 1, Key Issues.
It is either not speaking about the United States or is misinformed.
According to the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS’s) report on sustainable forests, total U.S. forest area “currently amounts to 751 million acres, or about one-third of the Nation’s total land area. Since the beginning of the past century, the size of this inventory has been relatively stable, and the forests it represents remain largely intact. This stability is in spite of a nearly three-fold increase in population over the same period and is in marked contrast with many countries where wide scale deforestation remains a pressing concern.
USFS, “National Report on Sustainable Forests—2010,” June 2011, p. I-12, https://www.fs.fed.us/research/sustain/docs/national-reports/2010/2010-sustainability-report.pdf (accessed April 13, 2021).
For the conterminous United States, 2016 NLCD data indicate that deciduous, conifer, and mixed forests account for just under a quarter of the land.
Homer et al., “Conterminous United States Land Cover Change Patterns 2001–2016,” Table 2, p. 188.
It is estimated that about a third of some 1 billion acres of forest cover was converted to agricultural land beginning with European settlement until about 1900, with most of this occurring before the Civil War and ending a century ago.
Douglas W. MacCleery, American Forests: A History of Resilience and Recovery (Durham, NC: Forest History Society, 2011), pp. 1–2 and 14.
By the mid-1800s, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont had been reduced to about 35 percent forest cover and New Hampshire to about 50 percent.
However, vast areas that had been denuded of forest cover, often marginally productive agricultural land that was abandoned, have been reclaimed by forest. As reported in The Atlantic 25 years ago, “less than two centuries later, despite great increases in the state’s population, 90 percent of New Hampshire is covered by forest. Vermont was 35 percent woods in 1850 and is 80 percent today, and even Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island have seen woodlands rebound to the point where they cover nearly three-fifths of southern New England.”
Bill McKibben, “An Explosion of Green,” The Atlantic, April 1995, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1995/04/an-explosion-of-green/305864/ (accessed November 9, 2021).
When Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) categories of forest land and “Special Use Lands”—the majority of which is park and wildlife land—are combined, the data show Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire with about 90 percent, 86 percent, and 84 percent forest cover in 2012, respectively.
Economic Research Service, “Total Forest-Use Land, by Region and States, United States, 1945–2012,” August 28, 2017, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/major-land-uses/major-land-uses/ (accessed November 9, 2021), and Economic Research Service, “Rural Parks and Wildlife Areas, 1945–2012, by State: Federal and State Parks, Wilderness Areas, and Wildlife Refuges,” August 28, 2017, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/major-land-uses/major-land-uses/ (accessed April 21, 2021). Park and wildlife lands are the majority of the special-use category for Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
This spectacular regeneration is a testament to the fact that, in general, renewable natural resources are resilient and dynamic.
NRCS data for the near four decades from 1982 to 2017 also show that nonfederal forests grew from about 412 million acres to 417 million acres.
Natural Resources Conservation Service, Non-Federal Rural Land, by Land Use Cover/Use, database, 2017 Natural Resources Inventory, U.S. Department of Agriculture, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/NRCS_RCA/reports/nri_nat.html (accessed, April 14, 2021). NRCS notes, “Current estimates cover the contiguous 48 States, Hawaii, and the Caribbean Area.”
These forests include not only state and other government forests but also private forests that, according to the USFS, account for 56 percent of U.S. forests and, in 2007, provided 92 percent of the timber harvest.
USFS, “National Report on Sustainable Forests—2010,” June 2011, pp. II-11–18, https://www.fs.fed.us/research/sustain/national-report.php (accessed November 9, 2021), and MacCleery, American Forests, p. 47.
In addition to a significant amount of forest land being regenerated and the amount of forest cover stabilizing, for the near-half-century period from 1953 to 2002, the proportion of forests where an average stand of trees is 10 inches in diameter or greater in the three USFS conterminous regions (North, South and West) increased.
Forest Information and Analysis, “Trend Data,” Forest area by average stand diameter, https://www.fia.fs.fed.us/slides/major-trends.pdf (accessed April 14, 2021).
While the proportion of forest in different diameter size classes can vary with harvest, more recent data show that in the southern states—where 80 percent to over 90 percent of forests are privately owned, with the exception of Florida (63 percent), and where most timber comes from—growth has exceeded removals by 34 percent to 70 percent.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Inventory and Analysis One-Click Fact Sheets for AL, AR, GA, FL, KY, MS, NC, OK, SC, TX, and VA, dated from 2017 to 2021, https://public.tableau.com/views/FIA_OneClick_V1_2/StateSelection?%3AshowVizHome=no (accessed December 12, 2021). Growth measured in millions of cubic feet.
The U.N.’s warning about large-scale forest land conversions to agricultural land does not apply to the United States, either. NLCD data for the 2001–2016 period shows that the number of acres dedicated to agricultural uses (cropland, and hay and pasture combined) was basically flat, with 449 million acres in 2001 and 450 million acres in 2016.
Homer et al., “Conterminous United States Land Cover Change Patterns 2001–2016.”
Different analysis by the NRCS for the longer period from 1982 to 2017 shows that cropland and pasture combined declined from about 552 million acres to 489 million acres.
Natural Resources Conservation Service, “2017 Natural Resources Inventory,” https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/NRCS_RCA/reports/nri_nat.html (accessed April 14, 2021).
It should be noted that these figures do not reflect livestock grazing that occurs on NRCS rangelands or NLCD land cover classes such as “grassland/herbaceous,” but these land cover classes are generally “not subject to intensive management” because of grazing.
Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium, “National Land Cover Database (NLCD) 2016,” https://www.mrlc.gov/national-land-cover-database-nlcd-2016 (accessed June 16, 2021).
Greater agricultural productivity has meant less deforestation. While conversion of forest cover to agricultural use occurred on a large scale from colonial times into the first part of the 20th century, American farmers have been able to feed a population that more than tripled to over 330 million and export $150 billion worth of agricultural products in 2020 without converting more forest land.
U.S. Census Bureau, “U.S. and World Population Clock,” https://www.census.gov/popclock/ (accessed April 14, 2021), and Economic Research Service, “Latest US Agricultural Trade Data,” April 8, 2021, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/foreign-agricultural-trade-of-the-united-states-fatus/us-agricultural-trade-data-update (accessed April 14, 2021).
In fact, over the past 75 years, while using less land, farmers almost tripled farm output, and by 2019, Americans spent a historically low percentage of their disposable income on total food.
Daren Bakst and Gabriella Beaumont Smith, “No, We Don’t Need to Transform the American Food System,” The Daily Signal, February 26, 2021, https://www.dailysignal.com/2021/02/26/no-we-dont-need-to-transform-the-american-food-system.
NASA has pictures to prove just how productive American agriculture is. NASA scientists used satellites to measure the amount of light plants emitted during photosynthesis when plants take in and convert carbon dioxide into food and release oxygen as a byproduct. The light, bioluminescence, which is invisible to the naked eye, can be used to estimate plant productivity. NASA scientists found that the during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the Midwest region of the United States boasts more photosynthetic activity than any other spot on earth.
News release, “Satellite Shows High Productivity from U.S. Corn Belt,” NASA, March 31, 2014, https://www.nasa.gov/press/goddard/2014/march/satellite-shows-high-productivity-from-us-corn-belt/ (accessed April 1, 2021).
In fact, data showed that fluorescence from the Corn Belt, which extends from Ohio to Nebraska and Kansas, peaks in July at levels 40 percent greater than those observed in the Amazon, which is often referred to as “the lungs of the Earth.
The remarkable productivity of modern agriculture evidences that the learning curve is green. As arts and science and technology advance, farmers learn how to get more from less.
While the area of wetlands fluctuated with variables such as precipitation, NLCD data show little change to wetlands extent from 2001 to 2016, with 116.4 million acres and 116.5 million acres, respectively.
Homer et al., “Conterminous United States Land Cover Change Patterns 2001–2016,” Table 2, p. 188.
NRCS data, though measured differently, report 111.4 million acres for 1992 and 111.2 million acres in 2017.
National Resources Conservation Service, “2017 Natural Resources Inventory,” National Wetlands, Wetlands and Deepwater Habitats on Water Areas and Non-Federal Land, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/NRCS_RCA/reports/nri_wet_nat.html (accessed March 14, 2021).
IV. Government Land Ownership, Federal Regulations, and Designations
Consideration of land-use and conservation policies, in general—and 30 by 30, in particular—requires establishing some basic facts about the extensive land ownership by government in the United States. Additionally, it is important to have an idea of the more important federal management regimes affecting those lands as well as some of the natural resource regulations and conservation designations that can apply to government land or private property.
Government, predominantly federal, owns over a third of the nation.
U.S. Geological Survey, “Protected Areas Database of the United States (PAD-US) 2.1 Summary Statistics by GAP Status Code,” file: “GAP_Sts_National (US States and Territories)_PADUS2-1 _May2021.xls,” https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/6064e14cd34eff1443414d7e (accessed November 9, 2021).
This does not include some 57.2 million acres of mineral rights held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) beneath private or other nonfederal property.
Bureau of Land Management, Public Land Statistics 2019, Vol. 204 (June 2020), p. 7, https://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/PublicLandStatistics2019.pdf (accessed November 9, 2021).
The USGS’s Protected Areas Database (PAD-US) is “America’s official national inventory of U.S. terrestrial and marine protected areas that are dedicated to the preservation of biological diversity and to other natural, recreation and cultural uses, managed for these purposes through legal or other effective means.”
U.S. Geological Survey, “Gap Analysis Project,” https://www.usgs.gov/core-science-systems/science-analytics-and-synthesis/gap/science/protected-areas (accessed June 16, 2021).
PAD-US data includes not only federal land, but also state, county, municipal, and other government lands, as well as some private lands, such as those held by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have conservation easements. This land is addressed in Appendix 1.
U.S. Geological Survey, “Protected Areas Database of the United States (PAD-US) 2.1 Summary Statistics by GAP Status Code.”
The data reveal that the federal government is a massive landowner, with the four largest land-holding agencies, in order, being BLM, USFS, National Park Service (NPS), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). According to the USGS, together these agencies are charged with managing 973,000 square miles, a quarter of the nation.
With other federal agencies such as the Department of Defense, Army Corps of Engineers, and Department of Energy included, the USGS figure rises to over a million square miles, about 27 percent of the United States.
When USGS figures for state, regional, local, and other government entities are added, the square miles swell to more than 1.3 million, almost 36 percent of the United States—an area larger than India.
Ibid. The 36 percent figure excludes all “American Indian lands” and includes other or unknown federal, state, and local government land. United Nations, “Demographic Yearbook 2012,” Table 3, https://unstats.un.org/unsd/demographic/products/dyb/dyb2012.htm (accessed November 17, 2021).
Additional land holdings of note include American Indian lands that take up an area larger than the combined lands of California and Maryland and NGO-held easements totaling an area larger than the lands of Maryland and Vermont combined. There may be a significant area of easements that have not been integrated into these figures.
U.S. Geological Survey, “Protected Areas Database of the United States (PAD-US) 2.1,” Summary, https://www.sciencebase.gov/catalog/item/5f186a2082cef313ed843257 (accessed November 17, 2021), and National Conservation Easement Database, “Completeness,” 2021, https://www.conservationeasement.us/completeness/ (accessed November 9, 2021). “The National Conservation Easement Database (NCED) is estimated to contain 49% of publicly-held easements across the United States” and “90% of non-profit-held easements.”
Federal Management Regimes, Regulations, and Designations
Also relevant are the many different environmental regulatory regimes that can affect governmental and private land as well as the designation programs related to land use and conservation, in general, and 30 by 30, in particular. Appendix 2 provides some metrics for these programs.
Worthy of particular note are the vast areas designated as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)—from over 110 million acres to over 250 million acres depending on counting method—and wetland acreage of a similar extent that is potentially subject to wetlands regulations.
See Table 2, Critical Habitat notes.
With regard to the ESA, even if private or public lands are not designated as critical habitat, activities on them may still be subject to prohibitions against the “take” of a listed species.
ESA, §§ 9(a)(1)(B) and (3)(19). The term take means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.
Some designations, such as Wild and Scenic Rivers, can have regulatory consequences, while others may not. However, even federal “non-regulatory” designated properties may be subject to additional reviews if there is a nexus to a federal action on the property or, indirectly, if states, counties, or local governments have laws related to such properties.
National Register of Historic Places, “What Are the Results of Listing?,” Wayback Machine, May 13, 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20090513155721/https://www.nps.gov/nr/results.htm (accessed November 6, 2021). The NPS has stated, “Some States and communities have enacted preservation laws or ordinances that apply to National Register listed properties…. Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires that Federal agencies allow the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation an opportunity to comment on all projects affecting historic properties either listed in or determined eligible for listing in the National Register. The Advisory Council oversees and ensures the consideration of historic properties in the Federal planning process.”
There are also extensive international land designations. They include World Heritage Areas, Wetlands of International Significance, and U.N. biosphere reserves. Lands with these designations are also included in the World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA), a joint effort of the U.N. Environmental Programme and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that is similar to the PAD-US. The WPDA also includes records of other U.S. lands from the PAD-US that the USGS assigned a sufficiently high ranking known as a GAP status code. As the U.N. Environmental Programme explains, “Protected areas from the PAD-US that meet the IUCN definition are incorporated into the…WDPA…on an annual basis with ad-hoc updates completed as necessary. Areas which do not meet the IUCN definition of a protected area are removed by USGS before data are submitted.”
U.N. Environmental Programme, “Protected areas data for the United States,” UNEP-WCMC Technical Briefing Note, December, 2016, https://www.unep-wcmc.org/system/dataset_file_fields/files/000/000/526/original/Protected_areas_data_for_the_United_States.pdf?1528210721 (accessed June 16, 2021).
Appendices 1 and 2 clearly demonstrate that government owns a vast amount of the nation, already has an expansive regulatory reach onto private lands, and is tracking designated properties for various reasons.
V. Habitat for Wildlife
Conservation of land ensures that there is adequate habitat to support wildlife, a primary mission of the largest U.S. land-holding agencies. Laws such as the ESA were enacted to conserve endangered species, and regulations such as those governing wetlands were adopted in large part because of wetlands’ value as habitat. The USGS explains that “detailed information about the conservation status of our country’s protected areas is crucial to improving our understanding of how well we are protecting the animals and plants that inhabit those areas.”
U.S. Geological Survey, “PAD-US Data Overview,” https://www.usgs.gov/core-science-systems/science-analytics-and-synthesis/gap/science/pad-us-data-overview (accessed June 17, 2021).
However, the vast area of the United States and the fact that so much of it currently provides habitat—in combination with the nation’s biodiversity—makes it impossible to determine the status of all these species. Often proponents of various conservation policies cite statistics such as species estimated to be vulnerable or endangered. There are, for example, some 94 federally endangered U.S. insects, of which 20 are beetles.
Environmental Conservation Online System, “FWS-Listed U.S. Species by Taxonomic Group,” https://ecos.fws.gov/ecp/report/species-listings-by-tax-group-totals (accessed June 17, 2021).
The significance, however, of 20 out of perhaps 30,000 kinds of beetle in North America being declared federally endangered is unclear.
Smithsonian Institution, “Beetles (Coleoptera),” https://www.si.edu/spotlight/buginfo/beetle (accessed June 17, 2021).
Similarly, pre-colonial ranges and guesstimated populations for wildlife from that time are compared with more recently estimated populations and ranges, implying a straight-line—and usually miserable—trajectory. These grim numbers are then compared to statistics on habitat alteration or the growth of the nation’s economy or population and presented as evidence of the need for urgent action. Again, the reality is much better than the popular misconception: Many species have increased in number, including many larger carnivores and ungulates (hooved mammals), indicating availability of habitat and prey.
An oft-cited example of this approach is Range Contractions of North American Carnivores and Ungulates.
Andrea S. Laliberte and William J. Ripple, “Range Contractions of North American Carnivores and Ungulates,” BioScience, Vol. 54, No. 2 (February 2004), pp. 123–138, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247844450_Range_Contractions_of_North_American_Carnivores_and_Ungulates (accessed November 2, 2021). Oxford University Press indicates the paper has been cited 300 times. Oxford University Press, “Range Contractions of North American Carnivores and Ungulates: Overview of Attention for Article Published in BioScience, January 2004,” Article Metrics, https://oxfordjournals.altmetric.com/details/1750705 (accessed November 9, 2021).
Rather than report the area of an animal’s current range as a percentage of its historical range, the authors report a species’ “area of persistence.”
Laliberte and Ripple, “Range Contractions,” Table 2, p. 126.
A table legend indicates that this measure is the percentage of the species’ historical range that is currently occupied. It excludes any areas into which the species has expanded beyond its historical range. The paper then focuses on just those species that the authors calculate to have range contractions of 20 percent or more.
When all the species are considered and range expansions included in the calculation, however, 37 of the 43 species occupy 50 percent or more of their historical ranges. For well over half of the species, the current range is at least 75 percent of the historical range. For almost half of the species, the current range is equal to or greater than the historical range.
(See Chart 3.)
The authors state, “We are aware that species ranges are dynamic and that there may have been contractions and expansions between the two time periods we considered. We stress that this study was conducted on a relatively coarse scale and that we examined broad changes.”
This caveat seeks to inoculate the authors from the fact that their grim characterization can conceal changes in the rate of decline as well as trend direction for many species.
One such species is Puma concolor, popularly known as the mountain lion or cougar. It has one of the largest range requirements among North American mammals, generally 200 square kilometers or more for a single male.
NatureServe Explorer, “Puma concolor, Cougar,” https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.101637/Puma_concolor (accessed February 2, 2021).
NatureServe reported the total U.S. mountain lion population as 15,000 in 1976.
Ibid. A book published almost a decade before NatureServe’s record review includes mountain lion population estimates from state agencies that, in aggregate, range from 24,455 to 32,562, excluding animals in Montana, Texas, and Wyoming. See C. Anderson et al., “Mountain Lion Management in North America: Canada,” Table 4, in S. Negri and M. Hornocker, eds., Mountain Lion: Ecology and Management (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
Although the population estimate cited by NatureServe was four decades old when it was reviewed in 2016, the record affirms a global conservation ranking of G5 and an equivalent national conservation ranking of N5.
NatureServe Explorer, “Puma concolor.”
A G5 ranking means the species is at very low risk of extinction or collapse due to a very extensive range, abundant populations or occurrences, and little or no concern from decline or threats. It is the best ranking NatureServe has to offer.
NatureServe Explorer, “Statuses,” https://explorer.natureserve.org/AboutTheData/Statuses (accessed February 19, 2021).
The actual mountain lion population today is likely substantially larger. A 2017 Humane Society report provides state agency population estimates that, when aggregated, range from almost 30,000 to almost 40,000.
Humane Society of the United States, “State of the Mountain Lion,” Table 1, p. 26, https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/HSUS_State_Of_The_Mountain_Lion.pdf (accessed February 19, 2021).
This excludes mountain lions in Wyoming and Texas as estimates were reportedly unavailable but the report does provide an estimated adult population potential for these states derived by multiplying potential habitat by a density figure.
These population potential estimates may be off, as, for example, density of mountain lions likely varies significantly across Texas and Wyoming. However, using the report’s figures yields an additional 9,569 mountain lion.
While aggregating state population estimates from different years, derived with different methodologies that may vary in which mountain lions are counted clearly yields a rough estimation, a reasonable estimate for the U.S. mountain lion population today is at least double the number cited by NatureServe, perhaps substantially more.
Some observations have included female mountain lions that generally do not disperse as far as males do but are essential for the establishment of new resident populations.
News Channel 9, “Video: More Tennessee Cougar Encounters; DNA Tests Confirm a Female,” December 11, 2015, https://newschannel9.com/sports/outdoors/video-more-tennessee-cougar-encounters-dna-tests-confirm-a-female (accessed June 16, 2021), and Ethan Shaw, “Iowa’s First Female Puma Could Be the Latest Sign of Mountain Lions on the Move,” Earthtouch News, July 4, 2017, https://www.earthtouchnews.com/conservation/conservation/iowas-first-female-puma-could-be-the-latest-sign-of-mountain-lions-on-the-move/ (accessed June 17, 2021).
Without providing such context, many in the public arena present a much more pessimistic view of the mountain lion’s conservation status. For example, “educational resources” from the National Wildlife Federation state that mountain lion populations are “far lower than they were historically. While there are still several thousand mountain lions in the wild, their population has significantly decreased from their historical population due to unsustainable hunting, habitat destruction, and conflicts with livestock.”
National Wildlife Federation, “Mountain Lion,” https://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources/Wildlife-Guide/Mammals/Mountain-Lion (accessed April 9, 2021).
Of course, mountain lion numbers are lower than what they were historically. How could the cat have the same population it did in pre-colonial times? The reality is that there are now 332 million Americans who need food, fiber, and energy, as well as a place to live, and who provide others around the world with food and other goods they need. That requires using land, and some of the land use will be incompatible with or detrimental to mountain lions. However, despite the U.N. statement placing modern ills on conversion of forests to agricultural fields as well as partially on the doorstep of technology, the good news is that increasingly efficient natural resource management has enabled not only the nation’s population and economy to grow but also the number of mountain lions and to substantially more than “a few thousand.”
More Than Just Mountain Lions
For more, see James B. Trefethen, An American Crusade for Wildlife (Missoula, MT: Boone and Crockett Club, 1975); MacCleery, American Forests; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Restoring American Wildlife, 1937-1987: The First 50 Years of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1987); Peter Matthiessen, Wildlife in America (New York: Viking Press, 1987); and R. J. Smith, The Public Benefits of Private Conservation, special report within 15th Annual Report of the Council on Environmental Quality, August 1984, https://www.slideshare.net/whitehouse/august-1984-the-fifteenth-annual-report-of-the-council-on-environmental-quality (accessed June 15, 2021).
As with the mountain lion, the period from the late 1800s to the beginning decades of the 1900s was the low point for many U.S. wildlife species.
Low populations followed centuries of sustenance hunting, market hunting with boat-mounted punt guns that kill a hundred waterfowl at a time, trainloads of dear carcasses shipped to the cities, and innumerable campaigns to reduce or eliminate “nuisance” species that were considered threats and competitors.
W. H. Gross, “History of Punt Guns,” NRA Family, May 31, 2021, https://www.nrafamily.org/articles/2021/5/13/throwback-thursday-history-of-punt-guns (accessed June 17, 2021); Detroit Public Library, Digital Commons, Deer carcasses awaiting shipment to their hunters, DPA0229, Circa 1913; and Trefethen, An American Crusade for Wildlife, pp. 35–36 and 163.
Things had been rough enough that according to the NPS, “Poachers, squatters, woodcutters, and vandals ravaged Yellowstone,” and the Secretary of the Interior had to call on the U.S. Army, which “took charge of Yellowstone,” guarding the major attractions, evicting troublemakers, and patrolling the vast interior.
NPS, “Birth of a National Park,” February 5, 2020, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/historyculture/yellowstoneestablishment.htm (accessed November 3, 2021).
Back East, a survey of southern forests showed that by 1919, 92 million acres had most of their trees removed.
James Barnett, “Early History of Tree Seedling Nurseries in the South,” U.S. Forest Service, 2013, https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_p069/rmrs_p069_042_046.pdf (accessed June 17, 2021).
One of the contributing factors was likely a series of laws Congress passed in the mid-1800s that granted swamp and overflow lands to states and established a century-long federal promotion of reclaiming (draining) wetlands.
Thomas E. Dahl and Gregory J. Alford, “Technical Aspects of Wetlands: History of Wetlands in the Conterminous United States,” U.S. Geological Survey, p. 21, https://www.fws.gov/wetlands/documents/History-of-Wetlands-in-the-Conterminous-United-States.pdf (accessed June 17, 2021).
Large-scale deforestation and the accompanying massive wildfires and erosion prompted the creation of the National Park System. Eventually, even dirt had hit a low and got its own agency. The “national menace” of soil erosion was so severe that winds carried clouds of dust from the plains states to the East Coast, prompting establishment of the Soil Conservation Service.
NRCS, “Honoring 86 years of NRCS—A Brief History,” https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/about/history/?cid=nrcs143_021392 (accessed November 3, 2021).
The Taylor Grazing Act was adopted in part to address over-grazing.
Bureau of Land Management, “About Livestock Grazing on Public Lands,” https://www.blm.gov/programs/natural-resources/rangelands-and-grazing/livestock-grazing/about (accessed June 17, 2021).
Numerous large federal and state tree nurseries were established, and the Civilian Conservation Corps planted over 3 billion trees.
Joseph M. Speakman, “Into the Woods: The First Year of the Civilian Conservation Corps,” Prologue Magazine, National Archives and Records Administration, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Fall 2006), https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2006/fall/ccc.html (accessed June 17, 2021).
Wildlife refuges were created and scads of fish hatcheries were built.
Trefethen, An American Crusade for Wildlife, pp. 122, 181–194, and 228–229; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Restoring American Wildlife, 1937–1987, pp. 1–30; and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Fish and Aquatic Conservation,” https://www.fws.gov/fisheries/fac_program.html (accessed June 16, 2021). Among the hatcheries’ less-lauded undertakings was the wide-scale introduction of common carp. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) Ecological Risk Screening Summary,” March 18, 2019, https://www.fws.gov/Fisheries/ANS/erss/highrisk/ERSS-Cyprinus-carpio_Final.pdf (accessed June 16, 2021).
While all this occurred, the USFS, the NPS, the USFWS, and, later, the BLM, as well as numerous similar state agencies, had been created and were eventually charged with managing hundreds of millions of acres under various conservation regimes.
With large-scale efforts, trial and error, cultural changes, advances in arts and sciences, and economic growth—along with nature’s resilient and dynamic characteristics—things got much better.
Conversion of forest to agriculture land leveled out. Efficiency increases provided more food and shelter without substantially harvesting larger areas. Use of wood for fuel declined, as did use of draft animals that require allocation of land to hay. For these and other reasons, marginally productive lands became available for wildlife habitat or other uses. Economic growth fueled the growth of cities, towns, and suburbs that would eventually account for little more than 5 percent of the landmass of the lower 48 and virtually nothing in Alaska.
With new conservation laws, overhunting stopped. State and fish game agencies began campaigns to conserve, restore, and manage wildlife populations with funding coming from hunters and fishermen paying excise taxes under the Pittman–Robertson and Dingell–Johnson Acts that continue to provide funding to this day.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Restoring American Wildlife, pp. 1–30.
During this period, the conservation movement was born, as were innumerable private efforts, from the purchase of Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania as a private refuge to conserve birds of prey where they had once been slaughtered to the purchase of Sea Lion Caves in Oregon, an important refuge for Stellar sea lions, which the private owners had to protect at gunpoint.
Smith, The Public Benefits of Private Conservation.
Both continue to provide valuable habitat to this day. In quintessential de Tocquevillian tradition, private organizations such as the American Bison Society and Ducks Unlimited were created by those interested in the welfare of those species.
Trefethen, An American Crusade for Wildlife, pp. 138–142, 193, and 242.
More would eventually follow.
For example, these would include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Peregrine Fund, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Ruffed Grouse Society, and Trout Unlimited.
Equally if not more important for many wildlife species, substantial cultural changes took place. The proportion of the population that farmed, hunted, or fished for their sustenance declined dramatically. Moreover, broad and often indiscriminate efforts to eliminate those species perceived as dangerous and efforts to eradicate or reduce those species that present or were perceived to present a threat to livestock, poultry, crops, or to the populations of “desirable” game and fish also declined. It is difficult to comprehend the massive impact these activities had on wildlife populations or the similarly dramatic impact that ending them has had, but it was clearly profound.
As a consequence of such changes, as mountain lions expand eastward, they will find not only habitat including regenerated forests but also an abundance of their favorite prey: deer. Numerous other predator and prey species have also dramatically increased in population, following often rock-bottom numbers, and have recolonized former habitat or expanded their ranges.
The accompanying table (Appendix Table 1 available by hyperlink) includes all native North American ungulates and mammalian predators: canids, felines, ursids (bears), mustelids (members of the weasel family), mephitids (skunks), and procyonids (raccoons and allies) that were included in the aforementioned paper on range contractions. Also included are additional predators—sea otters; island foxes; red wolves; jaguars; ocelots; and the pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses); some of the other medium-sized terrestrial mammals (armadillos, beavers, opossums, porcupines, woodchucks); birds of prey (eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, etc.); waterfowl that are commonly hunted members of the family Anatidae; a few additional larger bird species that are hunted; and a few large reptiles that are on the federal endangered species list. These animals are, with few exceptions, full species, which is a less subjective taxonomic unit than subspecies.
In many instances, the table includes changes in the estimated populations of a species since earlier last century or, in some cases, the late 1800s. Upon review of these species, a much more positive picture for U.S. wildlife emerges. The improvements attest to the basic requirements of suitable habitat and, for predators, sufficient prey. Some species—such as the red fox, javelina, armadillo, and opossum—have continued range expansions that began long ago, while still others—such as the coyote, raccoon, and snow goose—have proven highly adaptable to the altered landscape and are expanding. Additionally, many of these species are considered game species (for example, almost all the ungulates and waterfowl) and are therefore subject to the additional population pressure of hunting and/or trapping, yet many have exhibited growing populations. And the numbers are dramatic, with elk, pronghorn, white-tailed and mule deer, musk oxen, black bears, bobcats, red foxes, otters, beavers, northern elephant and gray seals, wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks, merlins, wood ducks, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, and many other species increasing substantially—doubling, tripling, or even more. Many of these species were depleted to mere thousands and now number in the hundreds of thousands, a million, or more.
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