Vanishing Natural Areas

If it seems to you that there are fewer forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other natural places than there were a few years ago, you would be right. And if you think there is a lot more areas in need of restoration, then you would also be right—and distressingly so.

A report issued last year describes the situation: “The United States is quietly losing its remaining forests, grasslands, deserts, and natural places at a blistering pace. Every 30 seconds, a football field worth of America’s natural areas disappears to roads, houses, pipelines, and other development.1”, according to a report issued in August 2019 by the Center for American Progress (CAP).

You can do the math to calculate how many acres of natural areas have been lost since the report came out, but you better be sitting down while you run the numbers.

The estimate is based upon a report that the Center for American Progress (CAP) commission from a non-profit group of scientists, the Conservation Science Partners (CSP)

“The scientific team at CSP found that human activities are causing the persistent and rapid loss of America’s natural areas. The human footprint in the continental United States grew by more than 24 million acres from 2001 to 2017—equivalent to the loss of roughly a football field worth of natural area every 30 seconds. The South and Midwest experienced the steepest losses of natural area in this period; the footprints of cities, farms, roads, power plants, and other human development in these two regions grew to cover 47 percent and 59 percent of all land area, respectively. If national trends continue, a South Dakota-sized expanse of forests, wetlands, and wild places in the continental United States will disappear by 2050.6.”

This is an alarming report
Think about the conclusions for a minute. The US has lost not just 24 million acres, and counting, but also the biodiversity that the land nurtured; the ecosystems services of the lost prairies, wetlands, and woodlands; the birds and other wildlife that inhabited the former natural area; the cushion against climate disruption provided by the vast carbon sinks of prairies and forests; the environmental protections protections against flooding and contaminants provided by wetlands.

Possibly the worst and most regrettable consequences are that we are loosing not only our natural heritage, but also the raw materials of restoration—the land and flora and fauna we work with. And with these losses goes the the potential for restoring the destroyed natural areas. As restorationists, we all know how difficult and nearly impossible it is to restore an acre of land under the best of circumstances. Can you imagine the magnitude of the task without the natural ingredients or reference systems?

30 X 30 Proposal
The CAP-commissioned study has spurred the organization to support a plan to encourage the United States to set aside and protect 30 percent of its lands and waters by 2030. The plan is called 30X30 and is based upon a Senate resolution (30 X 30 Resolution to Save Nature) introduced on October 22, 2019 by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). The resolution is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and Warren (D-Mass.). Note that several current 2020 presidential candidates (Bennet, Booker, Harris, and Warren) co-sponsored the bill.

Sen. Bennet said in support of the proposal: “We can’t address climate change without focusing on conservation,” said Bennet. “Committing to conserving 30 percent of America’s land and oceans by 2030 is exactly the kind of ambitious strategy we need to protect our wildlife and lands, and tackle this urgent crisis. Setting an aggressive, tangible conservation and climate goal has been a long-standing priority of mine, and I could not have asked for a better partner to advance this legislation. That’s why I am thrilled to be leading this resolution with Senator Udall today.”

The press release from Sen. Udall’s office announcing the 30 X 30 Proposal can be found here.

The Center for American Progress report offers eight guiding principles that should be employed in support of the 30 X 30 effort. Featured prominently is ecological restoration.

  1. “The restoration of degraded lands and coasts will be critical to achieving 30X30. Logging, mining, development, and other activities have left many ecosystems in a degraded state. For example, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that between 65 million and 82 million acres of national forest lands require restoration, and the amount of necessary restoration on other public and private lands is certainly much higher.32 On the coasts, much restoration work such as salt marsh and dune restoration is caught in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ $98 billion backlog of unfunded projects.33 Restoration work is essential to bolstering both the quantity and quality of protected lands in the United States.”

Lots of Conservation and Restoration To Do In the Midwest
You can see in the chart above that the United States midwest region has suffered the greatest loss of natural areas in the country: 7.7 million acres, or 59.4% of the total land area in the region. This means that as restorationists we have plenty of work to do. We need to pick up the pace of restoration–we need to restore more acres faster.

These lose of 24 million acres, and counting means, that as conservationists, we need to begin purchasing, setting aside, or otherwise preserving natural areas before they are destroyed. Any open, green area, has great potential and importance; no area is too small or too degraded to be set aside as open space. If this conservation-first approach means that we can’t do the quality and quantity of restoration that we are accustomed to right away, then so be it. But at least the land will be set aside in safe hands until we have the time and resources to get down to restoration.

About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner, conservation photographer, and writer living in the Midwestern United States. Check out my photos at
This entry was posted in 30 X 30 Proposal, Ecological restoration, Restoration ecology, Vanishing natural areas and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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