National Parks are protected land, which conveys that they are immune from destruction or degradation that occurs in unprotected areas. But as our country's population climbs, which the Census Bureau found is primarily driven by immigration, these cherished places reveal their fragility. The world we escape to reconnect with nature is gradually encroaching and will ultimately overwhelm the biodiversity and conservation efforts of protected land.
Yellowstone Park hosted a million more visitors in 2021 than the year prior, yet overuse of the park that coincides with the inability to maintain a quiet, clean, and uncrowded experience is only part of the problem. Compounding the issue is that the population of Greater Yellowstone has doubled since 1970, which has subsequently tripled the housing density. If this trend continues, both will double again by 2050. Wildlife, vegetation, and ecosystems don't differentiate between protected and unprotected land, and when we alter the land use in the unprotected areas, it doesn't occur in a vacuum. A 2018 study examined Greater Yellowstone, and the researchers found the disruption of unprotected land impacts areas that are meant to be conserved:
.... The locations with more favorable climate, better soils, surface water, and groundwater that attract people are also locations of high ecological productivity, native species diversity, key seasonal habitats, and higher demographic performance of wildlife. Consequently, the condition of these lower elevation private lands is vital to the ecological integrity of the broader ecosystem.
Across the country, population growth is exacting a heavy toll on our protected areas. In New York, Fire Island National Seashore, with a population of 21 million people within 60 miles, felt the wrath of Hurricane Sandy decimating its beaches. Saguaro Park in Arizona is seeing its native vegetation, including its iconic cacti, become ever more threatened by relentless population growth from Phoenix and Tucson. NumbersUSA's Arizona Sprawl Study found that between 1982 and 2017, 1.1 million acres of Arizona's natural habitats and farmland disappeared. Any density focused anti-sprawl efforts were negated by the addition of 4.2 million people to the state's population.
Our urban sprawl is akin to "the nothing" from the classic 1984 film "The Neverending Story" swallowing everything in its path. As it pours across open land, everything changes. Alarmingly, 28 million housing units were built within 50 km of protected areas in the United States in the last half of the 20th century. If this trend continues, this number will increase by another million by 2030, many of which will be built within 1 km of protected areas.
Those of us who want to conserve these precious resources must address the role of U.S. population growth. A meaningful way to do so would be to demand Congress adjust their immigration policies that account for almost all of our country's rising population. Neither Americans nor visitors from around the world will be able to enjoy the natural wonders provided by our protected spaces if we do not stabilize our population - although that alone will not prevent the loss of open space. When it comes to enjoying our natural world, there is no upside to endless population growth, but we certainly have a lot to lose.
Amy Boylan is the Content Writer for NumbersUSA's Sustainability Initiative
Updated: Thu, Jan 20th 2022 @ 5:12pm EST