The United States is a diverse country that has seen its naturally defined ecosystems steadily divided, legally and administratively, into public and private lands. Unlike other parts of the developed world, the United States, with only several hundred years of European settlement and with its growing population and wealth, is just beginning to feel the effects of uncontrolled sprawl out of the cities and into the countryside. Although private lands predominate in the United States, conservation efforts have focused primarily on lands in the public domain. To a dispassionate observer this might seem odd; after all, nearly half of all species threatened with extinction occur on private lands, and nearly all threatened species have at least part of their distribution on private lands. An objective appraisal of conservation efforts, therefore, suggests that finding ways to use private lands while conserving their natural heritage should be of primary concern to conservation biologists.

While we have been preoccupied in struggles to protect public lands from never-ending assaults, an alarming trend has occurred, largely unnoticed, on the “back forty”: we are losing private lands to commercial and residential development at rates seldom equaled in history. Consider these numbers. From 1982 to 1992, over 1 million ha of pasture lands were converted to residential and industrial development, roads, and shopping centers ( C. H. Flather et al., in press). Likewise, nearly 400,000 ha of wetlands were developed (despite a national policy of “no net loss” of wetlands). Historically, we lost wetlands to agriculture; today wetlands reappear as golf courses and exurban development. Elsewhere, loss of rural, open space goes unchecked. From 1982 to 1992, over 5,606,000 ha reappeared as urban or nonfarm rural residences. In Colorado, where I live, over 36,000 ha of farm and ranch lands are converted yearly to rural housing developments. Outside of Atlanta, Georgia, 200 ha of green space, forest, and farmland are lost to parking lots, malls, and subdivisions each week ( Sierra Club 1997). At the risk of appearing too parochial, let me hasten to say the magnitude of this issue extends beyond U.S. borders. I focus on my own country due to familiarity, not out of lack of concern.

Is it possible that sprawl, defined as low-density, automobile-dependent development beyond the edge of service and employment areas, might be the single greatest threat to our precious natural heritage? Some think so. A recent paper ( Wilcove et al. 1998) implicated habitat degradation in the decline of 85% of 1880 species of imperiled plants and animals in the United States. Conversion of private lands to commercial and residential development was responsible for the decline of 35% of these species, and road construction and maintenance were almost as culpable.

An emerging consensus among conservation biologists is that the unchecked conversion of U.S. private, open lands to human-dominated development is causing a simplification of our native biodiversity. Both by our presence and the increasing number of weedy plant and animal species that thrive in association with humans, we can expect to see an altered natural heritage. There will be more starlings and fewer bluebirds, more cats and dogs and fewer bobcats and badgers. To the untrained eye, these lands will appear unchanged, but there will be fundamental differences in both the species composition and the complex ecological relationships that tie communities together. Importantly, an ugly side effect will be an ever-increasing number of conservation dilemmas dealing with how to protect declining species on private lands.

How do we face this challenge? Perhaps we have avoided confronting conservation on private lands because we acknowledge landowners have certain inalienable rights. After all, words such as property and rights occur in the U.S. Constitution, whereas words like land and responsibilities do not. Those who crafted this document of liberties focused on rights, rather than responsibilities, because it was the threat to their rights that was uppermost in their minds. A surprising number of us may have taken this preoccupation with liberties too far. Property rights groups abound, and it seems at times that our state legislatures and federal Congress are little more than advertisements for those who champion rights without acknowledging responsibilities. Nevertheless, a commitment to our natural communities and an understanding that human communities benefit from and have responsibilities to natural communities, argues for action. But the response will have to be quite different from how we have acted previously when dealing with public lands. Historically, when addressing public land conservation, we provided scientific input to federal land-management agencies or lobbied for federal legislation. This often resulted in federal policies or decrees that were, in turn, passed down from on high to federal or state entities or city or county governments.

When dealing with private-land issues, there are still the legally acceptable, but increasingly unpopular, options of zoning, condemnation, and tax regulations to control development. It is encouraging, however, that innovative ideas are emerging that may complement these traditional approaches. We are witnessing across the United States a proliferation of land trusts (now measured in the hundreds), open-space tax initiatives (measured in scores), and watershed- and community-based conservation efforts (perhaps in the thousands) that are dealing with private-land issues.

Mirroring these citizen-based endeavors are an increasing number of organizations that see conservation as more of a bottom-up than a top-down effort. For example, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has shifted its work from simply site protection to community-based conservation. This model stresses partnerships and cooperation and emphasizes the role of TNC as a provider of information and resources. Likewise with the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has always worked with private landowners and long ago recognized its role as a potential lever in encouraging stewardship of soil, water, and wildlife. These organizations are defined by people out on the land, with shirt sleeves rolled up, serving as partners and catalysts in sustaining human and natural communities.

An ever-increasing population and the realization that private land inevitably will be developed necessitate a response from conservation biologists. The challenges are difficult because we have little experience in dealing with private-land issues. How many of our universities offer courses on land-use planning? Do we actively participate in conservation efforts in our local communities? Are we willing to seek out new collaborators and run the risk of simply being partners in conservation planning? It appears conservationists are ready to rebalance the uneven dichotomy in public/private-land issues. As evidence, consider the critical role that conservation biologists have played in the development of hundreds of habitat conservation plans (HCPs) that offer some degree of protection to hundreds of thousands of hectares (although the quality of HCPs varies greatly). In addition, conservation scientists are redirecting their research programs to examine the ecological, economic, and societal effects of rural settlement, just as historically they devoted so much attention to the effects of extractive development on our public lands.

We are entering a time when we in the United States value not only our national parks and wildlands, but increasingly appreciate the values of our middle lands, those working landscapes that in addition to providing essential commodities, capture a rural ambiance that we miss more with the demise of every additional family farm and ranch. We can no longer assume these working landscapes will always remain intact and will always serve as the pleasing interfaces we drive through when going from town to city or city to wilderness. Conservation biologists can play a critical role in demonstrating how to care for private lands to ensure their natural heritage is not compromised by inappropriate development. This will require us to do the hard things, not the easy things. The easy things are done in courtrooms, on paper, and at the ballot box. The hard things are done on the land, with honest conversations among stakeholders and property owners. These are not the easy things, but they are the things worth doing.

Literature Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Literature Cited
  • Flather, C. H, S. J. Brady, M. S. Knowles.In press. An analysis of wildlife resource trends in the United States: a technical document supporting the 1999 USDA Forest Service assessment. General technical report PNW-GTR.U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, Portland, Oregon.
  • Sierra Club. 1997. The dark side of the American dream: the costs and consequences of suburban sprawl. Sierra Club Press, College Park, Maryland.
  • Wilcove, D. S., D. Rothstein, J. Dubow, A. Phillips, E. Losos. 1998. Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States. BioScience 48:607 615.