RELEASE: Average Distance Between Natural Areas and Human Development Has Fallen 40 percent in Last Two Decades, New Report Shows

Washington, D.C. — The average distance from natural places to developed areas in the United States fell by 40 percent over the past two decades, according to a scientific study commissioned by the Center for American Progress and documented in a new report released today.

This fragmentation of the American landscape has become so severe that if a person were to parachute to a random spot in the lower 48 states, they could expect to be no more than a 10-minute walk from a developed area. The report finds that only 12 percent of lands in the United States are permanently protected from development.

To stem climate change and safeguard the clean air, clean drinking water, and food chains that support all life on Earth, scientists recommend protecting at least 30 percent of all lands and oceans by 2030. According to CAP’s analysis, this “30×30” goal is ambitious but achievable.

“With a football field’s worth of America’s natural areas disappearing every 30 seconds, the United States needs to do far more to help communities conserve our lands, waters, and wildlife,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow and the senior director of Environmental Strategy and Communications at the Center for American Progress. “The good news is that by pursuing a more ambitious vision for nature conservation, the United States can still safeguard the clean drinking water, clean air, and natural systems upon which we all depend.”

The scientific study commissioned by CAP and conducted by Conservation Science Partners (CSP), a nonprofit scientific organization, found that natural areas are disappearing most quickly on private lands and in the Southeast and Midwest. Overall, urban sprawl and the expansion of energy infrastructure were the two largest drivers of natural area loss in the contiguous 48 states from 2001 to 2017.

According to CAP’s review of the patterns of natural area loss and the existing distribution of protected areas, in pursuing a 30×30 conservation goal, policymakers, communities, and conservation advocates should focus particular attention on:

  • Confronting the sprawl of cities, suburbs, and exurbs
  • Protecting and restoring large, intact landscapes and wildlife corridors
  • Dramatically accelerating private land conservation
  • Supporting the conservation and stewardship vision and priorities of tribal nations
  • Conserving more open lands and parks near communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities
  • Protecting more of America’s oceans and lands in a truly wild and natural condition
  • Fighting climate change by restoring America’s natural lands

This is the second report in a series of publications from CAP that examine how the United States can thoughtfully, equitably, and justly protect at least 30 percent of its land and ocean area by 2030. The first report in the series, “How Much Nature Should America Keep?”, outlined eight initial principles for pursuing a 30×30 goal. That report recommended doing so in a way that reflects the needs and priorities of all people, honors the sovereignty of tribal nations, builds upon the strong private and public land conservation traditions of the United States, and effectively conserves the diversity of natural systems that future generations will need to survive and prosper.

Read the report: “The Green Squeeze: America’s Nature Crisis” by Matt Lee-Ashley, Jenny Rowland-Shea, and Ryan Richards.

For more information or to talk to an expert, please contact Sam Hananel at or 202-478-6327.