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Stop Sprawl
Solving Sprawl: 1999 Sierra Club Sprawl Report

Open Space Protection Open Space Protection
Introduction
Sprawl and the Grizzly
Focus on: Maryland
Rate Your State


Introduction

Open Space ProtectionAmericans want to live close to nature. But poorly planned development is gobbling up our beloved parks and open spaces at an alarming rate. A recent report by the American Farmland Trust revealed that every year in the United States 1 million acres of productive farm land and open space get bulldozed by sprawling development.

Sprawl threatens wildlife by chopping up habitat. Some of America's premier ecosystems -- spectacular places like the Chesapeake Bay, the Everglades, the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and the Sonoran desert -- are directly threatened by sprawl. Even animals like grizzly bears and salmon, already pushed to the brink, are losing habitat to encroaching homes and highways.

Sprawl also threatens our wetlands. Each year, we destroy more than 110,000 acres of these natural filters. Because wetlands act as natural flood-absorbing sponges, there are serious consequences for allowing sprawling development in wetlands -- especially in disaster-prone floodplain areas. In the past eight years, floods in the United States killed more than 850 people and caused more than $89 billion in property damage. Much of this damage happened in states and counties where weak zoning laws allowed developers to drain wetlands and build in floodplains.

Sprawl is carving up our farm land, too. Developments are replacing farmers' fields, disrupting small-town agriculture and a way of life. An astounding 70 percent of prime or unique farm land is now in the path of rapid development, according to the American Farmland Trust.

While it may sound like parks and open space in America are going, going, gone, some states are attempting to stop the loss of our natural heritage. In fact, voters in many states are insisting on it. Last November, voters from California to Cape Cod, Democrats and Republicans alike, approved the vast majority of some 240 anti-sprawl ballot initiatives, many of them dealing with land preservation. In New Jersey, even in the state's tax-adverse counties, voters overwhelmingly approved the use of $1 billion in tax revenue to conserve open space and farm land.

In this category, we used three main criteria to determine our rankings:

Our first measure used information from the National Governors Association, land trusts and our own grassroots activists to gauge which states are preventing the loss of open space. The better-performing states are those that have passed initiatives to keep lands held in trust for all. The best states are purchasing parks and open space outright.

Our second yardstick rated states on how well they are keeping their farm lands in farmers' hands. We gave states credit for setting up agricultural districts, where commercial agriculture is encouraged and protected. Sixteen states have employed this tool. Another tactic, agricultural protection zoning, designates areas where farming is the primary land use. Purchasing conservation easements or development rights also can work to stem the loss of farm land and we gave states credit for having these programs on the books. Still other states allow landowners to swap the right to develop one parcel of land for development rights on another. In concert with good land-use planning, this approach can steer development away from prime farmland. Unfortunately, some states have extremely weak implementation of their farmland protection programs. For example, although Michigan has a conservation easement program, it is languishing from neglect and lack of funding. A study by the American Farmland Trust measured the actual amount of prime farmland lost from 1982 to 1992.

Our last criterium measured the states on how well they manage floodplain sprawl. We used data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to measure the percentage of wetlands destruction permits granted in presidentially declared flood disaster areas. The greater the percentage of permits granted, the poorer job the state is doing to control floodplain sprawl. The better-performing states grant fewer permits for building in these areas. We also collected data from states and learned that the better-performing states had designed their own programs to minimize wetlands loss.


Sprawl and the Grizzly

"The fate of creatures is inextricably linked with the fate of places."-- Wendell Berry

Grizzly BearWe are losing animal and plant life faster than at any time since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson projects that one out of every five species will die out within the next 25 years and never be known by our grandchildren. The number one reason for this accelerating rate of extinction is habitat loss. And the fastest growing cause of habitat loss? Sprawl.

There is a high correlation between out-of-control development and wildlife loss. The areas where sprawl is growing the fastest -- the Southeast, Southwest, Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states -- are where the rate of species extinction and decline is greatest.

Two American icons tell the tale best:

Grizzly Bear
When Lewis and Clark explored the West, 100,000 grizzly bears roamed and ruled the land from the Mississippi River to the Pacific coast. Now there are fewer than 1,000 grizzlies left in the lower 48 states -- and they can be found only in the Greater Yellowstone area and four other isolated pockets of still-wild high country. But escalating development in 20 Montana, Idaho and Wyoming counties is threatening grizzly bear habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

According to a Sierra Club Grizzly Bear Ecosystems Project report, this "rapid growth, unprecedented around Yellowstone, is bad news for the grizzly bear, which requires large blocks of unbroken wilderness to survive." The grizzly bear is now listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, and the accelerating rate of development and habitat loss argue forcefully for keeping the bear under federal wildlife and habitat protections.

Pacific Salmon
It's a mystery scientists still can't explain. Every year salmon leave the sea, stop eating, and swim for days and even weeks. They fight the current -- sluicing through rapids, leaping up waterfalls -- to return bruised and worn to the precise place of their birth. What scientists do know is that to spawn and start life all over again, salmon need clean, flowing water and undisturbed streambeds. But development in Seattle and around Puget Sound has disturbed the streambeds and destroyed salmon habitat.

In June 1999, nine species of Pacific salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act. The reason? Habitat loss caused by sprawl. Now Washington's state and local governments are under federal mandate to reduce the effects of siltification and pollution on the tenacious fish that's come to symbolize the spirit and strength of the Pacific Northwest.

The effects of overdevelopment on the grizzly bear and Pacific salmon are not unique. The fact is, in every region and every state wildlife and their habitat are threatened by sprawl. And once the habitat is gone, so are the creatures that live there. The only way to salvage what's left of our natural habitat and protect our unique heritage of animals and plants is to get a grip on suburban sprawl.


Focus on: Maryland

Over the past few years, "Save The Chesapeake Bay" has become a ubiquitous rallying cry in Maryland. Now, with the urging of environmentalists and the leadership of Gov. Parris Glendening, "Save Our Open Space" may become just as widely heard.

Two years ago, the state started the Rural Legacy Program, which earmarks up to $140 million over the next five years for the purchase of open spaces that are threatened by development. The program allows local governments and land trusts to choose rural areas that need protection. Using a competitive process, the top projects are selected. In cases where outright land purchases aren't feasible, the program can purchase easements that protect the land from development.

Maryland is also one of the most active buyers of development rights in the country. This program has protected more than 117,000 acres of farm land with permanent easements.

The long-established Program Open Space has protected an additional 189,000 acres since 1969. Despite its success, the program, paid for by land-transfer fees, suffers from inconsistent funding. The state has periodically diverted funds from it to subsidize inappropriate projects, including a minor-league baseball stadium.

The most ambitious plans are the ones currently in the works. Gov. Glendening plans to buy 58,000 acres along the state's Eastern Shore. These forests -- which form a natural buffer along waterways that lead to the Bay -- also cradle five rivers on the Eastern Shore: the Marshyhope, Nanticoke, Black Water, Pocomoke and Wicomico. All five are key wildlife corridors with important fisheries. This purchase would represent the state's largest land purchase in history.

In the state by the Bay, development pressures continue to mount, and the stakes are high. At Eagle Cove along the Potomac River, the Sierra Club is fighting a proposed entertainment complex that annually would add 12 million tourists -- and their cars -- to an already congested area. Maryland agencies have granted state permits to allow the project to proceed.


Rate Your State: Open Space Protection

1 State Open Space Protection
2 Agricultural Protection Districts
3 Agricultural Protection Zoning
4 Purchase of Agricultural Conservation Easements
5 Transfer of Development Rights
6 Percent of Prime Farmland Destroyed 1982-92
7 Floodplain sprawl
8 Field Expert Input

Key
1
: very effective
2: moderately effective
3: not effective
Rank State 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
1 Maryland 1 1 2 1 2 3 1 3
2 New Jersey 1 1 3 1 2 3 1 3
3 Illinois 2 1 2 3 3 1 3 1
4 Oregon 1 3 1 3 3 2 3 1
5 Colorado 3 3 2 1 2 2 1 3
6 Michigan 2 3 2 1 3 2 1 3
7 Montana 3 3 2 2 2 1 1 3
8 Ohio 2 3 3 A 3 3 2 3
9 Pennsylvania 2 1 2 1 2 3 2 3
10 California 2 1 2 1 2 3 3 3
11 Minnesota 2 1 2 3 2 1 2 3
12 Massachusetts 2 1 3 1 2 3 2 3
13 Wisconsin 3 3 2 2 3 2 2 2
14 Florida 1 3 2 2 2 3 2 3
15 Maine 2 3 3 1 3 2 2 2
16 Vermont 1 3 3 1 2 3 3 2
17 New York 2 1 3 1 2 2 3 3
18 Utah 3 1 2 3 2 3 1 3
19 Rhode Island 2 3 3 1 3 3 3 1
20 Delaware 3 1 3 1 3 3 2 3
21 Kentucky 3 1 3 1 3 3 2 3
22 Kansas 3 3 2 3 3 1 2 3
23 Wyoming 3 3 2 3 3 1 2 3
24 Connecticut 2 3 3 2 3 3 2 2
25 Georgia 2 3 3 3 2 3 2 2
26 Oklahoma B 1 3 3 3 1 3 3
27 Nevada 3 3 3 3 3 2 2 2
28 North Carolina 2 3 3 3 3 3 2 2
29 Washington 2 3 2 2 2 3 3 3
30 Nebraska 2 3 2 3 3 1 3 3
31 Idaho 3 3 2 3 2 2 2 3
32 Virginia 3 1 2 2 3 3 C 3
33 Iowa 3 1 2 3 3 1 3 3
34 Tennessee 3 1 3 3 3 3 3 2
35 Indiana 3 3 2 3 3 2 2 3
36 Mississippi 3 3 3 3 3 3 2 3
37 Alabama 2 3 3 3 3 2 3 3
38 New Mexico 3 3 3 3 3 2 2 3
39 North Dakota B 1 2 3 3 1 3 3
40 Hawaii 3 3 1 3 3 D C 2
41 Arkansas 3 3 3 3 3 1 3 3
42 Arizona 2 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
43 New Hampshire 3 3 3 1 3 3 3 3
44 Missouri 3 3 3 3 3 1 3 3
45 South Dakota B 3 2 3 3 1 3 3
46 Texas B 3 3 3 3 2 3 3
47 Louisiana 3 3 3 3 3 2 3 3
48 South Carolina 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3
49 Alaska 3 3 3 3 3 D 3 3
50 West Virginia 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3


Notes:
A Ohio passed a state Purchase of Agricultural Easments Bill, but it is not yet funded.
B National Governors Association report, National Conference of State Legislatures, and Trust for Public Land did not have information on these states.
C Neither Army Corps nor states were able to provide this data.
D Hawaii and Alaska are missing from the American Farmland Trust's information.


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