SALT LAKE CITY — A new study shows Utah is second only to Nevada in its rate of urban sprawl over a 10-year period and is No. 7 in the country over the past 28 years for undeveloped land giving way to development.
Overall, undeveloped acreage equal to the size of Florida has been paved over in the United States from 1982 to 2010, with 11 million acres of cropland gone and 12 million acres of pasture and rangeland lost to buildings and highways, according to the study.
"There are all kinds of reasons why cropland is like sitting ducks waiting to be massacred and mowed down," said Roy Beck, one of the authors of "Vanishing Open Spaces: How an Exploding U.S. Population is Devouring the Land that Feeds and Nourishes Us."
The study, released to coincide with Earth Day on Tuesday, also makes use of an April poll that shows the American public is concerned about protecting farmland and natural areas — for national food security considerations, safeguarding wildlife and for spiritual and emotional regeneration. The Pulse Opinion Research shows, for example, that 92 percent of Americans say it is important to protect farmland from development to ensure the ability to feed the country in the future.
"Cities have been built in the middle of where prime farm land once was, which makes sense because cities were started where you can grow crops," Beck said. Cropland is the easiest land and the cheaper land to build on."
The study, done by the nonprofit, nonpartisan NumbersUSA Education & Research Foundation, was drawn on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Beck's foundation is an immigration-reduction organization centered around the premise of "environmental sustainability, economic justice, the rule of law, and individual liberty, and opposition to federal immigration policies that threaten these values by forcing massive U.S. population growth."
The NRCS data showing how states compare on sprawl indicate that from 2002 to 2010, population growth were the most important factor in the loss of non-federal land, accounting for 91 percent of new development.
And in those 10 states experiencing the most sprawl (Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Delaware, Texas, Florida, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Georgia) population grew on average more than three times as fast as the states with the least sprawl percentage.
Beck said what has unfolded in Utah and in the Salt Lake-West Valley metro area over the past 10 years has been dramatic.
"Utah as a percentage of what it already had is spreading quite rapidly," Beck said. "Consequently, people in Utah may feel the sprawl more likely than in other states. It may feel like it is more dramatic because it is."
He also predicted that the impacts from the rapid change are impacting quality of life for residents who may feel pinched by the growth.
"Almost invariably, people are a long way from the edge of the city and it is a lot more effort for people who have lived a long time in Utah to get a natural space."
The study looked at 497 U.S. urbanized areas and noted that the ongoing growth between Salt Lake City and West Valley City effectively connected the two cities. In that category, the area came in at No. 80, with Salt Lake developing out an additional 47.2 additional square miles from 2000 to 2010.
Beck acknowledged that Utah and its metropolitan parts are growing in rampant fashion because it has more "room to grow" than in other, older areas, but the growth also speaks to mindset.
"There are competing drives in the pioneer tradition. One of the drives is one that absolutely values the land that was once wilderness, one that certainly values the farmland which was the basis for these farmland economies," he said. "But there is the other tradition where if you are going into wilderness, you want to populate it quickly and establish a philosophy that bigger is better and growth is always good."
Beck and others caution that the growth comes with costs.
"We have to be wise. There has to be a local, county and state policy in place that helps drive the way we want to develop Utah," said Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy at the Utah Farm Bureau.
"We have to ask if Utah citizens want a strong, sustainable agricultural industry, and if the answer is yes, we need to establish a policy to protect that industry."
As population increases continue to drive pressure on transportation and housing options, the urban planners are observing some shifts.
"The big issue we are seeing is the demand for condos, townhomes and apartments is higher than it used to be in terms of the percentage of the market. People are choosing with their checkbooks," said Sam Klemm, spokesman with the Wasatch Front Regional Council.
"We are going to build them anyway, so why not build them around the transit stops?"
That planning approach is incorporated as a key tenet of Wasatch Choice 2040 vision, which considers how transportation, growth and open space co-exist in the decades to come.
With Utah's population to nearly double by 2050, planners say the key is to be smart.
"A small amount of land developed at an urban density can replace a huge piece of land that is developed at a suburban or ranchette style density," said Ted Knowlton, deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council. "It only takes a small amount of strategic growth to replace a large amount of growth on vacant land."
Knowlton said cities have embraced the vision of Wasatch Choice 2040, the tough challenges remain in implementation.
"It is fair to say there needs to be a much bigger emphasis on thinking through carefully what are the landscapes we want to conserve in perpetuity and how we are going to do that," Knowlton said.
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