How Population Growth Could Slow
The United States Forest Service, a Department of Agriculture agency that administers the nation’s 154 forests and manages 194 million acres of land, released an analysis that estimated that, every day, the nation loses 6 million acres of open space.
USFS defines open space as publicly or privately owned, protected or unprotected areas that include forests, grasslands, farms, ranches, streams, rivers and parks. The 6 million acres lost to development at what USFS called “an alarming rate” hampers a functioning ecosystem, agriculture, forest health and recreation.
Although the USFS developed its “Forests on the Edge” program to emphasize preserving open space, no educational campaign can keep up with U.S. population growth and urban sprawl it generates. A Numbersusa study, “Vanishing Open Spaces, Population Growth and Sprawl in America,” analyzed the projected long-term decline in per capita farmland. Using the projected cropland losses based on 1982-2010 data, and U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, the study found: available cropland will have declined from 1.9 acres per person in 1982 to 0.3 acre per person in 2100, an 84% cropland loss decrease. After two centuries of nonstop development, little of the remaining acreage would be in pristine condition.
Assuming the Census Bureau 2050 and 2100 population projections prove accurate, population of 404 million and 571 million, respectively, and available cropland per person declines to a corresponding 0.7 and 0.3 acre per person, government officials should be gravely concerned. Available food production will be drastically slashed – too many mouths to feed and not enough farmland to produce the food.
Selling farmland to developers is lucrative and often too good a deal for farmers to decline. Farming is a tough, often uncertain business. Crops can be hit with blight; bad weather can impact yield, and crop prices may decline. The land is more valuable to developers than to the farmer-owner. Farmland might be worth $10,000 or $20,000 per acre, but as residential or commercial land, rezoned, it might be valued at $100,000 or more per acre.
The core issue is the federal government’s inability – some say refusal – to adopt sustainable population policies. The Census Bureau has identified immigration and births to immigrants as the population growth’s primary driver. In February 2020, the Census Bureau published “A Changing Nation: Population Projections Under Alternative Immigration Scenarios.” It showed that between 2020 and 2060 different legal immigration levels – zero, low and high – could change the population in those years by as much as 127 million people, with estimates ranging anywhere from 330 million to a high of 447 million total U.S. residents.
In the zero-immigration scenario that also accounts for out-emigration, natural increases (births minus deaths) are the only way population can increase. Negative natural increases will, in the zero-immigration scenario, create a shrinking population with annual declines starting in 2035 and continuing at an accelerated pace through 2060.
The Census Bureau is the ultimate Washington, D.C., nonpartisan agency. Many wonder, then, why the Joe Biden administration, and the many Republican and Democratic administrations that preceded the current one, have ignored, or merely paid lip service to, the population conclusions.
The Census Bureau acknowledges its zero immigration calculations are hypothetical, but low immigration, generally considered about 500,000 or about half the current admission level, would be an overdue step in the right direction. Under the high immigration estimate, the 2060 population will increase 124 million to 447 million. The 5-million-plus border surge, which grows every day, is excluded from the data, but if included would increase the 2060 population increase well beyond the 124 million.
Even if legal immigration is reduced to the Census Bureau’s low level, the U.S. will remain the world’s most welcoming nation, open to refugees, asylees and others. Reduced immigration will help protect the natural resources that make the U.S. the preferred destination of immigrants.