The Signal

How Population Growth Could Slow

- Joe GUZZARDI Joe Guzzardi is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist who writes about immigratio­n and related social issues.

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.

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