Environment bears the brunt of migration growth in U.S.

America lost 17,800 square miles of open space — an area the size of New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware combined — to urban sprawl between 2002 and 2017, according to an environmental impact study that I just co-authored.

Developers are cutting down our forests and paving over our farmland to meet our insatiable demand for more houses, office buildings, shopping centers and highways. Population growth was responsible for 67% of the loss of open space, for the U.S. as a whole, though the percentage differs from state to state.

If politicians and environmentalists are serious about keeping America beautiful — and preventing fields full of amber waves of grain from being turned into strip malls and subdivisions — they’ll need to moderate the growth of the U.S. population.

My fellow environmentalists have long been concerned about the loss of open space and natural habitats to sprawl. But many argued that we could solve the problem through a combination of greater density and more environmentally conscious lifestyles.

Constructing more urban apartment high-rises, rather than single-family homes in the suburbs, certainly helps reduce sprawl at the margins, though “pack ’em and stack ’em” often enacts a quality-of-life cost on existing residents. But 26 states successfully reduced their per-capita land use over the past two decades thanks to denser living — yet all 26 still lost open space. The absolute growth of the U.S. population, which increased by 37 million people from 2002 to 2017, more than canceled out any per-capita improvements.

Even if we could pack everyone into cities — which is unfeasible, given many Americans’ long-standing cultural expectations of having yards and single-family homes — we’d still need to cut and clear more forests for agricultural land to feed all the extra mouths. We’d still need to dam more rivers to create reservoirs to supply drinking water. We’d still need more factories, power plants, schools, hospitals and waste management plants.

Simply put, sprawl is an inevitable consequence of population growth. While each U.S. resident directly consumes about one-third of an acre of land, on average, each American’s ecological footprint indirectly consumes approximately 20 acres.

Our leaders once understood this. In the late 1990s, back when the U.S. population was only about 280 million, President Clinton’s Task Force on Population and Consumption of his Council on Sustainable Development warned that we needed to “move toward stabilizing the U.S. population.”

If we failed to do so, the task force projected that the “U.S. population is likely to reach 350 million by the year 2030; a level that would place even greater strain on our ability to increase prosperity, clean up pollution, alleviate congestion, manage sprawl, and reduce the overall consumption of resources.”

But politicians didn’t heed that report. The U.S. population currently exceeds 332 million people — and we’re on track to reach the predicted 350 million by the end of this decade and top 400 million by 2060.

So how could we actually moderate population growth?

The answer is straightforward, albeit politically challenging. Migration from other countries — rather than domestic births — is the primary driver of U.S. population growth. In fact, Pew Research projects that “88% of the increase” in the population over the next several decades will be “linked to future immigrants and their descendants.”

Curtailing the level of future migration is the only way to save our open spaces.

That’s not a reflection on our immigrant friends, neighbors — or in my own case, family members — who are overwhelmingly law-abiding contributors to our society. It’s simply an acknowledgement that the current influx of foreign nationals — about 1 million legal immigrants and 2 million illegal ones last year alone — is driving our population growth, which in turn is destroying our open spaces.

Our leaders can preserve our open spaces by stabilizing our population. Or they can maintain the status quo and let sprawl continue unchecked. But they can’t do both.

Leon Kolankiewicz, an environmental scientist and planner, serves as vice president of Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization.