Category Archives: The West

The human footprint in the American West

Over the past few years, I’ve been creating slides—hundreds and hundreds them. The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a major environmental funder, asked us to take stock of the state of the North American West, one of its geographic priorities. Rather than write a report that would quickly be shelved, we decided to answer the question in PowerPoint by developing a half-dozen presentations that summarize environmental trends (see our summary here).

If I had to pick a “favorite” slide out of the more than 500 I created, it would be the one below, which illustrates the intensity of the human footprint in the region based on an analysis of urbanization, agriculture, transportation networks, energy development, and other factors.

Human footprint in American West

I put “favorite” in quotes because this slide isn’t exactly something to celebrate. Rather, this map offers a stark reminder that we’ve already messed up much of the West

Despite the preponderance of public land in the region, few areas have been spared from direct—and oftentimes permanent—human influence. Even landscapes far from any city or suburb have been irreparably altered by farms, roads, gas wells, invasive species, and a host of other human-driven forces.

[pullquote]Western paradox: much of the region is nominally protected, but humanity’s imprint is already deep and indelible.[/pullquote]

At the same time, this map shows that the West is still home to vast expanses of untrammeled land and some of the wildest terrain left on the continent. In light of climate change, we can no longer describe any place on Earth as pristine. But the blank spaces on this map still retain the natural qualities that have captivated visitors for centuries and they continue to support an amazing array of ecosystems.

Mapping the human footprint in the American West from EcoWest on Vimeo.

Measuring human impacts

The human footprint map is based on the work of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists and was the basis of a 2008 paper in Ecological Applications by Matthias Leu, Steven E. Hanser, and Steven T. Knick.

White indicates areas with the least human impact (5.5% of the region), followed by green for places where the footprint is minimal, while orange and red areas are where people have done the most to transform native ecosystems.

To develop the map, the scientists focused on 14 features, including the location of cities, farms, transportation networks, irrigation canals, power lines, oil and gas wells, and human-caused wildfires. Based on this geographic data, the researchers were able to model how humans influence wildlife populations, both directly as we modify or destroy habitat, and more indirectly, as we introduce non-native predators and invasive species. “These actions,” the researchers write, “can impact plants and wildlife to such an extent that the persistence of populations or entire species is questionable.”

Although the researchers were primarily interested in modeling effects on shrubland species, they produced maps for all 11 Western states that rate the human footprint from 1 (least) to 10 (most). Here are some of the reference locations for each human footprint class:

  1. Yellowstone National Park, Death Valley National Park, and the crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
  2. Mount Rainier National Park, Washington
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado and Mount Shasta, California
  4. Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
  5. Foothills west of Boulder, Colorado
  6. Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, Montana
  7. Salinas Valley, California
  8. Agricultural areas in the Snake River Plain, Idaho and in Napa Valley, California
  9. Agricultural areas near Kennewick, Washington
  10. Boise, Idaho, Los Angeles, and agricultural areas south of Fresno, California

What’s really cool about this map is its detailed resolution: 180 meters, or 591 feet. I must confess that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time zooming around this map and ground-truthing it against my travels in the region. If you love spending time in the wilderness, the white and deep green pixels offer a sort of bucket list for backcountry trips. I’ve annotated some in the map below.

an footprint in American West

Farms have biggest footprint

As you might image, many of the most heavily impacted areas are in and around cities, with the metropolises of Southern California, the Bay Area, Puget Sound, and the Colorado Front Range showing up clearly.

But it turns out that agriculture has the biggest footprint in the region, sometimes in places without many people. While the Central Valley of California and the Willamette Valley of Oregon are home to some good-sized cities, there aren’t many residents in the orange and red sections of Southeast Washington and Southern Idaho.

Undeveloped lands still vulnerable

Many of the white and deep green sections are already protected as wilderness areas, usually in national forests or national parks, but sometimes on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Fish and Wildlife Service. In this version below, blue indicates the location of wilderness areas in places such as the Sierra Nevada, Mojave Desert, Northern Cascades, and Northern Rockies. Purple shows where national parks and monuments are located. Larger parks, such as Yellowstone, Glacier, Death Valley, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, and Olympic are clearly visible. Pink depicts so-called Wilderness Study Areas, which the BLM is currently managing as wilderness but which haven’t been permanently protected by Congress.

an footprint in American West

These wilderness areas, parks, monuments, and Wilderness Study Areas cover many of the least disturbed areas, but not all of them. Most of the other areas that are white or deep green are public lands, but they are not receiving the special protections afforded to wilderness and preserves. Even land that is ostensibly “public,” such as the millions of acres of state-owned school-trust land in the West, may be vulnerable to development because state governments help fund their educational systems through the sale and lease of such parcels.

Mapping the human footprint in the West isn’t just an academic exercise. “Because funding for restoration and conservation projects is limited,” the USGS researchers write, “and because there is little room for errors in the management of species of concern, land managers are able to maximize restoration and conservation efforts in areas minimally influenced by the human footprint.”

Poring over these maps, I was surprised by the extent of farming’s footprint and impressed by the size of some undeveloped areas in the Northern Rockies and Southwestern deserts.

What geographic patterns strike you as most meaningful? Does the map match your own experiences in the West?

Data sources

You can learn more about the analysis and download the data on this USGS website. The 2008 Ecological Applications paper is available here and the USGS offers a summary here.


EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

3, 2, 1 . . . EcoWest is launching!

The American West is evolving faster than ever. Population growth is increasing pressure on scarce resources. Climate change is compounding traditional environmental threats. Demographic trends are reshaping the region’s complexion.

Such rapid, profound changes make it vital to analyze and share data on the West. Browse through any newspaper in the region and you’ll see detailed dashboards depicting stock prices, batting averages, and weather forecasts. But what about the state of the West itself? Is the environment improving or declining? What’s happening with droughts, floods, and fires? Which species are in trouble? Where is our energy economy heading?

We’ve created EcoWest to answer these questions, and many others.

Visualizing environmental trends

EcoWest’s mission is to creatively communicate what the latest research, monitoring, and polling is revealing about how the West is changing. In essence, we’re trying to tell the story of the region’s environment through the medium of PowerPoint slides, graphics, charts, maps, dashboards, and other data visualizations.

Although has been live for some time now, it’s been in beta mode as we’ve been testing features, wrapping up initial research, and populating the site. As of now, we’re officially launched!

So how does this thing work?

Since 2010, we’ve been gathering, sorting, sifting, slicing, and dicing reams of data on environmental trends. We’ve organized our research and conclusions into a half-dozen narrated PowerPoint presentations that cover biodiversity, climate change, land use, politics, water, and wildfires in the West. On each of these main pages, you can download the slide deck, notes, sources, and underlying data, as well as watch a video of the presentation. Sub-pages, such as this one on wildfire trends, are where you’ll find dashboards that allow you to interact with the data and download images.

Starting now, we’ll be posting new content a couple times a week, culling relevant material from the news cycle and commenting on new research. We’ll be updating the EcoWest material as new data becomes available and plan to grow the site in the years ahead.

What have you concluded from all this research?

A good place to start is our executive summary deck, which draws from the half-dozen PowerPoint presentations and synthesizes the findings of the research. Links to download the presentation are at the bottom of this post.

It requires both chutzpah and simplification to summarize a sprawling region that is defined by the very diversity of its ecology, climate, and people. But let me be so bold as to encapsulate the findings into a half-dozen points:

1)     The human footprint in the West is surprisingly large

Among the most striking aspects of the American West are its unpopulated expanses and the prevalence of public land. But humanity’s imprint is already deep and indelible in most of the region. Sure, population growth is a big driver, but it’s actually agriculture that creates a bigger footprint than cities, suburbs, and other residential development. Even remote public lands may be crisscrossed by highways or carved up by industrial activities that are permitted under the multiple-use doctrine. The West is still home to some of the wildest and least disturbed landscapes on the continent, but only some of these relatively pristine areas are strictly protected as wilderness, national parks, or other preserves.

human footprint

2)     Growth and climate change are compounding the water crisis

For more than a century, smart people have been warning about the perils of settling an unforgiving land with an inherently capricious water supply. Even without considering climate change, the West would be facing a water crisis pitting rising demands against limited resources. As global warming shrinks the vital snowpack and reduces the flow in some key river basins, conflicts over water are bound to increase, but so are transfers of water rights. With farms still consuming the vast majority of the region’s water and cities searching for new supplies, we’ll be seeing more and more water changing hands. Municipal water demand is certainly increasing, but it’s still less than what the energy sector withdraws from streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. It not only takes gobs of water to power our energy economy; it also takes a ton of energy to pump, move, clean, and deliver water.

water use

3)     Species were in trouble even without climate change

The West is home to some amazing wildlife success stories. Game species that were almost wiped out during the first waves of settlement, such as deer, elk, and pronghorn, have bounced back, sometimes to the point of overpopulation. Endangered species, such as California condors and black-footed ferrets, have been pulled back from the brink. Yet the number of imperiled plants and animals continues to grow, despite political meddling with the Endangered Species Act. In the West and elsewhere, freshwater species are in especially dire straits. Few plants and animals are now threatened by overhunting and collecting, but habitat loss and invasive species remain chronic problems. Climate change, which is already transforming entire ecosystems, could pose an existential threat to some species by eliminating their habitat.

species threats

4)     Wildfires are growing larger and will only get worse

Climate change and the legacy of misguided fire suppression will continue to make the West’s wildfire season longer, costlier, and more destructive. Not all fires are bad, and not all acres burned are “destroyed,” as the media often reports. But while fire is an essential part of most Western forests, woodlands, and grasslands, many ecosystems are ecologically out of whack. The government has been treating an increasing number of acres with mechanical thinning and prescribed burns, but it’s just a drop in the bucket. As temperatures keep increasing and the snowpack melts earlier in the year, the wildfire season is expected to lengthen and worsen. At the same time, more and more Westerners are living in the wildland-urban interface, where homes and businesses are especially vulnerable to wildfires.


5)     Westerners want a vibrant economy and a healthy environment

It’s no surprise that the environment tends to rank low on the public’s agenda during an economic downturn. But Americans—and Westerners in particular—often support the environmental movement’s goals of reducing pollution, promoting renewable energy, and protecting public lands. To be sure, the old environment-versus-economy dichotomy is still part of our political rhetoric, but if you drill down into polling results, especially in the West, you’ll find that many people reject that as a false choice and see a vibrant economy as dependent on a healthy environment. Even so, recent polls have shown an upward trend in hostility toward environmental groups.


6)     Reason for hope: we’re getting cleaner and more efficient

Although millions of Westerners remain exposed to toxic air pollution, it’s undeniable that the air quality in most places is better than it was decades ago. Just as the Clean Air Act has cleansed the skies of many hazardous materials, the Clean Water Act has also led to some dramatic improvements in our water quality. Overall, we’re becoming more efficient in our water and energy use, thanks to new technologies and a stronger conservation ethic. While fossil fuels continue to dominate our energy economy, wind power is making huge strides and becoming competitive with power plants burning natural gas, while solar panels are popping up on the roofs of homes and businesses across the region.

air quality
In short, the West is at risk and many of the trends are troubling, but even this cynical native New Yorker can find some glimmers of optimism amid the gloom and doom.

Who is behind this project?

EcoWest is a product of California Environmental Associates, the environmental consulting firm where I’m communications director, and it’s supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Western Conservation subprogram, which seeks to “protect and restore biologically important and iconic areas of the North American West in ways that help create sustainable communities and build broader and more effective conservation constituencies.”

We’ve been working as consultants to the Packard Foundation since 2010, writing independent evaluations of their grantmaking and monitoring trends in Western conservation. Although this site is supported by the Packard Foundation, they do not exert editorial control over the content, and the opinions expressed on this site are not necessarily shared by the Foundation or its grantees.

While developing EcoWest, we’ve been consulting with a half-dozen advisors who have helped us interpret the data, explain the limitations, identify emerging threats, and look across the issues to highlight priorities for Western conservation.

I also want to give a shout out to my fabulous colleagues at California Environmental Associates who have assisted with the project.

How can I stay connected to EcoWest?

Pick your poison! We broadcast our content on a variety of channels, so please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.

I’d also like to encourage you to add your own voice to the conservation conversation by commenting on posts, and I invite you to share any feedback on the site by contacting me directly.

I have a ton of great content that I’m excited to share and I hope you’ll join me on the journey ahead.


What is the West? 5 ways the region stands out

The “West” is as much a cultural invention as a geographical construct, so it’s a difficult place to define. Ranging from the driest of deserts to the wettest of rainforests, the lands of Western North America include an incredible diversity of ecosystems and people.

But in many ways, the American West does hang together as a region. The public domain dominates many states and the landscape tends to be much drier than the rest of the country. It is a land with limited water supplies, but vast tracts of open space, a region where extreme topography gives rise to an exceptionally rich array of species.

The West is complex and defies easy categorization, but below I explain EcoWest’s geographic focus and discuss the five characteristics that set the region apart. Links to a supporting PowerPoint deck are at the bottom of this post.

What is the West? from EcoWest on Vimeo.

The 11 Western states

Broadly speaking, EcoWest covers environmental trends in Western North America, but our research has focused on the 11 contiguous Western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

EcoWest focus
Admittedly, this focus excludes parts of Western North America, including Alaska, Western Canada, and Northern Mexico. Some of EcoWest’s resources also cover these areas, but data availability and a need to constrain our research led us to concentrate on 11 states that share some common qualities.

Compared to the rest of the country, I think the 11 Western states stand out in five dimensions:

1)     Abundant public land

The West’s prevalence of public land—most of it federal—sets the region apart from the rest of the country and has played a pivotal role in its evolution. This pattern of land ownership explains why so much of the West has remained relatively wild. The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are the biggest landowners, but the West is also home to considerable tracts of tribal and state property. Public lands certainly aren’t immune to development pressures, especially because many are managed under the “multiple use” doctrine that allows grazing, mining, logging, energy development, motorized recreation, and other human activities. But all that public land is a major reason why so much of the West is unpopulated.
Federal land

2)     Aridity, with some exceptions

As you move west across the United States, the climate generally gets drier, with the notable exceptions of the Pacific Coast, Cascade Mountains, and Sierra Nevada Range. West of the 100th Meridian, irrigation is usually required to support agriculture and river flows tend to depend on melting snowpack from the mountains. Every Western state includes some very arid terrain that is far drier than anything back East, even Washington and Oregon, where the Cascade Mountains cast a stark rain shadow.  Another striking feature of the West’s climate is the spottiness of precipitation patterns and the close proximity of wet and dry areas.

3)     Rollercoaster topography

The West’s huge variance in precipitation is matched by its wild swings in temperature. Much of this is due to the region’s legendary topography. For example, the scorching desert of Death Valley, 282 feet below sea level and the lowest point on the continent, is only 85 miles away from the snow-capped peak of Mount Whitney, 14,505 feet above sea level and the tallest point in the contiguous 48 states.
temperature variation

4)     Diversity of species and ecosystems

The broad spectrum of elevations, temperatures, and precipitation patterns explains why the West is home to such a diverse set of ecosystems and species. In Southern Arizona, for instance, the valley bottoms are deserts filled with cacti, but the mountain ranges are two miles above sea level and support lush forests harboring moss and mushrooms. The map below shows the West’s various ecoregions, each of which is a unique ecological neighborhood that supports an impressive diversity of plants and animals, many of them found nowhere else on the planet.

5)     Growing population

The preceding four factors are natural ones and are as true today as they were centuries or even millennia ago. But a final, human factor is also worth noting. The West’s population has been booming for decades. By 2030, the region is expected to be home to a quarter of all Americans, up from essentially 0 percent in 1830 and 9 percent in 1930. To be sure, other parts of the United States, such as the South, are also growing. But the steady influx of new residents in the West—and their growing demands on natural resources—is the fundamental challenge facing the region and the leitmotif in its environmental history.
western population

How would you define the West?

Defining the region as the 11 Western states has some shortcomings. Wildlife doesn’t respect lines on maps. Issues like the Keystone XL pipeline and the environmental impact of the border fence in the Southwest highlight how Canada, the United States, and Mexico are economically and ecologically integrated. We had to draw the line somewhere, but I’d be curious to hear feedback on this decision.

Likewise, I wonder if the five factors I describe above are the right ones. Are there other geographical, physical, cultural, political, or social dimensions that define the West?


EcoWest’s mission is to analyze, visualize, and share data on environmental trends in the North American West. Please subscribe to our RSS feed, opt-in for email updates, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.