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Four Threats - Quick Facts

You are here: Four Threats > Quick Facts > Loss of Open Space

Loss of Open Space

Between 1982 and 2001, approximately 34 million acres of open space (an area the size of Illinois) were lost to development – approximately 4 acres per minute or 6,000 acres a day. Specific to forests, over 10 million acres were converted to houses, buildings, lawns, and pavement between 1982 and 1997, and 26 million acres more are projected to be developed by 2030. The total loss of forests from 1982 to 2030 will be close to the size of Georgia.


The number of acres lost tells only part of the story. New housing and other developments disturb a larger area than just the footprint of the new structures.

  • The Forests on the Edge project estimates that 44 million acres of private forest lands could experience sizeable increases in housing density by 2030 – giving us an idea of how much forest will be fragmented and divided into small parcels.

Land development is outpacing population growth

Current patterns of growth in rural areas are exacerbating forest fragmentation – rural development tends to be on large lots and scattered across the landscape.

  • As of 2000, rural residences occupied 7 times more land than urban and suburban residences (227 million acres vs. 31 million acres).
  • For the period 2000-2025, researchers predict land development to increase by 79% while population is expected to increase by 24%.

Impacts on forests and grasslands

  • The loss and fragmentation of open space affects the ability of forests and grasslands to provide benefits, ecosystem services, and products to society – such as clean water, scenic beauty, places to recreate, wildlife and biodiversity, wood and food, and natural resource-based jobs.
  • Smaller ownership parcels, especially when used as house lots, can be more difficult to manage for timber, forest health, and wildfire prevention.

Development trends

  • Land development is concentrated in rural areas – between 1994-1997, nearly 80 percent of new housing construction occurred outside of urban areas. Almost all of this land (94 percent) is in lots of 1 acre or larger.
  • The Southeast has experienced the greatest loss of open space, with over 6 million acres developed between 1982 and 1997.
  • Areas with recent gains in population include the Mountain West, Upper Great Lakes , Ozarks, and parts of the South and Northeast. Areas losing population include the Great Plains , Western Corn Belt , and Mississippi Delta.
  • The fastest growing rural counties include those with National Forests and other natural amenities.
  • More than one-third of all houses now fall within the wildland-urban interface, putting more people and property at risk to wildfire.
  • Retirees, second home owners, telecommuters, and long-distance commuters are building homes in rural areas with open space amenities. In some of the Great Lakes counties, up to 80 percent of residences are second homes.

Last Update: 30 October 2006

US Forest Service
Last modified March 28, 2013

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