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How Much Land Is In Its Natural State?


Previous posts have explored how Missouri is sprawling. How much of Missouri remains in its natural or semi-natural condition, able to provide the essential ecological services required to support life? How much has been converted to land that has no or little capacity to provide them? The maps I have shared in previous posts do not really answer this question.

EWGCG Naturalness Levels ChartI have, however, found a report that provides the information for a 7 county area served by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. The counties include Franklin County, Jefferson County, St. Charles County, St. Louis City, and St. Louis County in Missouri, and Madison County, St. Clair County, and Monroe County in Illinois.

The report seeks to identify environmentally important land for planning purposes. It ranks the land in 4 levels of “relative naturalness,” with 1 being the least natural and 4 being the most. Level 1 consists of urban land and cropland. Level 2 consists cultural and disturbance vegetation. Level 3 consists of natural and semi-natural vegetation. Level 4 consists of special communities that represent large contiguous areas of biological diversity.

The chart at right shows the amount of land classified at each level, while the map at right shows the location of the various levels. Almost 2/3 of the land has been degraded and no longer has its ability to provide essential ecological services. Only 1/3 remains in its natural or semi-natural state, capable of providing those services.

EWGCG Naturalness Levels MapNow, don’t assume that developed land provides no useful services. If you look at the map, the pink area represents urban land and cropland. Just based on location, it is obvious that much of the pink area is cropland, and cropland provides essential foodstuffs. Even impervious land, which is probably the type of land cover that provides the least ecological benefit, may provide a different kind of service, such as transportation.

Still, the trends I have reported in this and previous posts surely raise questions: how much population growth is sustainable? How much sprawl is ecologically sustainable? How much land can we convert from its natural purpose without harming our health, our environment, the very ability of the earth to sustain high quality life? Can we do better?


For the environmental impacts of land use: Our Built and Natural Environments: A Technical Review of the Interactions Among Land Use, Transportation, and Environmental Quality, Second Edition, Environmental Protection Agency, http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/built.htm.

For the naturalness rankings of land in the East-West Gateway Council of Governments Region: Diamond, David. (2011). Ecological Approach to Infrastructure Development For the East-West Gateway, Final Report for FY 2011. Missouri Resource Assessment Project. http://www.cerc.usgs.gov/morap/Assets/UploadedFiles/Projects/EastWestGateway/Regional%20Ecological%20Significance%20Data%20Layer%20Report.pdf.

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