Help preserve the Piedmont by reducing immigration

By Leon Kolankiewicz

Greater Atlanta lost far more open land to urban development than any other U.S. metro area from 2000 to 2010. Charlotte and Raleigh in North Carolina ranked sixth and eighth, respectively, on a list of the top 10 metro areas affected by sprawl.

The entire southern Piedmont region — the roughly 500-mile-long stretch of foothills running from north-central North Carolina down through northern Georgia — is developing so fast, in just a few decades more it could become one nearly continuous swath of strip malls and subdivisions by midcentury.

Piedmont residents detest this explosive sprawl — and the congestion and pollution it brings. Just 13 percent are happy with the current rate of growth. Three in four would prefer slower or zero growth.

Image by Colgate University

There are several factors driving sprawl. State and local officials offer tax incentives to developers and multinational corporations to encourage rapid development. In addition, the Piedmont is an attractive place for many who move to seek job prospects, escape population density and sprawl in other regions, and increasingly as a retirement destination.

The other factor causing sprawl is U.S. population growth, most of which is driven by immigration. If current trends continue, immigration will add another 103 million people to the U.S. population by 2065, accounting for almost 90 percent of total future growth.

Between 1982 and 2010, the Piedmont’s population rose from 9.0 million to 15.7 million, a 74 percent jump. Immigration drove roughly 40 percent of that increase.

This rapid growth has transformed the landscape. Developers converted forests, wetlands, and farmlands into roads, strip malls, and housing tracts. Each additional resident necessitates the destruction of roughly half an acre of natural habitat.

The Piedmont has lost nearly 4 million acres of open space — an area the size of New Jersey — over the last few decades. In particular, wetlands, which filter pollutants out of groundwater and mitigate flooding, are disappearing at an alarming rate.

This sprawl has wiped out habitats, and the longleaf pine tree ecosystem, home to scores of threatened and endangered species, now covers just 5 percent of its historic range.

Losing these wild places is bad for people. Spending time in open spaces reduces the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses. It also improves mental health.

Smarter immigration policies would humanely reduce population growth. They’d also prove popular with voters. When presented with Census data that show immigration is a key driver of the regional population explosion, nearly two-thirds of Piedmont residents favored reducing immigration.

We can’t preserve our precious natural habitats unless we curb immigration. As the President’s Council on Sustainable Development put it, “Reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward sustainability.”

That’s not President Trump’s council, by the way. That’s President Bill Clinton’s advisors, writing in 1996.

Simply put, Americans can continue admitting more than 1 million legal immigrants to the U.S. population each year. Or we can choose to preserve our remaining open spaces. But we can’t do both.

Leon Kolankiewicz is the scientific director at NumbersUSA.