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Federal Lands Experience Potential Growing Pains On Borders

Federal Lands Experience Potential Growing Pains On Borders

“Gateway communities,” or towns that border national parks and other federally managed lands, have attracted growing numbers of people seeking to live near the Great Outdoors. These communities and their residents have a substantial environmental impact on the federal land that attracted them to live there in the first place.

University of Arkansas researchers have found that between 1970 and 2000, the population in counties with federal lands within their borders has grown faster than population in counties without federal lands. Their findings point to a potential clash between federal conservation goals and urbanization in the absence of thoughtful planning.

Former graduate student Irene C. Frentz, now at Virginia Commonwealth University; Frank L. Farmer, professor of rural sociology; Kimberly Smith, professor of biological sciences; and James M. Guldin of the USDA Forest Service, reported their findings in the journal “Society and Natural Resources.”

Once, the boundaries of federal lands were typically comprised of spacious tracts used as cattle range and for forestry. But recent evidence points to changes in land use. Boundary tracts are being broken into smaller parcels and sold. This may affect the federal lands themselves, because the boundary lands form part of the natural ecosystem within the forests, wilderness areas and parks.

“This change in boundary land use has the potential to change the ecology of the system,” Farmer said.

The researchers examined data for the 48 contiguous states, using Census Bureau statistics from 1970, 1980, 1990 and 2000. They used maps and databases from the U.S. Geological Survey to determine county boundaries and the location of federal land parcels of 640 acres and larger. They used Geographic Information System (GIS) software to aggregate this information.

They found that median percentage population growth was higher for counties with federal lands than for counties without, regardless of the land management agency.

The researchers said their findings serve to alert federal land managers to population pressures that may affect lands under their care.

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