ELCR: We’re Saving Land For Hay

I’m sure that if you?ve been riding horses for more than a decade, you can think of places where you used to ride that have been transformed into houses or malls, barns that have closed as suburbia engulfed them, competitions that were forced to move because their show grounds were sold to be bulldozed, or foxhunts that kept moving their territory farther and farther away from where they started.

And the really bad news is that it’s not going to get any better. The great recession certainly slowed last decade?s development tide, but it will flow back. That tide has to return, because the U.S. population is going to continue to grow like a mushroom.

I’m a member of the Equine Land Conservation Resource?s Board of Directors, and two weeks ago I gave a presentation about equine land conservation at the U.S. Eventing Association?s convention. Let me tell you about some of what I said.

If a 2005 study by the Brookings Institute and Virginia Tech University are correct, keeping horses is going to become considerably more challenging?and expensive.

(And let me point out to you that this isn?t a study by a conservation group hoping to increase membership and funding by scaring you. This is a study for business executives, predicting how they can cash in on what the authors predict will be a real-estate boom ??that, by 2030, will dwarf America’s post-World War II build-out.”)

Think about these numbers: In three centuries, Americans have built a bit more than 300 million square feet of homes, offices, factories and other structures. But by 2030, the Brookings/Virginia Tech study projects American builders will erect 200 million more square feet of buildings?for a population they project to increase by 70 million, a figure roughly the same as that projected by the non-profit conservation group Population Connection.

Did you know that, although it took 52 years for the U.S. population to double from 100 million to 200 million, but that it only took 29 years?from 1967 to 2006? to add another 100 million to our population’ If our population growth continues at slightly less than this pace, the Brookings/Virginia Tech estimate for the 2030 population is rather conservative.

What does this mean America is probably going to look like by 2030′ The research team christened 10 areas “megapolitans,” a term that describes how cities in these regions will largely merge together into a single indistinguishable zone, rather like the endless cities and suburbs from Boston to Washington look now.

They predict that No. 1 in total population growth will be the “Southland,” from Southern California to Las Vegas, which they project to grow by 8 million people. South Florida is second, with 7.5 million new people, and the I-85 Corridor (Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham) is third with 7 million.

But No. 1 in new housing units will be the Atlantic Seaboard?a whopping 3.4 million new houses, an increase of 17 percent.

These projections show that the future isonly going to contribute to another challenge facing American horse owners?the growing distance (literally and figuratively) between Americans and open land, between Americans and agriculture, and between Americans and animals. And that’s going to mean increasing conflict over the use of all kinds of resources, over land-use policies, and over a wide range of cultural and societal issues, especially those regarding large animals?like horses.

The biggest challenge to us horse owners is going to be protecting the agricultural land where farmers grow hay and grains. These agricultural lands are especially at risk, because they’ve traditionally been relatively close to the horses that eat them, which has kept transportation costs down. that’s becoming less and less true (one reason hay costs have risen), but the second economic truth is that hay isn?t a terribly profitable crop, although it’s relatively easy to grow. Farmers can achieve a considerably higher income with other crops, and if they don’t wan to farm something else, hay land is usually flat, relatively dry and near population centers. So it’s often worth more to sell it than to keep farming it.

I’ve been on the Board of Directors of the Equine Land Conservation Resource since 2006, and we decided a few years ago that the reality I’ve described above had to become our rallying cry. We ask the question, ?Where will you ride and grow hay tomorrow’?

We also work to protect trails and competition sites, but without hay and grain, they won?t matter, because we simply won?t be able to keep and feed our horses. I wish I could say that we have comprehensive plan to save hay land, but we don’t?yet. But I hope that, through our work with our more than 140 Conservation Partner groups and with your personal and financial support, we can accomplish that in the near future. We have to.

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