To accommodate two and a half million additional residents over the last four decades, Colorado’s cities have sprawled over vast areas of natural wildlife habitat, farmland and open space, particularly along the Front Range from Pueblo to Fort Collins.
Much of this sprawl has occurred at the same time as a once-in-12,000-year megadrought has stricken the watershed of the Colorado River which provides water to Front Range communities as well as to landscapes and economies across the Western Slope.
Although the Front Range has been hit with most of the growth, mountain towns and areas of the West Slope are also strained by the more than doubling of Colorado’s population over the last forty years.
1. "Population" refers to increase in population.
2. "Consumption" refers to increase in developed land consumption per capita (per person).
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Coloradans increasingly experience huge traffic jams, crowding, degradation of natural landscapes, and diminishing solitude in forests, rivers, and mountains that beckon those additional residents to the state.
Simply stated – growth is crowding out the state’s attractiveness. Our study strongly questions the sustainability of federal, state, and local policies that encourage or force more population growth in Colorado.
According to Census Bureau data, Colorado’s total population was 3,045,000 in 1982 and 5,617,421 in 2017, an increase of 2.6 million. Net migration from 1982 to 2017 — people moving into the state from other states or other countries minus those leaving — was equal to 53% of the increase (1.4 million) Of that number, 34% percent (466,000) or about one-third were immigrants (legal and illegal) who moved into the United States over this time period and were living in Colorado by 2017. Births to U.S.-born Americans and immigrants minus deaths (natural increase) in the state were equal to the other 47% of population increase.
International in-migration: Additional pressure to increase development in Colorado is caused by the federal government’s immigration policies that allows roughly 1.5 million new people per year to come legally and illegally from countries outside of the U.S. This causes massive, unrelenting U.S. population growth in some states that creates problems that pushes many residents to leave their states and move to places like Colorado. For example, in 2016 the top four states from which people moved to Colorado were California, Texas, Florida, and Arizona. Not coincidentally, those exact states have some of the highest rates of international migration. The arrival of immigrants into Colorado since 1982 and their U.S.-born progeny account for an estimated 26% of Colorado’s population growth over this time period.
The State government of Colorado, as well as many counties and cities, have policies that lure, subsidize, and incentivize this population growth. Encouraging new businesses to come to Colorado from other states is one of the two primary culprits of the state’s population growth. The other is federal immigration policies that drive historically high immigration rates, which has kept national-level population growth averaging between two million and three million annually in recent years, or between 20 and 30 million additional American residents per decade – decade after decade.
This study covers a period just short of four decades to conform with data available from the federal National Resources Inventory (NRI) of all U.S. lands, conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The NRI began in 1982. Its most recently available data runs through 2017. Our study examines the effects of – and quantifies the roles of – per capita human consumption patterns and overall population growth in the loss of Colorado’s Open Space (which includes both natural habitat and farmland).
A large majority of Coloradans are concerned about the development and population trends in their state, according to a scientific July 2022 survey of 1,024 likely voters in Colorado commissioned for this study and conducted by the polling firm Rasmussen Reports. Anti-growth is nearly a 90-to-10 voter issue in Colorado even though almost no elected, corporate, or civic leaders in the state are talking about it in this election season.
We examined these factors as well as overall open space and farmland destruction in all 64 of Colorado’s counties and applied a standard scientific formula for apportioning cause between the two factors.
Colorado is a diverse state with wide open and sparsely populated rangelands in parts of the east and the west, while the vast majority of the human population (~80%) lives along the “Front Range” butting up against the Rocky Mountains in nine fast growing counties. While our full study describes results for all 64 Colorado counties, here we quickly focus on those nine rapidly growing counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Larimer, Pueblo, and Weld.
As shown in Table ES-1, below, all nine Front Range counties had explosive population growth from 1982 through 2017. Most of the counties doubled in population, with Douglas County growing at over 1,000%.
At the same time, only two of those counties (Adams and Pueblo) experienced any growth at all in per capita land consumption, while in the other seven counties per-capita land consumption actually shrank (Table ES-2 below). Stated differently, in the counties of Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Larimer, and Weld, residents lived in higher densities, but the explosive population growth from 1982 – 2017 completely overwhelmed the effect of higher density.
Importantly, although housing density is often seen as a solution to sprawl, not only does this report point out that dramatic sprawl has still occurred even though some counties are more dense, we also discuss the role of density in making crowding problems worse. Not only has crowding made cities less appealing to residents (see “crowding” below), but the large population increase has caused crowding across the state on trails, open spaces, national forests, skiing opportunities, roads, and all areas of public interaction.
Even though the simple housing footprint of residents may become smaller when urban population density increases, we discuss how the increasing density does not stop the dramatic growth of the total “ecological footprint” of additional urban residents.
While the above tables focus on the nine Front Range counties, other counties and cities in the state face similar problems which are described in the full report. Summit County, where several ski areas exist, has serious growth problems, as do individual towns and cities in the mountains where recreation is a big part of the economy. Durango, Steamboat Springs, and Pitkin County (Aspen, Carbondale) are all being hammered by growth. In some smaller mountain towns like Telluride and Crested Butte, growth battles can be legendary and ongoing for decades.
The poll asked how important it is to escape the cities and get to nature. Two of every three voters (63%) said it is “very important” to them that they “can easily get to natural areas and Open Space.
As residents are further densified and crowded in the cities, they still want to protect Colorado’s outdoors. Another poll question found that 78% said “from an environmental standpoint,” it is “very important” to “preserve Colorado’s mountains, native grasslands, rivers, forests, and canyons.
The Rasmussen poll asked two water-related questions, the responses to both of which supported limiting growth rather than further drying up farms or depleting flows in rivers. In fact, 71% of likely voters said water should stay on farms rather than support more population growth, and 76% of voters said water should stay in rivers and streams rather than support new population growth.
On average between the years 1982 and 2017, Colorado has lost 32 square miles per year of Open Space, farmland, and natural habitat to development. This comes out to an average of 56 acres per day (an acre is close to the size of a football field). Poll results strongly support that residents do not want this destruction to have occurred, and do not want it to continue occurring in the future.
The Rasmussen poll clearly indicated that Coloradans want population growth dramatically restricted, not continued or further accelerated. The State of Colorado, as well as local governments, need to listen to the concerns of residents and stop promoting more growth.
It’s time for Colorado’s leaders to listen to the public who are tired of the constantly increasing traffic, crowds, and diminishment of the natural world around the state. It’s time to slow and stop Colorado’s population growth.