DISAPPEARING COLORADO

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

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.

State Sprawl

Lost Open Space in Colorado

2002-2017

0 sq. mi.
25 sq. mi.
50 sq. mi.
80 sq. mi.
110 sq. mi.
140 sq. mi.

Colorado lost 1,206 square miles

of open space

Loss related to population
Loss related to consumption

1. "Population" refers to increase in population.

2. "Consumption" refers to increase in developed land consumption per capita (per person).

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.

 

Key Findings for the 1982-2017 Period

LOSS: 1,206 square miles (772,100 acres) of Colorado’s natural habitat, farmland, and open space disappeared under buildings, pavement, gravel and other surfaces, representing a profound, long-term loss of open landscapes, agricultural potential, ecological values and functions, and quality-of-life amenities for Coloradans. This destruction is not a sustainable trend.
CAUSE OF THE HABITAT/FARMLAND LOSS: Colorado’s population growth of 2.6 million was responsible for 86% of that sprawl. Even though the state and many localities have enacted “density” policies to pack people in tighter and reduce sprawl, those efforts have failed to counter most of the vast negative impact caused by population growth. If Colorado’s population keeps growing, more and more of the open landscape will keep disappearing.
CAUSES OF THE POPULATION GROWTH: 53% of population growth was due to people migrating into Colorado from other countries and other U.S. states (especially California) – minus Coloradans who left the state. The other 47% was caused by births to U.S.-born Americans and immigrants minus deaths (natural increase) in the state.

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).

Survey: Coloradans Want Less Development & Population Growth

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.

The poll found that:

  • Coloradans Believe Development Has Made Colorado A Worse Place To Live: When told that Colorado since 1982 has had more than 1,250 square miles of Open Space, natural habitat and farms developed into housing, shopping malls, and development, 62% of likely votes said that has made Colorado a “worse” place to live. (Only 14% said it is a better place to live.)
  • Coloradans Don’t Want Megacities: When told that the state demographer predicted that 1.8 million more people were coming by 2050 turning the Front Range into a “mega-city”, 73% of likely voters said this was a “negative” future.
  • Coloradans Want To Restrict Growth: When asked if Colorado should restrict people from moving in from other states, especially from California, 63% said “Yes”; 53% want the federal government to reduce annual U.S. immigration to help slow down Colorado’s population growth.
  • Coloradans Want Growth Stopped: Nearly three of every five voters (59%) preferred either a complete stop to population growth or a decline in the current population size of Colorado; 90% desire far fewer people moving into the state than in the past.

Population Growth Negates Density Benefits

Two overall factors create the spread in development over Colorado’s ecosystems and farmland: 

  1. Population growth. The increase created by births and newcomers minus deaths and people leaving the state.

  2. Growth in per capita land consumption. This is the measurement of the average amount of developed land that is required for each resident’s housing, employment, recreation, education, religion and culture, transportation, commerce, utilities, waste handling, and other urban needs.

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.

The bottom-line finding of this study: 86% of the loss of open space and farmland was due to the massive population growth slamming the state. In addition, 14% of the loss was due to increased consumption of land per person.

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.

1. "Population" refers to increase in population.

2. "Consumption" refers to increase in developed land consumption per capita (per person).

State Sprawl

Lost Open Space in Colorado

1982-2017

Larimer Boulder Jefferson Douglas Weld Adams Arapahoe El Paso Pueblo
0 sq. mi.
25 sq. mi.
50 sq. mi.
80 sq. mi.
110 sq. mi.
140 sq. mi.

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%.

Table ES-1. Population Growth in Colorado Counties – 1982 to 2017

CountyPopulation in 1982Population in 2017Change, 1982-2017% increase (decrease)
Adams258,855503,590244,73595%
Arapahoe330,653644,478313,82595%
Boulder200,827390,704189,87795%
Denver504,576704,961200,38540%
Douglas29,829335,816305,9871,026%
El Paso332,335700,099305,987111%
Larimer157,410344,084186,674119%
Pueblo125,299166,28340,98433%
Weld125,733305,885180,152143%

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.

Table ES-2. Per Capita Developed Land Consumption in Colorado Counties – 1982 and 2017

CountyPer Capita Land Consumption – 1982 (acre)Per Capita Land Consumption – 2017 (acre)% Change in Per Capita Land Consumption, 1982-2017
Adams0.170.1912%
Arapahoe0.170.15-9%
Boulder0.290.24-19%
Denver0.130.12-8%
Douglas1.310.37-72%
El Paso0.320.31-2%
Larimer0.360.29-19%
Pueblo0.100.25149%
Weld0.480.24-49%

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.

Traffic, Crowding, and Water: How Much More Growth Can Colorado Stand?

  • Traffic: Traffic congestion, especially along the I-25 corridor of the Front Range and I-70 corridor through the mountains, has taken on a mythical status to residents commuting along the Front Range and trying to escape to the mountains for ski weekends. The Rasmussen Reports poll in July 2022 found that 71% of likely voters said traffic would become “much worse” if Colorado continued to grow rapidly. They rejected the answer that governments would be able to provide enough new transportation infrastructure to handle the population growth.

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.

  • Crowding: Crowding is also an issue that residents believe is a problem and getting worse. The Rasmussen Reports poll found that two of three voters (65%) said the state’s parks, neighborhoods, schools and roads have become “much more crowded” in recent years; another 28% said “somewhat more crowded.”

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.

  • Water: Water supply and river health are of huge concern to Coloradans as the state and the Colorado River continue to be mired in a “megadrought”. The explosive population growth is making all of that worse by forcing the transfer of water from farms to cities, and forcing the depletion of rivers and streams with new dams and diversions.

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.

The Necessary Choices to Stop Open Space and Environmental Destruction

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.

In-migration from other states: Regardless of the unwillingness of powerful decision-makers to poll on the growth issue, or to discuss and debate growth, it is of profound concern to residents. State and local leaders continue to subsidize and incentivize more growth, and people and businesses from elsewhere in the U.S. continue to be lured to move to Colorado.

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.

International in-migration: Additional pressure to increase development in Colorado is caused by the federal government’s immigration policies that allow around 2 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. International in-migration and births to those new immigrants accounted for 26% of Colorado’s population growth The Rasmussen poll also indicated that 53% of likely Colorado voters supported restricting international immigration to help slow and stop population growth in Colorado. The federal government needs to listen to the concerns of Colorado residents and slow international immigration.
One of the most telling questions in the Rasmussen poll asked: “Colorado’s population has approximately doubled since 1980. Would you prefer that Colorado’s population continue to rapidly grow, that it grow more slowly, that it stay about the same size, or that it become smaller?”
  • 90% said Colorado should grow more slowly, stop growing, or even become smaller.

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.