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The Cancer of Sprawl

I teach at a Native American university next to a modern battleground.

The fight is over a highway proposed through wetlands. In the news media, this is reduced to the frontier model of pioneers — business interests — versus Indians. Other serious problems are negated.

If the project goes through, the ultimate result not only would be the severe injury of a valuable wetland ecosystem, home to diverse plants and other wildlife, including 225 species of birds. It also would mean destruction of some of the world’s richest soil, as urban sprawl follows the road and chews up adjacent farmland.

Croplands are not in endless supply. Like the bison herds and passenger pigeons, they are finite, and they are shrinking. U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show that from 1992 to 1997, 12.8 million acres of agricultural land was turned into things like subdivisions, freeways, factories, strip malls and airports. At that rate, in another 50 years an area larger than the state of California will become urbanized.

With this loss and population growth helping to drive it, farmland available to feed each person will fall. Cornell University agricultural and food scientists David and Marcia Pimentel, and Mario Giampietro of the National Institute of Nutrition in Rome, have suggested that by about 2025 the United States, once breadbasket to the world, could cease to be a food exporter.

And sprawl has other costs: More fossil fuel is burned and air pollution spewed to meet the transportation, construction and other energy needs of creating and maintaining bigger urban landscapes. Noise and light pollution grow as well.

My town, Lawrence, Kan., has shown that a community can control growth. Several decades ago, a neighborhood association defeated building a highway through a historic residential area.

The city commission prevented a “cornfield” mall on the town’s outskirts and kept downtown intact. Today, tourists enjoy the historic buildings, independent stores and art galleries of the main street.

And now the city, even as it is sued, opposes construction on a floodplain of a second Wal-Mart.

But even as the city controls some sprawl, unoccupied megastores and their parking lots cover untold acres in Lawrence and across the country. The soil sacrificed was the Ice Age’s geologic gift. It helped make this nation rich. Once it has been bulldozed off and paved over, there is no regaining arability, even if the concrete were to be removed. We are throwing away the land that we need to survive.

News accounts of the Lawrence wetlands road often simplify the controversy as an Indian issue, because the area involved is historically and culturally sacred to Native Americans. Indians are not anti-business. Casinos are proof of that. But most native people I know do oppose unnecessary destruction of soils and wetlands.

When considering the effects of their decisions, some tribes look seven generations ahead.

In my lifetime, I have seen the eagle population rebound from DDT poisoning. In just one generation, we can see long-term returns from preservation of natural and historical resources. People who can think of protecting cropland through seven generations will realize even more.

DENISE LOW chairs the English Department at Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence, Kansas. She is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle.

 

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