Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit


Date of this Version



Published in Ecology and Society 11(1): 36. [online] URL:


Human-driven change in land use and land cover is an accelerating global phenomenon with farreaching implications for food production, forest and water resources, the climate, and biogeochemical cycles (Foley et al. 2005). It affects the amount and configuration of habitat available for animals ranging from soil nematodes to elephants. It affects the provision of ecological goods and services for human beings. It affects the processes and function of ecosystems. “Sprawl”, as it has been termed, is exurban human land use change with a footprint exceeding the minimum required for the activity developed. It is that disproportionately large footprint that defines a certain type of growth as sprawl. It leads to large expanses of human-built environment with a global biota of tramp species. Sprawl is an extremely recent phenomenon in geological terms, but even in human-historical terms it is a recent phenomenon. The spread of sprawling growth is often viewed as rapid, but it is an additive phenomenon increasing with each generation. Each generation is likely to recognize only those changes that have occurred within their lifetimes, a shifting baseline (Pauley 1995) that may make social change and recognition of the problem more difficult. However, in the United States and elsewhere, sprawl has been occurring and recognized for several generations, as epitomized by the writing of John Steinbeck (1995: 194-195): “This four-lane concrete highway slashed with speeding cars I remember as a narrow, twisting mountain road where the wood teams moved, drawn by steady mules ... This was a little little town, a general store under a tree and a blacksmith shop and a bench in front on which to sit and listen to the clang of hammer on anvil. Now little houses, each one like the next, particularly since they try to be different, spread for a mile in all directions. That was a woody hill with live oaks dark green against the parched grass where the coyotes sang on moonlit nights. The top is shaved off and a television relay station lunges at the sky and feeds a nervous picture to thousands of tiny houses clustered like aphids beside the roads.”