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Habitats and Ecosystems

A serious environmental problem in the United States and throughout the world is the continual destruction of wildlife (including animals, plants, and smaller organisms) habitat and the disruption to vitally important ecosystems. This page introduces the concepts of land conservation and land use, describes the importance of habitat and ecosystem, and investigates the reasons for the current destruction of both.

The Meaning of Land Conservation


One of the most important ways that we have of protecting the natural environment from development is land conservation. “Land conservation refers to various methods of preserving land, and ensuring it is protected forever from development...There may be a variety of purposes for land conservation, but it always helps to preserve natural spaces for future generations” (Miller, 2017). Conservation can be enacted privately or publicly.

In private land conservation, an individual decides to forever protect his or her land from development. A common way of doing this is with a conservation easement. An easement is a binding legal document that stays with the deed for the future of the property, and protects it in perpetuity according to its specified conditions. An organization known as a land trust or a conservancy holds the conservation easement, and is responsible for making sure the regulations specified in the easement are followed (Miller, 2017).


Public land conservation refers to cases in which a government formally designates a specified section of land for wilderness or a national park or some similar purpose. Allowable land uses vary depending on how the land is designated. Sometimes, it means working together to figure out sustainable solutions for the plants, wildlife, and people who call an area home (Miller, 2017).

Urban and Rural Land Use Planning


Beyond land conservation, urban and rural political jurisdictions can have an impact on the use of land within their jurisdiction. Two primary ways of doing this are 1) zoning regulations (used to divide land within the municipality into zones such as residential, light commercial, and industrial and prohibiting certain uses of the land within particular types of zones), and 2) local ordinances (public laws or regulations that specify required or prohibited behavior – including some uses of land – within the jurisdiction.


Click to see the city of Southport’s statement on zoning as an example:





Click to see the city of Southport’s zoning map as an example:



Click to see city of Southport’s local ordinances (check out individual chapters and sections) as an example:




In colonial America, few regulations existed to control the use of land, due to the seemingly endless amount of it. As society shifted from rural to urban, public land regulation became important, especially to city governments trying to control industry, commerce, and housing within their boundaries. The first zoning ordinance was passed in New York City in 1916, and, by the 1930s, most states had adopted zoning laws. In the 1970s, concerns about the environment and historic preservation led to further regulation.


As America grew, the much-loved America of the older towns and cities became more difficult to preserve. Unparalleled growth and unregulated development changed the look and feel of landscapes and communities. Zoning regulations became politically contentious as developers, legislators, and citizens struggled over altering zoning maps in a way that was acceptable to all parties. Land use planning practices evolved as an attempt to overcome these challenges. When land use planning works well, it engages citizens and policy-makers to plan for development with intention, foresight, and community focus (Wikipedia, 2017).

Ideally, government planners seek to manage the development of land within their jurisdictions in an efficient and ethical manner. Successful planning involves a balance of analysis of existing conditions and constraints; extensive public engagement; practical planning and design; and financially and politically feasible strategies for implementation. It is becoming more widely understood that any sector of land has a certain capacity for supporting human, animal, and vegetative life in harmony, and that upsetting this balance has dire consequences on the environment. Due to a host of political and economic factors, governments have been slow to adopt land use policies that are congruent with scientific data supporting more environmentally sensitive regulations. However, since the 1990s, there has been greater focus on more sustainable and less environmentally damaging forms of development.

The essential function of land-use planning as stated by the Canadian Institute of Planners: 

          Land-use planning means the scientific, aesthetic, and orderly disposition of land, resources,

facilities and services with a view to securing the physical, economic and social efficiency, health and well-being of urban and rural communities.


The American Planning Association states that:


          The goal of land-use planning is to further the welfare of people and their communities by creating convenient equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive environments for present and future generations.

Land Use and the Environment


The natural environment is very much affected by land conservation (almost always in a favorable way) and land use policies (in favorable or unfavorable ways depending on the policy). The natural environment includes a wide variety of factors such as water, soil, nutrients, plants, and animals. In earlier times, the land was routinely exploited at will for economic gain. Increasing population and industrial expansion generated massive urban sprawl, with thousands of square miles of open space being taken annually for housing and business. Deforestation occurred on a large scale with profound negative environmental consequences. Housing and traffic congestion and widespread pollution, along with depletion of water and mineral resources and destruction of wilderness and wildlife habitats, have become increasingly severe (The Free Dictionary, 2017).

For these reasons, pressure for environmentally-conscious land-use reform has sharply intensified. It is argued that as accessible land grows scarcer, its function becomes more critical and should no longer be dictated by private profit or local convenience. As a consequence, environmentalists have gone to court to prevent or re-site the construction of projects that would degrade the environment. Land-use court battles have been waged over the siting of jetports, petroleum refineries, offshore tanker depots and drilling rigs, nuclear power stations, high-voltage transmission lines, dams, and even shopping centers and housing developments (The Free Dictionary, 2017).

Legislative action has also been sought, with considerable success. Although varying in scope and stringency, land-use laws are now in force in most of the United States. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires that federal agencies file statements assessing the environmental impact of proposed projects (the effects on the natural and social environment). Agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must now submit their land-use proposals to the Environmental Protection Agency and therefore to public scrutiny (The Free Dictionary, 2017).

A Key Environmental Concern: Destruction of Habitats and Ecosystems


In order to describe today's concern with ever-increasing loss of habitats and destruction to ecosystems, it is necessary to distinguish between two very important environmental concepts: habitat and ecosystem.


Habitat refers to the natural place or environment in which plants, animals, and organisms live. It is their physical surrounding and includes a combination of environmental factors which provides the food, water, cover and space that a living thing (plant or animal) needs to survive and reproduce. Habitats are specific to each species of plant, animals, or organism as each prefers to live in an environment which is full of resources for them. A habitat could be a water body, a certain area of the water column, bark of a tree, inside the leaf litter of a rain forest, a cave, or the interior of an animal. A habitat could be any place with an energy or nutrient source for the organism.

The main limiting factors of habitats are the availability of food and energy supplies and the existence of threats (e.g. predators, competitors). If a habitat changes, the species must adapt, move on, or perish. Many species can live in the same habitat, such as a pond. There are many types of habitats including: coastal and estuarine, rivers and streams, lakes and ponds, wetlands, riparian areas, deserts, grasslands/prairie, forests, coral reefs, marine, perennial snow and ice, and urban (United States Fish and Wildlife Service, 2017).


Ecosystem refers to a community of plants and animals interacting with each other in a given area, and also with their non-living environments. The non-living environments include weather, earth, sun, soil, climate and atmosphere. The ecosystem relates to the way that all these different organisms live in close proximity to each other and how they interact with each other. Elements of ecosystems develop a symbiotic relationship or interdependence. It is very possible that elimination of one aspect of an ecosystem can disrupt the entire ecosystem (Conserve Energy Future, 2017).

A couple of differences between habitat and ecosystem:


  • Ecosystems are larger than habitats.

  • An ecosystem can contain many habitats but not the other way around.

  • One habitat contains one or few species, whereas one ecosystem contains a very large number of species.

(Source: Northwest Fisheries Science Center)


(Source: Officers' IAS Academy)

Habitat and Ecosystem Destruction, Fragmentation, and Degradation

The National Wildlife Organization (2017) states that habitat loss—due to destruction, fragmentation, or degradation —is the primary threat to the survival of wildlife in the United States. When an ecosystem has been dramatically changed by human activities—such as agriculture, oil and gas exploration, commercial development, or water diversion—it may no longer be able to provide the food, water, cover, and places to raise young that wildlife need to survive. Every day there are fewer places left that wildlife can call home. It is estimated that half of all habitats are vulnerable. One-quarter of all coral reefs have already disappeared and in 30 years’ time, 60 percent more are estimated to be gone; this is due to the ocean acidification, illegal fishing, and excessive water pollution.


Other examples:


·        Destruction: A bulldozer pushing down trees is the iconic image of habitat destruction. Other ways people directly destroy habitat include filling in wetlands, dredging rivers, mowing fields, and cutting down trees.


·        Fragmentation: Much of the remaining terrestrial wildlife habitat in the U.S. has been cut up into fragments by roads and development. Aquatic species’ habitats have been fragmented by dams and water diversions. These fragments of habitat may not be large or connected enough to support species that need a large territory where they can find mates and food. The loss and fragmentation of habitats makes it difficult for migratory species to find places to rest and feed along their migration routes.


·        Degradation: Pollution, invasive species, and disruption of ecosystem processes are some of the ways habitats can become so degraded, they no longer support native wildlife.

As land is converted from forest to urban use, it becomes unsuitable for many specialized wildlife species, especially animals that require large tracts of unbroken forest. The small patches of forest or native plant habitats usually left after an area is urbanized (for example, in parks or other natural areas, along streams, or on steep slopes that couldn’t be developed) will not sustain populations of many wildlife species. The populations of animals present in the patches are at risk of local extinction because they are isolated from other populations.  Individual animals that attempt to move from one patch to another are often run over by cars or eaten by cats or other predators (Going Native, 2017).

Main Causes of Habitat and Ecosystem Loss


     1. Agriculture: Much of the habitat loss from agriculture was done long ago when settlers converted forests and prairies to cropland. Today, there is increasing pressure to redevelop conservation lands for high-priced food and biofuel crops.

     2. Land conversion for development: The conversion of lands that once provided wildlife habitat to housing developments, roads, office parks, strip malls, parking lots and industrial sites. For example, from 1982 to 1997, North Carolina lost 1,001,000 acres or 5.9 percent of its total forest area to land conversion related to population growth and urbanization. Researchers predict an additional loss of 5.5 million forested acres in North Carolina by 2040.

     A major threat to beach habitats and ecosystems around the world is the ever increasing human population in coastal areas. The global migration of people towards the coast causes competition between humans and other species and humans usually negatively impact other species. New construction in coastal communities destroys beach ecosystems with every parking lot paved, road expanded, or sand dune lost. This increase also puts a burden on sanitation systems, transportation networks, and increases pollution in these diverse ecosystems (Coastal Care, 2017).

     3. Water development: Dams and other water diversions siphon off and disconnect waters, changing hydrology and water chemistry (when nutrients are not able to flow downstream).

     4. Pollution: Freshwater wildlife are most impacted by pollution. Pollutants such as untreated sewage, mining waste, acid rain, fertilizers and pesticides concentrate in rivers, lakes and wetlands and eventually end up in estuaries and the food web.

     5. Climate change: The emerging driver of habitat loss is climate change. Wildlife that need the cool temperatures of high elevations suffer. Coastal wildlife may find their habitat under water as sea levels rise.

Eight Reasons Protecting Habitats and Ecosystems Matters

Megan Stubblefield in “Why is Wildlife (meaning plant and animal) Important,” (2017) identifies eight reasons that protecting areas for plant and animal wildlife is very important. They are:

     1. Biodiversity. In nature, different species are connected through various food webs. The disappearance of one species could influence several others down the line. The loss of an animal that isn't especially important economically or culturally could unexpectedly affect a type of animal that is, so widespread wildlife conservation is a general preventative measure for unforeseen problems.

     2. Agriculture. Promoting wildlife conservation could help secure future food supplies. Harvard University maintains crop diversity in agriculture makes food supplies less vulnerable to disease. Individual crops can suffer different diseases, while an entire field of just one crop could succumb to a single blight. Wild plants could also contain the genetic material necessary to modify the crops that are currently in use, and wild plants could be used as the basis for developing biodegradable pesticides.

     3. Research. There may be many undiscovered plants and animals in the wild. It is important to maintain plants that provide substances used in both the pharmaceutical industry and traditional medicine. As much as 50 percent of the drugs available in the United States were originally developed from microbial organisms, plants, and animals. Using additional natural sources as the basis for research, instead of relying on artificial sources, may be more efficient and worthwhile. It's possible that failed attempts at wildlife conservation could cause medical science to lose important sources of knowledge.

     4. Economics of Eco-Services. Ecosystems supply many essential raw materials used in basic human activities, while helping to maintain the environmental conditions that humans often take for granted. However, the activity of ecosystems can influence the quality of life for humans in ways that are not necessarily immediately obvious. For example, ecosystem activities have an effect on the quantity and quality of fresh water accessible to humans. Human services that tried to compensate for related ecosystem damage by purifying the water artificially would be losing money in the process. Discussion of eco-services can illuminate the inefficiencies of trying to artificially replicate something that natural ecosystems were already doing for free.

     5. Ecotourism. Providing people with the chance to see African animals within their natural habitats has been a tremendous stimulus for economies within Africa, and ecotourism seems to help promote wildlife conservation. Ecotourism helps make wildlife conservation economically feasible in the developing world in the first place, which can help preserve essential habitats like rainforests.

     6. Environmental Indicators. The fact that various animals can serve as indicators for other environmental problems is one of the rarely discussed benefits of wildlife conservation. For example, the loss of peregrine falcons and bald eagles was one of the factors that alerted scientists to the toxicity of DDT, which may have gone unnoticed for longer in a less diverse ecosystem. Wildlife conservation may help solve other environmental problems in a similar way.

     7. Education. Studying animals and their habitats can be a valuable learning experience for students of all ages. There are many educational benefits of trips to view animals. Failures in wildlife conservation may leave teachers with fewer educational resources.

     8. Psychological Benefits. Wildlife diversity has a broad appeal. The psychological benefits of biodiversity for humans can be difficult to measure, but they're also difficult to dismiss. Research indicates that ecotourists experience a tremendous sense of wonder, contentment, and fulfillment from their wildlife encounters. Curtin's research raises the question of what failed wildlife conservation efforts and a significant loss of species could mean for humans psychologically.


The Influence of Increasing Population in Brunswick County

The number of people living in any community exerts an important influence on the ability to conserve land and on land use decisions. Let’s describe population and population growth at several levels with a final focus on Brunswick County.

The world population was estimated to have reached 7,500,000,000 (7.5 billion) on April 24, 2017. The United Nations estimates that the world population growth rate will steadily decline in the future, but that world population will continue to increase. UN projections are that global population will reach between 8.3 and 10.9 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.

The United States is the third most populous country in the world with more than 325 million persons. However, the U.S. lags far behind the two most populous countries which are China (app. 1.4 billion persons – more than four times more people than the U.S. and India (app. 1.3 billion persons – about four times more than in the U.S). The United States has only about 4.3 percent of the world population – about one of every 23 people.

Click to see the world and United

States population clocks:  


North Carolina, with over 10 million persons, is the ninth most populated state within the United States. California has approximately four times more people, Texas has approximately three times more people, and Florida has approximately twice as many people. Despite its large population, North Carolina ranks only 29th in terms of amount of land. North Carolina has the 15th highest population density among the fifty states.

Brunswick County is North Carolina’s southernmost county. With a population of approximately 127,000 people, it is the 24th largest of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) and Wake County (Raleigh) are the largest with more than one million persons each. However, between 2010 and 2015, Brunswick County had the fastest growth rate (almost 14 percent) of all 100 North Carolina counties. Leland, in the north part of the county, is one of the fastest growing cities in North Carolina. The largest areas of future growth are expected to be in Charlotte, in Raleigh, and along the southeastern coast (including the coastal areas of Brunswick County).

With an increasing number of people wanting to live in Brunswick County, land use planning simultaneously becomes more important and more difficult. More people looking for homes creates pressure for more development which means more invasions of natural areas and more high-density living. Municipalities must seek to find the right balance between development on the one hand and conservation/preservation of natural areas and quality of life on the other. Research clearly documents that as population density increases, the cost of services increases, noise pollution increases, loss of personal space increases, loss of privacy increases, social stress increases, and social disorder increases (Jackson, 2017; Ladd, 1992; Veitch and Arkkelin, 1995).

Many developers understand these trade-offs and work with communities for the public good. However, many developers still focus only on maximizing their own income and seem to care little if at all about environmental degradation or lowering quality of life of current residents. If one drives from northernmost to southernmost coastal North Carolina, one can readily see municipalities which have stood up for the environment and quality of life of residents and municipalities that have allowed the greediest of developers to do whatever they want.

What Can Be Done?

The starting points for doing something to protect habitats and ecosystems are the same as with all of the environmental issues covered in this section of the website:

  • Become more knowledgeable about this issue.


  • Discuss this issue with others; learn from them and help them learn from you.

  • Join forces with groups and organizations that are knowledgeable about environmental issues in general (BEAT!) and about this issue in particular. Organizations have greater access to scientific expertise, have larger budgets, have more contacts with the media, and have the force of combining many voices into one.

  • Advocate for policies that show understanding and respect for natural processes. Examples are moving to reliance on renewable sources of energy rather than harmful sources like coal, gas, and oil; phase out government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and unsustainable industrial agriculture; stricter regulation of carbon dioxide and methane emissions; and instituting taxes on each unit of pollution produced.

  • Advocate for government agencies and government leaders at all levels to conscientiously try to fulfill their responsibilities toward protection and conservation of the environment.


  • Examine the values and political position on this issue of candidates running for political office. Federal support for a strong Environmental Protection Agency is very important. Support for a meaningful Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina is very important. Support by North Carolina’s governor and state legislature for taking a scientific approach to consideration of habitats and ecosystems is absolutely critical. Look for candidates that emphasize the importance of environmental impact in making decisions about what to do or not do.



Coastal Care. 2017 “Ecosystem Destruction.”


Conserve Energy Future. 2017 “What is an Ecosystem?”


Going Native: Urban Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants. 2017 “Habitat Loss.”


M.D. Jackson, M.D. 2017 “What are the Effects of Population Density?” Hub Pages.

Helen Ladd. 1992 “Population Growth, Density, and the Costs of Providing Public Services.” Sociation 29:273-295.

B. Miller. 2017 “Land Conservation.”

National Wildlife Organization. 2017 “Habitat.”


Megan Stubblefield. 2017 “Why is Wildlife Important?”


The Free Dictionary. 2017 “Land Use.”


United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 2017 “Habitat.”


R. Veitch and D. Arkkelin. 1995 Environmental Psychology: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.


Wikipedia. 2017 “Land Use.”

Read and See More on Habitats and Ecosystems


Rebecca L. Goldman. 2017 “Ecosystem Services: How People Benefit from Nature.” Environment.


         Description of some of the many ways that healthy ecosystems contribute to our everyday life.

Land Trust Alliance. 2017 “Why Conserve Land?”

     Discussion of the many important benefits associated with land conservation.

Nation Ocean Service. 2017 “What is Ecosystem Science?”

     Ecosystem science is the study of inter-relationships among the living organisms, physical features, bio-chemical processes, natural phenomena, and human activities in ecological communities.

Dennis Quenqua. 2017 “Pandas are No Longer Endangered, But Their Habitat Is.” New York Times, September 25.

     Discussion of habitat and the essential role of habitat preservation in species preservation.

Anup Shah. 2014 “Nature and Animal Conservation.” Global Issues.

     Discussion of the threat to many species due to loss of habitat.

Alison Takemura. 2016 “Ocean Acidification Affects Fish Spawning.” The Scientist.

     The first evidence that acidified waters alter the ocellated wrasse’s reproductive behavior in the wild.

(Sample Scholarly Article) Boris Worm. 2006 “Impacts of Biodiversity Loss on Ocean Ecosystem Services. “ Science, 314:787-790.

     Marine biodiversity loss is increasingly impairing the ocean's capacity to provide food, maintain water quality, and recover from perturbations.

(Sample Scholarly Book) Daniel T. Blumstein, Benjamin Geffroy, Diogo S. M. Samia, and Eduardo Bessa. 2017 Ecotourism’s Promise and Peril: A Biological Evaluation. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

     Comprehensive examination of the pluses and minuses associated with ecotourism. 

(Video) Paul Anderson (Bozeman Science). “Land Use.”

     Audio and visual presentation of the conversion of natural land to cities.

(Video) California Academy of Sciences. “Human Activities That Threaten Biodiversity.”

     Straightforward description of human factors that decrease biodiversity (second half is especially good).

Sample of Scholarly Journals:

  • Biological Conservation

  • Bioscience

  • Environmental Health Perspectives

  • Forest Ecosystems

  • Journal of Ecosystem and Ecography

  • Urban Ecosystems

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