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USDA Economic Research Service Report Reveals Land Use Patterns and Changes across the Nation

January 2, 2012 |

USDA National Program for Genetic Improvement of Feed Efficiency in Beef CattleA survey of all public and private land use across all 50 states, the US Dept. of Agriculture Economic Research Service’s latest “Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2007” report is the most comprehensive source of land use and land use change available.

Conducted every five years coincidentally with the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, the report is the only nationwide inventory of land use in the US. As stated in the report summary, “Land use and land-use changes involve important economic and environmental implications for commodity production and trade, open space, soil and water conservation, and other policy issues.” The 2007 report includes statistics on major land use and discusses them in light of national and regional trends and previous estimates. 

US land area totaled 2.3 billion acres in 2007, according to the USDA’s latest inventory, which categorizes land according to cropland, grassland pasture and range, forest-use land, urban land, rural residential acreage, and land used for special purposes and miscellaneous purposes.

In terms of ownership, nearly 60% (1.35 billion acres) of US land is privately owned. The federal government owns 29% (653 acres), more than one-third of which is in Alaska. State and local governments own about 9% (198 million acres), while about 3% is held in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Foreign ownership accounted for about 1% (22 million acres) of US land in 2007. There were no major shifts in aggregate land ownership statistics between 2002 and 2007, according to the ERS report.

Crop and Forest-use Land

Forest-use land made up 671 acres (30%), grassland pasture and range totaled 614 acres (27%), cropland 408 million acres (18%), special use-land accounted for 313 million acres (14%), and miscellaneous use-land totaled 197 million acres (9%). Urban land totaled 61 million acres (3%).

Of the 408 million acres of cropland, 82% was currently being used to grow food crops for human consumption. Cropland used for pasture and idled cropland accounted for the remaining 18%. Total US cropland decreased 34 million acres between 2002 and 2007 to its lowest level since the USDA began taking its national land use inventory in 1945.

Harvested cropland, which accounts for most land planted in crops, increased 5 million acres due to a recovery of failed cropland from severe droughts in 2002, however, the ERS notes in its report summary. A 26-million acre decline in cropland pasture contributed to the decline in overall cropland, part of which was due to changes in the methods used by the USDA in the 2007 Census of Agriculture, which resulted in some cropland pasture being reclassified as permanent grassland or pasture and range.

Grassland Pasture & Range

US grassland pasture and range increased nearly 5% (27 million acres) between 2002 and 2007, partially offsetting a decline that stretched from 1945-1997. The increase almost exactly offsets the reduction in cropland pasture over the five-year period. Overall the total land used for grazing – the sum of grassland pasture and range, cropland used for pasture and grazed forests – declined from 783 million acres in 2002 to 777 million acres in 2007. That continues a trend that’s been in place since the 1940s.

There was 127 million of acres of grazed forest land in the US as of 2007, according to the ERS census, a figure that excludes an estimated 80 million forest acres in parks, wildlife areas and other forest land devoted to special uses. Forest-use land increased 20 million acres (3%) over the five years to 2007, partially offsetting a 14% decline between 1949 and 2002, which was largely the result of reclassification of forest-use land to special-use areas.

Expanding Cities and Urban Areas

Urban land acreage quadrupled in the US between 1945 and 2007, an increase that’s about twice the rate of population growth over the corresponding period. Total urban land use area was estimated at 61 million acres in 2007, a nearly 2% increase since 2002 and 17% higher than that in 1990.

The Census Bureau estimates that urban land area increased nearly 8 million acres (13%) during the 1990s, and 9 million acres (18%) during the 1980s based on the criteria used at the time. Expanding urban land use stretches further back. It increased 13 million acres (37%) in the 1970s and 9 million acres (36%) in the 1960s.

Outside urban areas, estimated rural residential acreage increased to a total 103 million acres as of 2007. That’s a 9-million acre (10%) increase from 2001’s total, about one-third the 21-million acre (29%) increase registered between 1997 and 2002.

The slower pace reflects the downturn in the US housing market that began in the latter part of the survey period, the ERS notes. Declines in the remaining rural area are small despite continuing large percentage increases in urban and residential land areas compared to the total size of the available US land base, it was added.

Regional Patterns Emerge

The aggregated nationwide data obscure variations in regional and state land use patterns, which are strongly influenced by soil, climate, topography and population. While cropland use remained relatively stable at the national level between 1964 and 2007, it increased by 12 million acres in the Midwest’s Corn Belt and Northern Plains and decreased by 12 million acres across other regions, for example. The distribution of cropland acreage across major agricultural regions stable over this 43-year period.

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