Ruben Lubowski, Marlow Vesterby and Shawn Bucholtz
Abstract—The three major
uses of land in the 48 contiguous States are grassland pasture and
range, forest-use land, and cropland, in that order. Total cropland
(used for crops, used for pasture, and idled) declined 6 percent
over 1969-2002. Farm policy changes have reduced the acreage idled
under Federal programs since 1996.
Land-use changes can affect the environment and the sustainability
of production. Because impacts on the environmentincluding
erosion, water quality, and wildlife habitatare typically
not reflected in private profit calculations, land-use choices
that are optimal for an individual may not be optimal for society.
This difference suggests the possibility of public policies that more closely
align land-use decisions with social objectives.
The allocation of a fixed land base among competing uses is determined
by the relative returns to the different uses, which vary according
to land quality and location. A landowner seeking to maximize profits
will allocate a land parcel to the use that yields the highest expected
economic return, after the costs of conversion. As relative returns
change along with market conditions, technological advancements,
or government policies, land-use patterns tend to adjust accordingly
(see the Land
Use, Value and Management Briefing Room).
Land-use change is dynamic. With the exception of urban land, changes
occur to and from major land uses. For example, 44 million acres
left the cropland and pasture category from 1992 to 1997 while 21
million acres shifted into the category, resulting in a net loss
of 23 million acres (USDA/NRCS, 2000).
Major Land Uses in the United States
Uses is a land-use inventory conducted periodically by ERS.
This series contains acreage estimates of major uses by region and
State, coinciding with each census
of agriculture from 1945 through 2002. (See the glossary
for detailed definitions of the major land uses.)
Because Alaska and Hawaii have very little crop area, we focus
on the contiguous 48 States. The total land area of the 48 contiguous
States is approximately 1.9 billion acres, with an additional 365
million acres in Alaska and a little over 4 million acres in Hawaii
Major uses of land, United States, 20021
Grassland pasture and range
Miscellaneous other land
Total land area5
Land Uses for estimates of major uses by region and State,
coinciding with each census of agriculture, from 1945 through
2002. See the glossary
for detailed definitions of the major land uses.
2All land in the crop
rotation (used for crops, used for pasture, idle cropland).
Includes about 34 million acres idled under the Conservation
3Total forest land as
classified by the U.S. Forest Service minus an estimated 98
million acres of forested land used for parks, wildlife areas,
and other special uses.
areas, land used primarily for recreation and wildlife purposes,
various public installations and facilities, farmsteads, and
farm roads/lanes. Excludes urban land in contrast to Major Land
Uses, Aggregate Data.
5Distributions by major
use may not add to totals due to rounding.
Sources: USDA/ERS based primarily
on reports and records of the Census Bureau and Federal, State,
and local land management and conservation agencies. See the Major
Land Uses report for information about the 2002 land-use estimates.
Grassland pasture and range, the largest use of land,
accounted for 584 million acres (31 percent) of the 48 States in
2002 (table 1.1.1). This compares with 636 million acres in the
mid-1960s. Due to improvements in the forage quality and productivity
of grazing lands, less pasture and range is needed to sustain grazing
herds. The inventory of domestic animals, particularly sheep, has
also been declining in recent years, further reducing pasture/range
demand (USDA/NASS, 2004).
Forest-use land, the second largest major use, declined
from about 32 percent of total land in 1945 to about 30 percent
in 2002. A broader category, all land with forest cover, comprised
33 percent of the land base in 2002 (Smith et al., 2004). While
forest-use land increased 1 percent between 1997 and 2002, it declined
from 612 million acres in 1964 to 559 million acres in 2002. Much
forest-covered land is in "special uses" (parks, wilderness
areas, and wildlife areas) that prohibit forestry uses such as timber
production. Forested land in these special uses increased from 23
million acres in 1945 to about 98 million acres in 2002.
Cropland comprises the third largest use of land, covering
23 percent of the contiguous States in 2002 (table 1.1.1). Since
1945, cropland ranged from a high of 478 million acres in 1949 to
a low of 441 million acres in 2002. Total cropland has trended downward
since the late 1960s, and decreased by 13 million acres (3 percent)
from 1997 to 2002.
The total cropland base includes cropland used for crops, cropland
used for pasture, and cropland idled. These components vary more
than total cropland. Since 1945, the amount of cropland used for
crops has ranged fromas much as 383 million acres in 1949 and
1982 to a minimum of 331 million acres in 1987. Total acreage used for crops
exhibited two major cycles between 1945 and 1987, with cropland
moving from idle to crop use and back again. Cropland used for crops
increased from 331 to 349 million acres over 1987-97, and then declined
to 340 million acres in 2002, about 5 percent below the average
acreage for 1910-97. Since 1945, cropland used for pasture varied
from 47 million acres in 1945 to 88 million acres in 1969.
Special uses include rural transportation; rural parks
and wildlife; defense and industrial uses; and farmstead, farm roads/lanes,
and other onfarm uses. These special uses increased from 85 million
acres (4 percent of the land area of the contiguous 48 States) in
1945 to 153 million acres (8 percent) in 2002.
Land in transportation uses (highways and roads, railroads, and
airports in rural areas) increased by 4 million acres (17 percent)
between 1945 and 1982. Transportation uses declined by about 0.5
million acres from 1982 to 1992 due to the abandonment of railroad
facilities and rural roads, and the classification of some transportation
uses as urban areas.
Land used for recreation and wildlife areas (Federal and State
parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges) expanded 344 percent
from 1945 to 2002 (an increase of 78 million acres). The increase
came mostly from conversion of Federal lands, previously in forest
and grassland pasture and range. Land in defense and industrial
uses declined by 10 million acres (40 percent) from 1945 to 2002.
Farmsteads, farm roads, and other farm uses declined by 4 million
acres (29 percent) between 1945 and 1997. This decline reflects
trends toward fewer farms and larger, more consolidated farms, as
well as an increasing tendency for farm households to live off the
In response to expanding U.S. population, land in urban usesincluding homes, schools, office buildings, shopping sites, and
other commercial/industrial usesincreased from 15 million
acres in 1945 to 25 million acres in 1960, 47 million acres in 1980,
and 59 million acres in 2002. While the U.S. population nearly doubled,
the amount of land urbanized quadrupled. However, urban uses still
comprise only 3 percent of the total land area of the contiguous
Miscellaneous other land uses decreased from 1945 to 1964, and have since trended upward, showing a 54-percent increase from 1964 to 2002 reflecting improved data and reclassification of grazing and forest lands. These uses include marshes and open swamps not included in other major land uses, bare rock areas, deserts, some rural residential areas, and other uses not inventoried. Wetlands are defined by soil and hydrological characteristics and may occur on land in many different uses (see AREI Chapter 2.3).
Regional Changes in Land Use
While land in every use occurs in all 10 regions of the contiguous
States, some uses are more concentrated in some regions than in others
(fig.1.1.1). Regions with the largest cropland acreage are the Northern
Plains, Corn Belt, and Southern Plains. Grassland pasture and range
is concentrated in the Mountain and Southern Plains regions. Acreage
in forest use, special and miscellaneous other uses is highest in the Mountain
The Northeast, Appalachian, Southeast, Delta States,
and Lake States regions lost cropland between 1945 and 2002. The
largest increases occurred in the Northern Plains and Mountain regions,
with smaller increases in the Corn Belt, Southern Plains, and Pacific
regions. Western increases may have resulted in part from federally
subsidized irrigation water (see AREI
Nine of the 10 regions lost grassland pasture and range between
1945 and 2002. While grassland pasture and range increased 11 million
acres (10 percent) in the Southern Plains, the Northeast region
lost about 70 percent of its grassland pasture and range, and the
Appalachian and Lake States regions lost more than 50 percent. The
Northeast and Appalachian regions saw the reforestation of grassland,
loss of some grassland to urbanization, and concentration of the
dairy industry. Decreases in the Corn Belt, Northern Plains, and
Mountain regions were likely associated with the conversion of some
grassland pasture and range to cropland.
Cropland Use and Federal Programs
While total cropland acreage has varied up and down and generally
declined since 1969, greater shifts have occurred between cropland
used for crops and cropland idled, mostly because of Federal programs.
Cropland used for pasture has exhibited less variation in acreage
than cropland idled.
Most cropland used for crops is harvested, but typically 2-3 percent
experiences crop failure and 5-10 percent is cultivated summer fallow
(table 1.1.2). In 2002, farmers harvested one or more crops on an
estimated 307 million acres of cropland, down 4 percent from 1997.
About 8 million acres of the total harvested were double-cropped.
When double-cropped land is counted twice, total acres harvested
rise to 315 million acres.
Cropland used for crops was at a record high of 387 million acres
in 1949, when no acres were idled by Federal programs. In 1972, cropland
used for crops was near a record low of 334 million acres as Federal
programs idled 61 million acres. Cropland used for crops climbed
to 387 million acres in 1981, when Federal programs idled no cropland,
and dropped to 333 million in 1983, when Federal program set-asides
reached a historic peak of 78 million acres under the Payment-in-Kind
(PIK) program. The Federal Agricultural Improvement Act (FAIR) of
1996 eliminated all Federal acreage reduction programs other than
the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) (see AREI
Chapter 5.2). Between 1983 and 2002, cropland used for crops
increased overall, while total acreage idled by Federal programs
decreased to 34 million acres. From 1997 to 2002, cropland used
for crops declined from 349 to 340 million acres, while acreage
idled under CRP increased by about 1 million acres. Between 2002
and 2004, acreage in CRP increased by an additional 1 million acres,
while cropland used for crops declined by about 4 million acres
Table 1.1.2 - Major uses
of cropland, 48 contiguous States, 1992-2004
Cropland used for crops2
Cultivated summer fallow
Cropland idled by all Federal programs2
Conservation Reserve Program
Total, specified uses2,4
2Breakdown may not add
to totals due to rounding.
3A double-cropped acre
is counted as 1 acre.
4Does not include cropland
pasture or idle land not in Federal programs that is normally
included in the total cropland base.
Sources: USDA/ERS, based on USDA/ERS,
1997a; USDA/NASS, 1998, 1999a, 2000a; 2004a; 2005; and unpublished
data from USDA/FSA and USDA/NASS.
The 14-million-acre drop in harvested cropland between 1997 and
2002 was coincident with a decrease in cultivated summer fallow
and an increase in failed acres due to widespread drought. Crop
failure occurred on 17 million acres, over 5 percent of the acreage
planted, in 2002. This failed
acreage was the largest since 1956. The use of summer
fallow has been decreasing since the late 1960s, and stood at
15 million acres in 2002, down from 42 million acres in 1969.
Four cropscorn for grain, soybeans, wheat, and hayaccounted for 80 percent of all crop acres
harvested in 2002 (fig. 1.1.2). The additional 17 "principal"
crops accounted for another 15 percent of harvested area. Vegetables,
fruits, nuts, melons, and all other crops accounted for 4.5 percent
of crop area harvested in 2002.
Urbanization of Agricultural and Other Rural Land
Cropland conversion to urban uses is largely irreversible, so it
is important to know the rate of conversion and how much of the
loss is replaced from other land uses (see briefing room on Urbanization
and Agricultural Land). Excessive loss of cropland to urban
uses could lessen the production of food and fiber and the supply
of rural amenities, such as open space, watershed protection, and
rural lifestyles. A variety of Federal, State, local, and private
programs address such concerns (see AREI
Although urban land constituted less than 3 percent of the U.S.
land area in 2000, 79 percent of the population lived there (table
1.1.3). Even large percentage increases in urban area would amount
to small decreases in rural area since it is so vast. The rate of
expansion (by decade) of urban area has declined from 39 percent
during the 1950s, to about 36 percent during the 1960s and the 1970s,
and to 18 percent in the 1980s. According to the Census
Bureau, urban area was 59 million acres in 2000, just 7 percent
above the previous estimate for 1990 (DOC/BOC, 2002). However, the
Census Bureau adopted a new definition
of urban area for the 2000 Census, improving the precision of
urban area measurement but making it more difficult to compare urban
area before and after this year. If urban area for 1990 is recalculated
using the 2000 definition, the Census Bureau's estimate falls
to 51 million acres, implying a
15-percent increase in urban area from 1990 to 2000.
Table 1.1.3 U.S. population
and urban area, 1950-2000
Urban area increase2
1Data differ from table
1.1.1 due to different data sources and time periods.
2Percent increase over
urban area 10 years earlier.
3The 2000 urban area
estimates are not directly comparable to estimates in prior
years due a change in the definition of urban areas in the 2000
Census of Population and Housing. The relatively small change
in urban area between 1990 and 2000 should be viewed as a result
of this definitional change, rather than as a reflection of
a slowing rate of urbanization.
Sources: USDA/ERS, based on DOC/BOC,
2002, 1999; and Frey, 1983.
Resources Inventory (NRI), conducted by USDA's Natural
Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in cooperation with Iowa State
University, is an alternative source for estimates of urban and
rural areas. The NRI uses a consistent definition for built-up areas,
though it differs from the definition used by the Census Bureau.
According to the NRI, "developed land," which includes
large and small urban and built-up areas as well as rural transportation
land, totaled 107 million acres in 2002 in the contiguous United
States. The NRI indicates that developed land increased by 14 million
acres (19 percent) over 1982-92 and 21 million acres (24 percent)
over 1992-2002 (USDA/NRCS, 2004).
Land converted to urban uses comes from several different major
land uses. The NRI indicates that 20 percent of new developed land
came from cropland between 1997 and 2002. Prime cropland
land that has the best combination of physical/chemical characteristics
for agricultural productionis converted to developed uses
at about the same rate (5 percent per year) as nonprime cropland
(USDA/NRCS, 2003). About 21 percent of rural non-Federal land is
prime and 26 percent of crop land converted to urban uses over 1997-2001
Rural land, defined as all land that is not urban, contains rural
residential land, consisting of houses and associated lots.
Nonfarm rural residential area was estimated to be about 94 million
acres in 2002, up from 56 million acres in 1980. The average rate
of increase in rural residential land was 1.7 million acres per
year from 1980 to 2002. Combining both rural and urban residential
land, the total increase in residential area was about 2 million
acres per year during this period.
Lubowski, Ruben N., Marlow Vesterby, Shawn Bucholtz, Alba Baez, and Michael J. Roberts (2006). Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2002. EIB-14. U.S. Dept. Agr., Econ Res. Serv., May.