US land use

The U.S. land area totals just under 2.3 billion acres. Agricultural land use has become less common over time, declining from 63 percent in 1949 to 52 percent in 2012 (the latest data available). Gradual declines have occurred in cropland, while grazed forestland has decreased more rapidly. In 2012, 392 million acres of agricultural land were in cropland (18 percent less than in 1949); 655 million acres were in pasture and range (4 percent more); 130 million acres were in grazed forestland (59 percent less); and 8 million acres were in farmsteads and farm roads (45 percent less).

Nonagricultural land uses include ungrazed forest-use land, nonagricultural special uses, urban land, and miscellaneous other categories that are not separately inventoried (wetlands, rural residential, mining areas, etc.). Increases in land used for nonagricultural special uses, which include national parks and other protected areas, have contributed to the relative increase in nonagricultural land use over time. Urban land, which represents a relatively small share of the U.S. land base, has nearly tripled in area since 1949 to accommodate economic and population growth.

The ERS Major Land Uses (MLU) series is the longest running, most comprehensive accounting of all major uses of public and private land in the United States. The series was started in 1945 and has since been published about every 5 years using the latest data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Census of Agriculture.  The National Resources Inventory reveals most new land development between 2007 and 2012 took place on land that was formerly in forestland and cropland uses.

(“A Primer on Land Use in the United States” was originally published by Amber Waves, a monthly online magazine featured on the USDA ERS website. The editorial content of Amber Waves is in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission. The larger ERS report from which this overview was adapted can be accessed here.)