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Land Use by State: A Visual Guide
Refresh your understanding of U.S. land use throughout the 50 states, and explore what this means for your next purchase or investment.
Land ownership can seem exclusive to buyers and sellers who are new to the market. Understanding the basics of American land use can help you take your first steps into land ownership, from cropland to real estate.
How is Land Use in the United States?
The USDA splits land use in the U.S. into several land use categories: grassland pasture and range, forest use, cropland, miscellaneous, urban, and special uses. While the U.S. is divided into 2.3 billion acres, it is important to understand that U.S. land use is interconnected. The value and use of land near you relies on the way other acreage is valued and used.
Private owners of land, as well as the U.S. government, decide the highest and best use of land based on a combination of economic, social, and environmental benefits. These decisions include market analysis and comparable sales, zoning and land use regulations, and environmental factors such as soil quality.
Environmental factors are especially important to consider when deciding the value of cropland. Cropland values are based on metrics like soil quality, climate and growing conditions, and crop profitability.
It's important before you buy or invest in a piece of land to know whether or not that land is right for you. Based on the crops you want to plant, previous environmental data in the region, and the history of the acreage, you need to know the land you're choosing is valuable to you.
Types of Land Use
Knowing the way the USDA categorizes land use can help you understand the value of the land you own or are looking to purchase. The way land is used and has been used in the past can predict its future value.
Grassland, Pasture, and Range
In 2012, the land area of the U.S. was estimated to be 2.3 billion acres, with 655 million acres of those being grassland pasture and rangeland. Most of the undeveloped land in the United States is grassland, though this doesn't mean the land is just waiting to be developed. Grassland functions as feeding grounds for American cattle and other pasture animals. Grassland also plays an important role in preserving natural resources by preventing erosion.
The top ten states where land use is designated as grassland pasture or rangeland are located in the midwestern or southwestern United States, which is also where a lot of American cattle farms are found. Nevada, Wyoming, and New Mexico top this list with nearly 75% of every state dedicated to pasture or rangeland.
Forest land use as defined by the USDA can include both public and private land, but does not include Federal and State parks, wildlife areas, and wildlife refuges.
Home to diverse ecosystems, forests support wildlife conservation and maintain water quality by filtering pollutants. Forests also play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and regulating temperature by absorbing carbon dioxide.
Forests on privately owned land are valuable resources of timber production, which provides raw materials for construction, furniture, paper, and other wood-based products. The USDA also notes that 6% of the forestland indicated on this map are for livestock grazing in addition to grassland pastures.
Maine, West Virginia, Vermont, and New Hampshire are all states with 75% or more of their land designated for forest use.
Cropland or farmland is land used for growing crops, such as grains, fruits, vegetables, and oil seeds. About 17% of the United States is used for growing crops, with states like Iowa, Illinois, North Dakota and Indiana firmly at the top of the list of where U.S. crops are grown.
Farmland can be a lucrative investment for investors, owners, and farmers alike. Knowing the factors that experienced landowners and investors consider when valuing farmland can give you a leg up when it comes to valuing your own land.
The miscellaneous category applies to land that is not arable, such as marshes, swamps, bare rock, deserts, and tundra. Of the 50 states, Alaska is an outlier, with nearly 35% of the state listed for miscellaneous land use. Most states have only about 2% of their land listed for miscellaneous use.
The USDA applies the urban land use category to urbanized areas with at least 50,000 people and urban clusters with 2,500 to 50,000 people. Small states in the Northeast like New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut top the list. The percentage of residential land use in each of these states is nearly 40%.
At the other end of the spectrum, we see cropland states like Iowa and North Dakota with only about 1% urban land use. States like Illinois and Indiana are home to some higher population cities, with 7% urban land use. However, over half of their land use is still devoted to cropland.
Special uses for land vary widely. Parks and wilderness areas make up about 11% of this category. This includes national parks managed by the forest service. States that rank high on this list are known for their national parks and conservation efforts. Alaska ranks at the top of the list for special land use at 40%, followed by California and Hawaii at around 25%. Other special uses of land make up less than 3% of U.S. land use and include military bases, farmsteads, and rural transportation.
Why Does Land Use Change Over Time?
The way land is used in the U.S. changes over time for a variety of economic, environmental, and governmental reasons. For example, urban and residential spaces may increase as population grows and more homes are built. More cattle are raised as the population increases, so more grassland is used. Additionally, as trends change in the way we eat, different crops are planted in American soil.
While land use shifts over time, the resource itself is limited. Farmers and landowners who steward land well are caring for a resource we simply can't make more of. Having all the facts about the land you buy, sell, invest in, and own can help you make important financial decisions about the value of your asset.
Learning about land use in the broader U.S. can help buyers and sellers of land make informed decisions about this lucrative asset class. Acres can help you look at historic land use with layers like satellite imagery, crop history, and vegetation index.