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Land Use

How long has your backyard been a backyard?
What did it look like before it became associated with a house?
How has it been used by human beings over the centuries?

A stand of quaking aspen, photo by Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service @

Native Americans used the land of North America in many ways. When European colonists arrived they found much forest made up of a mosaic of different types and ages as well as expanses of old growth. They also found cleared areas. Residents of the continent continued to build, farm, alter, and extract resources to make their lives comfortable and productive. The impact of land use, short and long term, is difficult to assess because it always involves trade offs; something must be sacrificed when a land’s use is changed. Since the colonial period we have lost about half of all of the wetlands in the lower 48 states.

Much of the eastern old growth forest was cut between 1800 and 1920, but many people are unaware that the acreage of forested land found in the lower 48 states has increased since the 1920s. However, these new forests are very different than the old growth forests found in some areas of North America by the colonists. Other dramatic changes have occurred across the continent many involving the expansion and impact of cropland and rangeland on prairies. Today urban sprawl is impacting agricultural land and other open space in the ever-expanding areas around cities.

Using the resources below and other local resources, try to learn about the land use history of your backyard. Then think about the land use in your backyard and community today. Consider how it fits into the bigger land use picture:

The United States has a land area of about 2.3 billion acres, which as of 1997 can be categorized as:

Iowa terraces, photo by Dennis Eilers USDA-NRCS

  • • Rural (2.2 billion acres, or 97 percent) includes agricultural (range, cropland, pasture, farmsteads, and roads), forest, and other land.
  • • Urban (66 million acres; 3 percent) includes residential, commercial, utilities, mixed, transitional, and other urban land.

Major uses of land in 1997 were:

  • • Cropland, 455 million acres (20 percent of the land area)
  • • Grassland pasture and range, 580 million acres (26 percent)
  • • Forest-use land (total forest land exclusive of forested areas in parks and other special uses), 642 million acres (28 percent)
  • • Special uses (parks, wilderness, wildlife, and related uses), 286 million acres (13 percent)
  • • Urban land, 66 million acres (3 percent)
  • • Miscellaneous other land (deserts, wetlands, and barren land), 235 million acres (10 percent).

Source: Vesterby, M. & Krupa, K., 1997: Major Uses of Land in the United States. In ERS Statistical Bulletin No. 973. US Department of Agriculture, 60 pp, September 2001.

Finally, think about the future land use in your backyard, community, and region in general, keeping in mind that you as an individual and as a member of a community can make decisions and choices affecting the changes that will happen.


Land Use Resources

Environmental Literacy Council
An overview of land use in the US

Environmental Literacy Council
The links between the environment and society

Natural Resources Conservation Service
State of the Land