How America Uses Its Land

Very little of our vast landmass is densely populated with humans.

I stumbled on this July 2018 interactive feature titled “Here’s How America Uses Its Land” while perusing Bloomberg. The baseline map of the contiguous 48 states by itself is quite interesting:

Scrolling down the page shows many different breakdowns that may be of interest to you. But the above overview map rather stunningly illustrates how little of our vast landmass is densely populated with humans. I spent last weekend driving down rural Virginia and North Carolina and was starkly reminded of how much forest and farmland there is even in the earliest states to settle.

Relatedly: “Between pastures and cropland used to produce feed, 41 percent of U.S. land in the contiguous states revolves around livestock.”

The “special use” category is a catch-all for all manner of things. “More than 100 million acres of special-use areas are park and wilderness areas, where most commercial activities, such as logging, mining and grazing, are excluded.” It also includes “2 million acres devoted to golf courses” and “3 million acres for airports.”

A useful reminder, too, for our frequent debates over political representation surrounding the Senate and the Electoral College: “Even though urban areas make up just 3.6 percent of the total size of the 48 contiguous states, four in five Americans live, work and play there. With so much of the U.S. population in urban areas, it’s little surprise that these areas contribute an outsize amount to the economy. The 10 most productive metropolitan areas alone contributed to about 40 percent of U.S. GDP in 2016.”

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    Some years back when I lived in CT I realized just how much of the land around me was re-forested, with every year more farm acreage falling into disuse. I could walk through the forests that bordered our property and come across many stone fences that once sectioned off neat fields. But I suspect those fences had a lot to do with the land becoming fallow because they were made from the rocks tilled up from those fields. My god, were there rocks. One winter I tried sticking a dozen reflectors along my driveway so I would know where to plow in the winter and I couldn’t push a single one far enough into the ground to stand up straight. The idea that thousands of pilgrims braved a dangerous sea voyage so they could farm land like that always astounded me, but then again I was raised in the midwest and think of farmland as flat plains and rich black dirt going down 10 feet.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    I commute occasionally by car from the Bay Area to Los Angeles (with a stopover in Paso Robles) and I can tell you that this state, the most populous in the nation, is largely empty of humans. Almond trees we’ve got, billions of them growing in what is theoretically a desert, but very few humans. And that’s not even getting into the real desert, Death Valley and Joshua Tree and all that. Yet we have double the average population per square mile of the US as a whole.

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  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    Between pastures and cropland used to produce feed, 41 percent of U.S. land in the contiguous states revolves around livestock.

    This statement from the original article is false. If you look at their original data source at the FDA, range land is any land “dominated by grasses and non-woody plants”. The article is acting as though the whole 654 million acres of range land is used for grazing livestock, which isn’t true.

  4. Joe says:

    I was surprised the first time I went to Europe that it was not wall-to-wall people. The same when I lived in Japan. Even in places famous for large populations, there are still miles and miles of empty space. Here in Illinois, even more so.

  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    @MarkedMan:

    A few years back I attended a lecture at Penn State on the history of Pennsylvania’s energy industry, and one of the more interesting fact is that nearly every forest in the state is actually less than 100 years old because the entire state had been stripped of trees back when wood was the primary energy sources.

    This is pretty amazing because if you’ve been there recently, pretty much everything that’s not actively built on is completely crammed with trees again.

  6. Kylopod says:

    I think it was in the aftermath of the 2000 election when I first started to notice that electoral maps in the modern age always look more visually impressive for Republicans, regardless of whether they win or not–because the reddest states in the country collectively have a lot more area than comparably blue states, so in just about any electoral map since 1968 you’re going to be looking at more red than blue.

    The difference is even starker in the county maps, which make the entire country look like a giant sea of red with tiny dots of blue here and there. It’s just that those dots are where most of the people live. Trump loves to show off the 2016 county map for this reason, because it makes it look like he won in a massive blowout. But the thing is, the county electoral map has looked more or less like this for quite a while, even in Obama’s 2008 landslide. Even when you look at super-blue states like New York, Illinois, or Maryland, in any election year you’ll invariably find yourself looking at more red than blue.

  7. Kathy says:

    IMO the way to see this is not as “how much land is inhabited by humans?”, but rather “how much land is used for human purposes?”

    The latter would include all cropland and pastures, for instance, as well as mines, oil fields, and not least highways and other roads. I’d even include some forests, or parts of forests, as they are where people harvest trees from.

    This kind of measure makes it clear why our current geological era is being called “Anthropocene.”

  8. Andy says:

    Yes, thank goodness we aren’t Coruscant.

    I’m from and currently living in the inter-mountain west (Colorado). I’ve run across a lot of people raised in urban areas with little exposure to the wilderness that can’t comprehend it. Late last year, for example, a USAF Academy cadet took a hike on one of the most popular trails in Rocky Mountain National Park. He was never seen again. The search was called off after a week because of snow, his recovery will have to wait for the spring thaw. Some of my Facebook friends just couldn’t believe it would be that hard to find a dead kid near a popular trail in a national park.

    It’s not unheard of for people to go missing in the wilderness to never be seen again or only found years later.

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Yes, it’s pretty amazing how our technology and engineering allows us to turn inhospitable places into cities – a lot of the southwest is like that, but the poster child must be Las Vegas.

  9. Joe says:

    @Kylopod:
    Illinois is generally a reliably blue state in national elections (though we do have mixed congressional dellagation). On a county-by-county basis, Illinois is a big red state with large blue spots in the northeast corner and southwest side and one little blue dot in East Central Illinois, Champaign County. where the University of Illinois is. If you look at the Champaign County map, it is a big red county with a large blue dot at the center, where the University of Illinois is. A pattern develops.

  10. CSK says:

    When I lived in Scotland, which was then considered by the natives to be relatively heavily forested, I was surprised at how treeless it was in comparison to New England, and the northeast in general. Massachusetts, for its small size, has a big population. But you can drive through miles and miles of second- and third growth forest and never spot another human, or any sign of human presence.

  11. Kit says:

    Every time I fly, I’m always struck by our footprint, especially through farming. And in any case, no matter how you think of it, the planet is already groaning under our weight. It’s all we can do to keep ourselves from chopping down every tree, extracting every barrel of oil, and eating every fish in the ocean.

  12. mattbernius says:
  13. @Michael Reynolds: These kinds of observations always make me think of Lex Luthor’s diabolical plan in the original Superman movie: most of the people in CA are in narrow strip between the mountains and the sea.

  14. Kathy says:

    @Andy:

    Yes, it’s pretty amazing how our technology and engineering allows us to turn inhospitable places into cities – a lot of the southwest is like that, but the poster child must be Las Vegas.

    Las Vegas means literally The Meadows. while it sits in the desert, it’s on top of an underground water source. This feature made it a good place for an outpost. The railroad passed though it because it had water to restock the boilers on steam engines.

    Eventually Hoover Dam was built, and Lake Mead created, primarily to control the Colorado River, but also to supply water to Southern Nevada. So there’s that. but Vegas was an inhabited place decades before the artificial lake (granted, not so big).

    Technology works the other way, too. Mexico City was a land of lakes and rivers, and now it’s dependent on herculean efforts to meet its water demand.

  15. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s likely to remain that way. Much of the Western United States is quite arid and already straining existing aquifers and waterways. The Colorado River is so low already that cities dependent on it in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico are expecting shortages.

    It’s been 35 years since Lake Mead was full.

    Looking at the issue more globally, performing a similar exercise for China is quite instructive. There’s a reason that most of China’s population is concentrated in a fairly narrow band along the coast—water.

  16. Franklin says:

    @Joe:

    Even in places famous for large populations, there are still miles and miles of empty space.

    From my point of view, land where non-human lifeforms exist is not “empty space”.

    I’m not saying this to pick on you or James or anyone, and I’m not saying you advocated filling up that emptiness, but it’s still very anthropocentric. All that space? It doesn’t really belong to humans any more than it does to any other animal or plant.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Andy: @Dave Schuler:

    Last year Californians were very, very worried about water. This year we wish the damned rain would stop. All of our major reservoirs are well above historical averages, and that’s before the snowpack – at 162% of normal – starts to really flow.

    An interesting result is that our hills are green. Our hills are normally straw yellow and dotted with clumps of trees. The vivid green is jarring. And the pollen is really annoying. It takes three days for my black car to turn green.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @Franklin:

    I’m not saying you advocated filling up that emptiness, but it’s still very anthropocentric. All that space? It doesn’t really belong to humans any more than it does to any other animal or plant.

    I’m always surprised when prime land–particularly along waterways–hasn’t been converted to human use. Or, as happens a lot along the Potomac, where eyesores were built on the waterline or buildings are oriented away from the water, with dumpsters and such in the back along the water.

  19. Andy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It was a good year for snow in the Rockies as well, which may even things up after last year’s low totals.

  20. JKB says:

    “With so much of the U.S. population in urban areas, it’s little surprise that these areas contribute an outsize amount to the economy. The 10 most productive metropolitan areas alone contributed to about 40 percent of U.S. GDP in 2016.”

    “Productive” is not the proper word here. For one, the dominant means of wealth generation in dense urban areas is often “political means”, not “economic means”. The political means siphons off wealth from the productive economic means. Most of our political debates today center around how much those who seek wealth via political means can take from the productive economic means before the latter just start taking long weekends rather than work for the taxman.

    But even those that are a mix of economic and political means, such as finance, insurance, commodity brokering, etc., are dependent upon the economic means of wealth generation from the vast “open space”. In the last 30 years, even manufacturing has become uneconomic in dense urban areas as the square footage per employee has declined causing plants to move to cheaper land, as they don’t need a dense population to draw enough workers from and further automation will only increase this trend. I don’t remember the precise numbers but I believe since the early ’90s when sqft/employee was similar between manufacturing and office, retail, etc., environments, it is now half or more in comparison.

    But we must acknowledge that a greater percentage of the wealth from the value chain is recorded in dense urban areas. But also, a bad yield in, say Iowa, will also be felt in the Chicago and NY economies, sometimes amplified.

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  21. gVOR08 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    The idea that thousands of pilgrims braved a dangerous sea voyage so they could farm land like that always astounded me, but then again I was raised in the midwest and think of farmland as flat plains and rich black dirt going down 10 feet.

    Driving through western Ohio, Indiana, or Illinois, I often think the first European settlers, once they pulled the stumps, must have thought they died and went to heaven.

    But not to worry, if AGW ruins that incredible combination of weather and soil, we can always move all that corn and beans production north. For which see Canadian Shield,

    Composed of igneous rock resulting from its long volcanic history, the area is covered by a thin layer of soil.

  22. gVOR08 says:

    There’s a 1981 book, which I think has stood up well, called The Nine Nations of North America. Says that culturally and economically you can look at the country as nine countries: Quebec, New England, The Foundry, Dixie, The Islands, The Breadbasket, Mexamerica, Ecotopia, and The Empty Quarter. The Empty Quarter is all that yellow and blue extending up into most of Canada. All that land and almost no people. The rest is pretty self explanatory, except for The Islands: Central America and parts of the Caribbean with their regional capital, Miami.

  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    “Political means” are the only reason we have any farming left at all. The taxpayers subsidize the hell out of farming via the ethanol requirement, subsidized crop insurance, outright protection for some farming such as sugar, and a work force largely composed of undocumented immigrants the government helpfully turns a blind eye to.

    They have roads they don’t generate enough tax money to pay for, hospitals subsidized by urban taxpayers and towns kept afloat by Social Security and Food Stamps. And of course it’s the cities that are the marketplace for Iowa corn and hogs. American agriculture, food processing, etc… is 5.5% of the American economy, which means all of US ag together creates less GDP than the LA Metro.

  24. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Once again we witness the yawning canyon between the Red State fantasy of their superior productivity and the reality of their endless need for subsidy by the Blue States

  25. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @Dave Schuler: Human civilization everywhere (not just China) clusters around fresh water. We can adapt to almost any temperature and climate this planet has, and eat an absurd variety of things. But a lack of drinkable water (or water brewed into something else which still requires non-salt water to start), and humanity pretty much stops (or doesn’t go past the barest subsistence level).

  26. Kari Q says:

    @Andy:

    Yes, it’s pretty amazing how our technology and engineering allows us to turn inhospitable places into cities – a lot of the southwest is like that, but the poster child must be Las Vegas.

    I often think that Las Vegas will be talked about in stunned disbelief the way we look at the pyramids or similar pointless activities (economically speaking) that cultures invested huge resources into building. It’s too bad that our monument to defying reality isn’t as impressive as the Acropolis. Still, I see a Vegas ghost town some day in the distant future.

    I grew up in a ‘small’ city of 100,000 people in California’s High Desert. You may have probably seen pictures of the are outside it lately in discussions of California’s “super bloom” of wildflowers. Over 100,000 people are living in the city, but I could walk a few hundred yards from my front door and find empty fields that had once been – farmland. Average rainfall of 7 inches a year, and people tried to farm it. We are an astonishingly stubborn species, believing that we can grow crops literally anywhere, even if there is no water.

    The population of the city, by the way, was supported primarily by the aerospace industry.

    (I wonder if that counts as “productive” by “political means” or “economic means.” I mean, most of the money came from the government, so that was “political” presumably. But then, the area produces military aircraft, and isn’t that the very definition of genuinely valuable production by red state standards? Does it make a difference that the area is overwhelmingly Republican?)

  27. An Interested Party says:

    Sadly, this conversation highlights how political representation should be based on population, not land…so anachronistic, arguably slavery-related mechanisms like the Senate and the electoral college are quite unfair to the population of this country…

  28. DrDaveT says:

    @JKB:

    For one, the dominant means of wealth generation in dense urban areas is often “political means”, not “economic means”.

    I think this wins the prize for most ignorant response of the year.

    How, exactly, do you assert that politics generates wealth in urban areas? I suspect that not even you know what you meant by that.