Decreasing development on forest and agricultural land partly driven by gas prices

Researchers created a county-level dataset of land development patterns with data from the USDA National Resources Inventory. Courtesy photo by Sean Nealon, Oregon State University.

A new study found a steep decline in the development of forest and agricultural land from 2000 to 2015 compared to the previous two decades. This decline resulted in a broad shift towards denser development patterns throughout the U.S.

Researchers from Oregon State University, Montana State University, and the USDA Forest Service found that falling gas prices and, to a lesser extent, rising income levels, drove land development from 1982 to 2000.

“Land development rates in the U.S. have seen a remarkable decrease after the year 2000 compared to the 1980s and 1990s, delaying the conversion of over 3.5 million acres of forestland,” says Chris Mihiar, SRS research economist and co-author of the paper published in Environmental Research Letters.

Since 2000, income growth has been stagnant, and gas prices have risen sharply. The researchers concluded gas price increases, more so than changes in income and population, the other two factors they analyzed, most significantly shaped the recent shift towards denser development.

“Increasing gas prices raise commuting costs in areas with longer commutes, which makes land less attractive for housing development in such areas,” says David Lewis, natural resource economist at Oregon State and co-author.

The researchers found that the pace of land development steadily increased in the 1980s and peaked in the mid-to late 1990s before beginning a steady decline starting around the year 2000.

A plateau occurred around 2010 at a level that amounts to less than one-quarter of the peak development rate in the 1990s. Notably, the declining land development rates began well before the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

Other studies have documented or suggested this trend, but the potential causes and consequences of the change have not been explored in depth. In this study, the researchers analyzed many facets of land development, with a particular focus on population growth, changes in income, and commuting cost. Their findings include:

  • Avoided deforestation amounted to 3.56 million acres from 2000-2015, with most concentrated east of the Mississippi River or the Pacific coast.
  • Avoided cropland loss amounted to 2.06 million acres, most concentrated in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast regions.
  • In 2015, the rate of development (0.47 million acres per year) of the four land types they studied (forest, crop, pasture, and range) was less than one-quarter of the peak development rate that occurred from 1992-1997 (2.04 million acres per year).
  • Overall, 90 percent of counties with any developed land area during the study period and all but one state (Nevada) have developed areas that became more densely populated over 2000-2015.

“Land development is irreversible, so once land gets developed it generally is not going back to forest or the agricultural use that it was previously,” says Daniel Bigelow, natural resource and agricultural economist at Montana State University and lead author of the paper. “That’s why this is such an important issue to so many people and so many groups, because it’s not something that can be undone.”

The findings show a potentially significant connection between land development patterns and efforts to price carbon emissions that are aimed at mitigating climate change.

“Our results highlight that carbon taxes not only reduce carbon emissions by preventing the burning of fossil fuels but can also mitigate climate change by preserving the carbon stored in forested land,” adds Mihiar.

The researchers note that the downward trend in land development should not be considered a permanent change. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic could result in more people living in lower-density areas, which would add additional land development pressure in those areas.

The research lays the groundwork to study land development after the pandemic or other future large economic shocks.

This article excerpted and adapted from an Oregon State University news release.

Read the full text of the journal article.

For more information, email Chris Mihiar at

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