Visualizing How America Uses Its Land In 13 Illustrations

Bloomberg is out with a fascinating look at how America uses its land for various purposes in the lower 48 contiguous states, based on extensive data published in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The 48 contiguous states alone are a 1.9 billion-acre jigsaw puzzle of cities, farms, forests and pastures that Americans use to feed themselves, power their economy and extract value for business and pleasure. -Bloomberg

First, let's take a look at the big picture: 

By grouping each color, we have can see wide "bands" of land use by color. Of note, Special Use areas are categorized as national parks, wildlife areas, highways, railroads and military bases. 

The U.S. is becoming more urban—at an average rate of about 1 million additional acres a year. That’s the equivalent of adding new urban area the size of Los Angeles, Houston and Phoenix combined. U.S. urban areas have more than quadrupled since 1945.

The USDA categorizes national parks, wildlife areas, highways, railroads and military bases as special-use areas. And another USDA land classification—miscellaneous—includes cemeteries, golf courses, marshes, deserts and other areas of “low economic value.”

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.

Agricultural land takes up about a fifth of the country. 

Yet the actual land area used to grow the food Americans eat is much smaller—only about the size of Indiana, Illinois and half of Iowa combined. More than a third of the entire corn crop is devoted to ethanol production. Most cropland is used for livestock feed, exports or is left idle to let the land recover.


While the U.S. benefits from an overall agricultural trade surplus, Americans imported 15 percent of their food and beverage products in 2016. More than 30 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables Americans consume come from other countries, predominantly Mexico and Canada. The amount of U.S. land used to produce citrus fruits alone is larger than Rhode Island.

More than one-third of U.S. land is used for pasture—by far the largest land-use type in the contiguous 48 states. And nearly 25 percent of that land is administered by the federal government, with most occurring in the West. That land is open to grazing for a fee.

There’s a single, major occupant on all this land: cows. Between pastures and cropland used to produce feed, 41 percent of U.S. land in the contiguous states revolves around livestock.

Forestland is the last major category of land categorized by the USDA. Unprotected forests and timberland constitute a quarter of the contiguous U.S.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, timber harvests typically occur on about 11 million acres each year. But because of regrowth, the volume of U.S. timber stock grew by about 1 percent annually from 2007 to 2012. Weyerhaeuser Co. is the largest private owner of timberlands in the U.S. With 12.4 million acres, the company controls 2.3 percent of all commercially available timber, an area nearly the size of West Virginia.

Putting all those pieces together, this map gives you a rough sense of all the ways U.S. land is used. Much of U.S. land serves specific purposes, such as the 2 million acres devoted to golf courses or the 3 million acres for airports.

Methodology Land use classifications are based on data published in 2017 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service in a report called the Major Uses of Land in the United States (MLU). Data from the report provide total land-use acreage estimates for each state across six broad categories. Those totals are displayed per 250,000 acres.

Data from Alaska and Hawaii are excluded from the analysis. Special-use land and forestland make up the biggest land types in those states.

Bloomberg referenced the USDA data against estimates from the National Land Cover Database to generally locate these categories within each state.

Miscellaneous uses are defined as wetlands, rural residential lands, non-harvestable forests, desert, tundra and barren land of low economic value. Unlike all other land-use categories in the USDA data, a component breakdown for miscellaneous uses by state is not provided in the MLU.

To locate miscellaneous areas, Bloomberg referred to the National Land Cover Database to generally calculate and locate acreage by miscellaneous uses. “Rural residential lands” in the USDA data make up most of the 69 million-acre miscellaneous-use category. This category does not equally correlate to data in the National Land Cover Database, so Bloomberg subtracted the total of the other miscellaneous components to arrive at a rough estimate of “rural residential lands”—about 50 million acres.

Total pasture/range areas are proportionally divided by animal group based on National Agricultural Statistics Service livestock counts.

Data showing the 100 largest landowning families are based on descriptions of acreage and land type in The Land Report magazine. Representative amounts of acreage were subtracted from private timber and cropland/range to show this category, which is not a part of the USDA data.

Sources: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service: Major Uses of Land in the United States, 2012; U.S. Department of the Interior, National Land Cover Database, 2011; U.S. Census Bureau; State governments;; American Farmland Trust; Golf Course Superintendents Association of America; USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service; USDA Census of Agriculture; U.S. Bureau of Land Management; U.S. Forest Service; Weyerhaeuser Co.; The Land Report magazine


glenlloyd techpriest Fri, 08/03/2018 - 00:18 Permalink

Yeah, that doesn't surprise me. Ethanol is an absolute shit story invented and perpetuated so that farmers get another market for their corn, instead of diversifying into other more rare and desirable products, which they really ought to do.

The fact that the farm lobby has got its hooks into the EPA for mandates on ethanol usage really burns me, and I grew up on farming.

All of these special interests are like parasites...

In reply to by techpriest

lock-stick kralizec Sat, 08/04/2018 - 01:30 Permalink

ONE whackjob obsessed SPAMMER -- with numerous log-ons!!!

•• Free This  (same WHACK JOB -- used to be "Mr Hankey" -- also banned)

•• sanctificado  (DON'T CLICK THE LINKS!!! --  Biblicism SPAMMER -- banned as powow/Wadolt/ravolla/lloll/pier/etc.)

•• More Sun (it's the JOOS!! -- whack job extraordinaire)

•• Annanuki  (another imaginary friend)

•• Jumanji1959 (another imaginary friend)

•• Adolfsteinbergovich  (another imaginary friend)

•• Cryptopithicus Homme  (another "imaginary friend")

•• PrivetHedge (another imaginary friend -- Joo Hater)


spamming ZH for seven years --- dozens and dozens of banned log-ons




Write to the Tylers ::

In reply to by kralizec

Froman techpriest Fri, 08/03/2018 - 08:56 Permalink

You guys are the only people that I have seen commenting on ethanol that have hit the nail on the head.  I used to work for USDA and then later on the House Approps Cmte and you are absolutely correct when your describe ethanol as legal extortion.  I would also throw the term political graft into the description as well.  Specifically you can thank individuals like Tom Harkin, Pat Robertson for pushing this in the late 80s and early 90s who were paid handsomely for making sure that the provision was contained in the Farm Bill handouts.

In reply to by techpriest

techpriest Froman Fri, 08/03/2018 - 09:35 Permalink

Mainly I saw it firsthand in grad school. We were looking at new application for corn in chemistry, and it suddenly dawned on me after looking at the EIA numbers that we only eat 8-9% of corn, another 2% in cornstarch, and its is debatable if we need another 35% for the grain-finished beef. Everything else, about half the corn, goes to non-valuable uses that are more about grabbing subsidies than about producing value. These being ethanol and HFCS. And that's when I realized that our research was about finding a new way to suck up even more corn, as GMO meant that we were going to keep increasing yields on a crop that nobody wanted, to the point that burning 40% as ethanol still isn't enough to suck it all up.

In reply to by Froman

whatamaroon Froman Fri, 08/03/2018 - 11:45 Permalink

Remember Al Gore started the ethanol bullshit, He admitted it was wrong. He was running for President as Clinton's VP. He wanted the primary vote from Iowa and Tennessee, Being President of the senate he provided the vote to pass the ethanol mandate, as the senate was tied 50-50. Fucking hypocritical POS has imposed this fantasy BS on us every since! ;…

P.S. he lost the vote in Tennessee (his home state) in the general election.


In reply to by Froman

Raisin Hail glenlloyd Fri, 08/03/2018 - 13:00 Permalink

Thank you EPA for mixing that ethanol crap in perfectly good gasoline. My car is tuned properly so the ethanol does nothing to improve emissions in my car. It just lowers my gas mileage and cuts about 10% of my horsepower. Try using this blended crap in a 2 cycle engine like a chain saw and see what happens. You will buy a new carburetor every year. The really unconscionable part is it puts food supply and fuel supply into price covariation. When oil goes up so does corn as E-85 prices become attractive. Bad idea. Starve people when oil gets expensive. Worse than the Mafia.

In reply to by glenlloyd

aardvarkk techpriest Fri, 08/03/2018 - 11:12 Permalink

I'm less certain than you that subsidies are the root of what has blown up farm culture...but it HAS been blown up.  Back in the 70s it was actually pretty healthy in MN/ND/SD, or seemed that way to me as a kid.  Now you have to be a really BIG operation just to survive, and have millions sunk into equipment, silos, etc.  You can't run just a few hundred acres anymore, unless you are a hobbyist more or less.

Another aspect is that you've gotta damn near be a genius to run a successful farm, or you're going to get steamrolled.  The stereotype of the "stupid, dull farmer" is far off base these days.  The ones who last more than 5 years are some of the smartest people around, and some of the hardest-working.

In reply to by techpriest

techpriest aardvarkk Fri, 08/03/2018 - 11:35 Permalink

True, my statement was a bit oversimplified, and you are 100% correct that farming today requires a lot of business savvy. Iowans have the expression "Grandpa's 80 acres," in terms of how farming used to be about small independent farmers, but between taxes, loans, federal programs and hedge funds manipulating the economy, and GMOs pushing prices through the floor, it really isn't possible for a small operation to profitably produce a commodity product.

On the margins you have people running tourist farms or specialty ag products like grass-finished organic beef, herbs, and so on, but you are right - a number of forces have made the small, non-hobby farm nonviable in this economy.

In reply to by aardvarkk

monad Pernicious Gol… Fri, 08/03/2018 - 09:09 Permalink

Tim Leary and Robert Anton Wilson would say it is because there are too many people in decision making positions who haven't taken a trip or had an earth shaking orgasm since about 1974. I would agree with them. However the next generation is retrying the costly, failed experiments of that era in "positive income" and "rent control", on their way toward the most expensive failed experiment of all time, communism. Socialism and communism are euphemisms for imperialism. You can tell because they all involve shackles, whips, chains, eugenics, censorship and criminalizing the means of self defense.

In reply to by Pernicious Gol…

Weirdly techpriest Fri, 08/03/2018 - 09:41 Permalink

After the sugars are extracted, the fats and fiber are then fed to livestock.  All feed corn should be run through the still first to extract the energy for liquid fuels.  This utilization allows us to pull 30% more energy out of every corn cob grown.  Only one reason the US supports homosexual murdering kings, liquid energy.  

In reply to by techpriest

techpriest Weirdly Fri, 08/03/2018 - 11:38 Permalink

Fats and fiber -> DDGS. I'm familiar with some studies on using that as animal feed.

However, the main reason for the feed corn is the starch. The purpose is to give the feedlot animals a predictable amount of fat at the time of slaughter, which requires substantial carbohydrates.

In reply to by Weirdly

Juggernaut x2 Thu, 08/02/2018 - 21:38 Permalink

more than 1/3 of corn production goes to fucking ethanol! there are no bigger welfare queens in the US than farmers. fuck 'em- import Brazilian corn and beans(and Cuban sugar) and you will see true price discovery in the price of food

TheEndIsNear tion Fri, 08/03/2018 - 01:08 Permalink

tion said:  "I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen cotton growing in a field."

That is so funny because picking cotton is how my parents made a living when they came to central California to work in the fields circa 1940 and do the work illegal Mexicans do now. One of my earliest memories was looking up at the blue sky through boles of cotton while being dragged along on my father's cotton sack. Shortly after I learned to walk, he made me a child size cotton sack and I had to pick cotton too.  It was not a pleasant childhood.

In reply to by tion

SheHunter TheEndIsNear Fri, 08/03/2018 - 01:28 Permalink

I'm the first one to be vocal about illegals and my tax money going to pay some illegal to have a baby but I worked in CA a few times around Watsonville.  The vegetable pickers are mostly illegals and are out in the fields from sun-up to sun-down wearing aprons with huge pouches to hold the harvested crops as they pick them.  When the aprons are full- and heavy as a rock- they walk to a bin, dump the aprons, walk back over and start filling the apron.  Hot sun.  Thick with mosquitos. Long days.  dust.  hot sun..  rinse/repeat.  Find me an American who will do this work when welfare is so readily available.

In reply to by TheEndIsNear