Oregon develops far less forest and agricultural land than its neighbors

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Oregon is well known for its comprehensive land use planning program. Initiated on May 29, 1973 under Senate Bill (SB) 100, the program marked its 50-year anniversary this week. SB 100 resulted in the development of 19 statewide planning goals that touch on various dimensions of land-related issues. Two foundational goals of SB 100 involve the preservation of agricultural and forest land. In practice, both are linked to a separate goal promoting the orderly expansion of cities through the establishment of Oregon’s well-known urban growth boundaries. Given the prominent role of land-use planning in Oregon, how do land development patterns in our state compare to our neighbors, Washington and California, in recent decades?

In this post, I’ll look at development patterns in Oregon and draw comparisons with neighboring states (Washington and California) over the 1982-2017 period, the most recent years available. To look at the development patterns of interest, I’ll be using microdata from the USDA’s National Resources Inventory, which is thought to be one of the most reliable sources of aggregate land-use information. As part of SB 100, municipalities in Oregon had to establish urban growth boundaries, most of which went into effect in 1980. The start of the 1982-2017 period thus broadly coincides with when Oregon’s land-use planning system really started to bind from an urban expansion perspective. However, it is worth emphasizing that the data presented below should not be interpreted as pointing to an impact of Oregon’s land-use planning system. For something like that, we would need a more rigorous statistical model (e.g., with data before and after the system was implemented and accounting for differences in land quality across states). Rather, the findings here simply describe land development patterns over most of the years since SB 100 was passed.

Land development (in 1000s of acres and as a percentage of starting undeveloped land) in Oregon, Washington, and California over 1982-2017.

The table above provides a five-year breakdown of land development for land that was originally in agricultural (including cropland, pasture, and range) or forest use over the entire 1982-2017 period. For each five-year period, the first number lists the acres of land developed (in 1000s) and the second (in parentheses) reports the developed acreage as a percentage of undeveloped land at the start of the period. A few things stand out. First, note that the amount of land converted in all three states increases over the first three periods before declining substantially in recent years. In other words, all three states are currently developing a fraction of what they had been in the mid-late 1990s. Oregon, for instance, developed 104,000 acres over 1992-1997, but just 21,000 over 2012-2017, amounting to a decrease of roughly 80%. In a recent publication, my coauthors and I highlight the widespread nature of this trend across the US, which we attribute to changes in commuting costs and household income levels. 

Second, development in Oregon has paled in comparison to Washington and California, in both absolute (acres) and relative (percentage) terms. With one exception, Oregon has developed less land than both its neighbors over each period. The lone exception is over 1982-1987, when Oregon developed 6,000 more acres than Washington. In total, the differences are stark. The 404,000 total developed acres in Oregon amount to 47% and 19% of total development in Washington and California, respectively, over this period.  As a percentage undeveloped land, Oregon’s development is also 47% of that in Washington and 33% of that in California.

Land development is a contentious public policy issue in Oregon. Once land is developed, it almost always stays that way, meaning that the loss of land that had previously been providing food, fiber, and forest products is generally irreversible. Private land-use decisions can involve difficult discussions among individuals that may have inherited land and cannot or do not wish to continue a family farm or forest operation, and I do not want to minimize these challenges. From a broader public policy perspective, however, context is important. As we mark an important milestone related to SB 100 and discussions regarding land use and housing supply in Oregon continue to unfold, it is worth keeping in mind we seem to have done quite well from a big-picture land conservation perspective.  

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