Forestland accounts for a majority of land conversion in Oregon

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In my previous post, I showed that there is less land development in Oregon compared to Washington and California. Furthermore, I pointed out that development in all three states has declined considerably in recent decades. From a land conservation perspective, this may seem like a positive trend for our state, although some may still be alarmed by the fact that over 400 thousand acres of Oregon’s land have been converted from farm and forest uses since 1982. Depending on your perspective, rather than the total amount of land that has been converted, what may matter more is the types of land have been developed. This has implications both for the types of ecosystem services lost and the rural economic sectors directly impacted by the decline in its respective land base.

Here, using the same USDA National Resources Inventory dataset for Oregon, I’ll examine the pre-development distribution of land use for the land that was eventually developed. The figure below breaks down total land development into five-year increments over the 1982-2017 period. First, it is important to note that total development has declined considerably since its peak during the 1992-1997 period, although the most recent period shows a slight uptick in new development.

In nearly every period, forestland represents the highest share of land that has been developed. The lone exception is 1987-1992, when slightly more cropland than forestland was developed. Forestland’s share of pre-development land use has ranged from 34% (1987-1992 and 2002-2007) to 53% (1982-1987). In terms of acreage, the peak forestland conversion also occurred over 1982-1987 when about 44 thousand acres were developed. Recent totals of forestland conversion pale in comparison, representing less than 10 thousand acres in both the 2007-2012 and 2012-2017 periods. Overall, roughly 163 thousand acres of forestland has been developed in Oregon since 1982, accounting for 40% of all new development in our state.

Of the other major land uses, cropland or pasture generally comprises the second-largest source of new development. In terms of acreage, the peak cropland conversion occurred in 1987-1992, when 26 thousand acres were developed (34% of all development in that period), while the peak pasture conversion occurred over 1992-1997 when 30 thousand acres were developed (29% of all development in that period). Over the entire 1982-2017 period, similar amounts of Oregon’s cropland (103 thousand acres) and pastureland (104 thousand acres) have been developed, with each representing about 26% of all new development. Rangeland, the last major use included, generally accounts for a small share of total development (34 thousand acres; 8% of the total over the entire period), likely due to its concentration in the less populated parts of eastern Oregon. It may be worth noting, however, that rangeland conversion rates have nearly doubled between 2007-2012 (2 thousand acres) and 2012-2017 (almost 4 thousand acres).

In conclusion, recent patterns of land development in Oregon reveal a decline in overall development since the 1990s, with forestland being the primary type of land converted. While there has been progress in land conservation, the trends shown here suggest the need for continued efforts to strike a balance between development and preservation. Forestland provides timber and numerous ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, species habitat, and recreational land, while agricultural land (cropland, pasture, and range) provides food and its own set of ecosystem services. By understanding the patterns and types of land development, policymakers and communities can make more informed decisions surrounding the use of Oregon’s land resources for both current and future generations.

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