Flawed Federal Land Use Report
Encourages Unnecessary Spending

Wendell Cox and Ronald D. Utt

[Reprinted from Backgrounder, No. 1368, May 8, 2000, Heritage Foundation]

When the latest National Resources Inventory (NRI) -- a periodic estimate of land use in the United States -- was released in December 1999, it appeared to support the claim that some areas of the U.S. are losing farmland and open space to urban sprawl at an alarming rate. But the NRI released by Vice President Al Gore and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has serious flaws and is being revised.

In fact, according to a comprehensive survey published by USDA in March 1999 -- called the Census of Agriculture -- some of the states the NRI claimed lost substantial amounts of farmland in recent years have actually gained farmland.

Farmland can be gained when land is returned to agricultural production from conservation reserves, or converted from rangeland. But the NRI figures show net losses where the Census of Agriculture shows much smaller losses or actual gains:

  • The flawed NRI claimed Texas led the nation in land used for development, with a loss of 2.1 million acres of farmland from 1992 to 1997; the Census of Agriculture, on the other hand, shows Texas gained 421,600 acres of farmland during the same period.
  • Second only to Texas, the NRI claims Pennsylvania lost 901,200 acres; the Census reported only 21,600 acres lost -- a figure much more consistent with Pennsylvania's gain of only 30,000 new residents during the period.
  • For Georgia, the NRI reported a loss of 720,000 farm acres; the Census found Georgia added nearly 650,000 acres.
  • And Virginia's NRI-reported loss of 300,000 acres is well in excess of the 70,000 acre loss the Census reports.

Other states gained farmland, according to the Census: Texas ranks fifth among the states that gained farmland, just behind Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Utah.

Source: Wendell Cox and Ronald D. Utt, "Flawed Federal Land Use Report Encourages Unnecessary Spending," Backgrounder No. 1368, May 8, 2000, Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E., Washington D.C. 20002, (202) 546-4400.