Federal Coordinating Lead Author:
Thomas Loveland, U.S. Geological Survey
Chapter Lead:
Benjamin M. Sleeter, U.S. Geological Survey
Chapter Authors:
James Wickham, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Grant Domke, U.S. Forest Service
Nate Herold, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Nathan Wood, U.S. Geological Survey
Review Editor:
Georgine Yorgey, Washington State University
Technical Contributors:
Tamara S. Wilson, U.S. Geological Survey
Jason Sherba, U.S. Geological Survey
USGCRP Coordinators:
Susan Aragon-Long, Senior Scientist
Christopher W. Avery, Senior Manager

Land Cover and Land-Use Change

Humans have had a far-reaching impact on land cover within the contiguous United States. Of the approximately 3.1 million square miles of land area, approximately 28% has been significantly altered by humans for use as cultivated cropland and pastures (22%) or settlements (6%; Figure 5.1a).3 Land uses associated with resource production (such as grazing, cropland, timber production, and mining) account for more than half of the land area of the contiguous United States,58 followed by land that is conserved (16%), built-up areas (13%), and recreational land (10%; Figure 5.1b). Between 2001 and 2011, developed land cover increased by 5% and agriculture declined by 1%. Urbanization was greater between 2001 and 2006 than between 2006 and 2011, which may be attributable to the 2007–2009 economic recession.59,60 The relative stability in agricultural land use between 2001 and 2011 masks widespread fluctuations brought about by the abandonment and expansion of agricultural lands (see Figure 5.2 for more detail).


Figure 5.1: Land-Use and Land-Cover Composition

Figure 5.1: The composition of land use and land cover (LULC) is highly variable across the United States, owing in part to the natural environmental settings of each region. Forests dominate much of the vegetated areas of the eastern United States, while much of the Great Plains and Southwest are dominated by grasses and shrubs. Characterizing the composition of LULC also depends on the type of classification system used. This figure shows two different classification systems used to represent different components of land use and land cover: (a) the National Land Cover Database (NLCD),3 which is derived from the classification of satellite images and represents the physical features on the ground, such as land that is covered by trees (forest cover) or impervious surfaces (developed cover); and (b) the National Land Use Dataset (NLUD),58 which divides the land into 79 land-use categories that can be aggregated into five major use categories, including lands used for conservation, production of goods and services, and recreation. Data are unavailable for both the U.S. Caribbean region and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands in the NLCD and the NLUD. Source: USGS.

Table 5.1: Estimates of Land-Use Area (Square Miles) by NCA Region

NCA Region Croplands Forestlands Grasslands Other Lands Settlements Wetlands
Alaska 111 133,438 305,659 76,388 558 64,336
Hawai'i 173 2,501 1,997 1,283 438 51
Midwest 212,994 142,314 43,753 4,140 36,638 18,867
Northern Great Plains 136,089 62,829 248,678 4,473 8,216 9,765
Northeast 24,490 131,383 11,649 2,929 24,856 12,521
Northwest 28,076 114,263 89,963 3,853 7,784 5,573
Southern Great Plains 103,698 103,325 182,216 2,547 19,878 7,790
Southeast 84,137 301,616 58,442 3,610 45,799 34,852
Southwest 39,782 174,669 416,464 30,324 22,311 10,237
Total 629,550 1,166,338 1,358,821 129,547 166,478 163,992
Table 5.1: Definitions of land use and land cover vary among agencies and entities collecting those data. This may lead to fundamental differences in these estimates that must be considered when comparing estimates of cover and use. For the purposes of this report, land cover is defined as the physical characteristics of land, such as trees or pavement, and land use is characterized by human management and activities on land, such as mining or recreation. The land-use area estimates in this table and throughout this chapter were obtained from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program and the National Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Natural Resources Inventory (NRI) data, when available for an area, because the surveys contain additional information on management, site conditions, crop types, biometric measurements, and other data that are needed to estimate carbon stock changes and nitrous oxide and methane emissions on those lands. If NRI and FIA data are not available for an area, however, then the NLCD product is used to represent the land use. Since all three data sources were used in the land representation analysis within the National Inventory Report, we used land-use estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual greenhouse gas inventory report.61 Data are unavailable for both the U.S. Caribbean region and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands in the NRI and FIA datasets.

Vegetated land cover, including grasslands, shrublands, forests, and wetlands, accounted for approximately two-thirds of the contiguous U.S. land area and experienced a net decline of approximately 5,150 square miles between 2001 and 2011. However, many of these areas are also used for the production of ecosystem goods and services, such as timber and grazing, which lead to changes in land cover but may not necessarily result in a land-use change. Between 2001 and 2011, forest land cover had the largest net decline of any class (25,730 square miles)3 but forest land use increased by an estimated 3,200 square miles over a similar period (Ch. 6: Forests).61 The increase in forest land use is due, in large part, to the conversion of abandoned croplands to forestland62 and the reversion to and expansion of trees in grassland ecosystems in the Great Plains and western United States.61 There have also been losses in forest land use over the past 25 years, predominantly to grasslands and settlements, with grasslands and shrublands increasing in area by nearly 20,460 square miles. Collectively, non-vegetated areas, including water, barren areas, and snow and ice, account for approximately 6% of the total land area.


Figure 5.2: Changes in Land Cover by Region

Figure 5.2: The figure shows the net change in land cover by class in square miles, from 1973 to 2011. Land-cover change has been highly dynamic over space, time, and sector, in response to a range of driving forces. Net change in land cover reveals the trajectory of a class over time. A dramatic example illustrated here is the large decline in agricultural lands in the two Great Plains regions beginning in the mid-1980s, which resulted in large part from the establishment of the Conservation Reserve Program. Over the same period, agriculture also declined in the Southwest region; however, the net decline was largely attributable to prolonged drought conditions, as opposed to changes in federal policy. Data for the period 1973–2000 are from Sleeter et al. (2013)2, while data from 2001–2011 are from the National Land Cover Database (NLCD).3 Note: the two disturbance categories used for the 1973–2000 data were not included in the NLCD data for 2001–2011 and largely represent conversions associated with harvest activities (mechanical disturbance) and wildfire (nonmechanical disturbance). Comparable data are unavailable for the U.S. Caribbean, Alaska, and Hawai’i & U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands regions, precluding their representation in this figure. Source: USGS.


Coastal regions, as mapped within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP), account for 23% of the contiguous U.S. land area and have been particularly dynamic in terms of change, accounting for approximately 50% of all land-cover change and 43% of all urbanization in the contiguous United States. Approximately 8% of the coastal region changed between 1996 and 2010, which included about 16,500 square miles of forest loss and about 5,700 square miles of gain in urban land, a rate three times higher than that of the interior of the United States. Additionally, nearly 1,550 square miles of wetlands were lost in coastal regions, a trend counter to that of the Nation as a whole. A majority of this wetland loss has occurred in the northern Gulf of Mexico (Ch. 8: Coastal; Ch. 19: Southeast).63 Coastal shoreline counties comprise approximately 10% of the United States in terms of land cover (excluding Alaska and the U.S. Caribbean) yet represent 39% of the U.S. population (2010 estimates), with population densities six times higher than in non-coastal areas.64 Between 1970 and 2010, the population in coastal areas increased by nearly 40% and is projected to increase by an additional 10 million people over 2010–2020 (Figure 5.3).64 Increases in the frequency of high tide flooding and extreme weather events (such as hurricanes and nor’easters), wetland loss, and beach loss from sea level rise present potential threats to people and property in the coastal zone (Ch. 8: Coastal, KM 1; Ch. 18: Northeast; Ch. 19: Southeast, KM 2).


Figure 5.3: Development in the Houston Area

Figure 5.3: The figure shows the development-related changes surrounding Houston, Texas, from 1996 to 2010, as mapped by NOAA’s Coastal Change and Analysis Program (C-CAP). Areas of change between 1996 and 2010 are shown in black.63 These changes can have numerous impacts on the environment and populations, ranging from increased urban heat island effects and storm water runoff (the latter of which can increase flooding and produce water quality impacts), to decreases in natural cover. Source: USGS.


Disturbance events (such as wildfire and timber harvest) are important factors that influence land cover. For example, forest disturbances can initiate a succession from forest to herbaceous grasslands to shrublands before forest reestablishment, with each successional stage having a different set of feedbacks with the climate. The length of an entire successional stage varies based on local environmental characteristics.65 Permanent transitions to new cover types after a disturbance are also possible for many reasons, including the establishment of invasive or introduced species that are able to quickly establish and outcompete native vegetation.66,67 Data from the North American Forest Dynamics dataset indicate that forest disturbances affected an average of approximately 11,200 square miles per year in the contiguous United States from 1985 to 2010 (an area greater than the entire state of Massachusetts). Between 2006 and 2010, the rate of forest disturbance declined by about one-third.68 Although these data include a wide range of disturbance agents, including fire, insects, storms, and harvest, the sharp decline likely corresponds to a reduction in timber harvest activities resulting from a drop in demand for construction materials following the 2007–2009 economic recession.

Wildland fires provide a good example of how ecosystem disturbance, climate change, and land management can interact. Between 1979 and 2013, the number of days with weather conditions conducive to fire has increased globally, including in the United States.69 At the same time, human activities have expanded into areas of uninhabited forests, shrublands, and grasslands,70 exposing these human activities to greater risk of property and life loss at this wildland–urban interface.71,72 Over the last two decades, the amount of forest area burned and the expansion of human activity into forests and other wildland areas have increased.73 These changes in climate and patterns of human activity have led in part to the development of a national strategy for wildland fire management for the United States. The strategy, published in 2014, was one outcome of the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement (FLAME) Act of 2009. An important component of the national strategy74 is a classification of U.S. counties based on their geographic context; fire history; amount of urban, forest, and range land; and other factors. The land-use, land-cover, and other components of the classification model are used to guide management actions.

Future Changes

Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) were developed to improve society’s understanding of plausible climate and socioeconomic futures.75 U.S. projections of land-use and land-cover change (LULCC) developed for the RCPs span a wide range of future climate conditions, including a higher scenario (RCP8.5)76 and three mitigation scenarios (RCP2.6, RCP4.5, and RCP6.0) (for more on RCPs, see Front Matter and the Scenario Products section in App. 3).77,78,79 Projected changes in land use within each scenario were harmonized with historical data80 and include a broad range of assumptions, from aggressive afforestation (the establishment of a forest where there was no previous tree cover) in the Midwest and Southeast (RCP4.5) to large-scale expansion of agricultural lands to meet biofuel production levels (RCP2.6; see Hibbard et al. 201781).

The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) have been developed to explore how future scenarios of climate change interact with alternative scenarios of socioeconomic development (in terms of population, economic growth, and education) to understand climate change impacts, adaptation and mitigation, and vulnerability.82,83 In a scenario with medium barriers to climate mitigation and adaptation (SSP2) and a scenario with high barriers to climate mitigation (SSP5), the amount of land devoted to developed use (for example, urban and suburban areas) is projected to increase by 50% and 80%, respectively, from 2010 levels by the year 2100. These changes represent a potential loss of between 500,000 and 620,000 square miles of agricultural or other vegetated lands (for more on SSPs, see the Scenario Products section of App. 3).84

Future changes in land use are likely to have far-reaching impacts on other sectors. For example, by mid-century, water use in California is projected to increase by 1.5 million acre-feet, driven almost entirely by a near 60% increase in developed water-use demand.85 Research in Hawai‘i projects a steady reduction in the strength of the state’s annual ecosystem carbon sink, resulting primarily from a combination of urbanization and a shift toward drier, less productive ecosystems by mid-century.86

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