Oregon slows the loss of farmland
By Eric Mortenson
Oregon continues to lose farmland to development and other conversions, but the pace has slowed dramatically since statewide land-use planning kicked in, a state Department of Agriculture specialist says.
Data from aerial surveys done every three years by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service show Oregon has lost 700,000 acres of agricultural land since 1982, or about 4.4 percent of the state total, said Jim Johnson, land-use specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
California has lost 2.6 million acres during that time, Johnson said, and Washington has lost 552,000 acres. Idaho figures were not immediately available. For the study, agricultural land is defined as land used for crops, pasture, rangeland or as conservation reserves.
Johnson said the impact of Oregon’s statewide land-use planning system is evident in the data. The system is intended to prevent urban areas from sprawling onto prime farmland, primarily through requiring cities to adopt comprehensive land-use plans and establish urban growth boundaries. While cities and counties may expand growth boundaries, the process is strictly defined, slow, contentious and subject to legal challenge.
The system has persistent critics, largely because it eliminates or restricts development options for many rural property owners, but there is no doubt it’s done what was intended. Travel outside any Oregon urban area and there is a sharply defined point where development ends and farm or forest land begins.
The loss or conversion of land for crops — usually the most valuable, flattest and easiest to develop — slowed as cities adopted comprehensive land-use plans in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson said. Almost 400,000 acres of crop land was converted from 1982-87. About 60,000 acres of crop land was lost from 2007-10.
“You can tell when land-use laws kicked in, you can really tell,” he said.
Johnson said development pressure will continue in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, from Portland to Eugene, where most of the state’s people live and also home to extensive, valuable and diverse farming operations. As population increases and cities expand growth boundaries, “We’re going to lose a lot in the Willamette Valley,” he said.
Other rapidly growing areas, such as Hermiston in eastern Oregon, will face the same problems.
“Sometimes those cities forget why they exist in the first place — agriculture,” Johnson said.
Agricultural land also will be lost to “non-farm development” such as energy facility sitings, parks and recreation areas and gravel mining, Johnson said. The cumulative impact of such land conversion deserves attention, he said.
“It’s not just the footprint of the development, but the shadow cast by development” that has an impact on farming, Johnson said.