Nation losing prime farmland

NRCS study says Washington lost 864,000 acres in past 25 years

By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

More than 40 million acres of farms and forests in the United States were lost to development between 1982 and 2007, according to new data released by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The newly developed area is the size of Illinois and New Jersey combined and amounts to one-third of all the land ever developed in the contiguous 48 states.

"The findings serve as a stark reminder that our nation's agricultural land base and the benefits it supplies is threatened by poorly planned development," said Jon Scholl, president of American Farmland Trust, an organization that works to stop the loss of farmland.

"If we want Americans to eat healthier, we already don't have enough land in production," said Jennifer Dempsey, director of the Farmland Information Center for the trust. "So, to lose any ag land, just from that standpoint, is not a good thing."

About 14 million of 41.3 million acres lost to development was considered prime farmland, dropping the total of prime farmland in the U.S. from 339 million acres in 1982 to 325 million in 2007.

States with the biggest loss of prime farmland include Texas, with 1.5 million acres, Ohio with 800,000, North Carolina with 766,000 and California with 616,000 acres.

Overall, 2.1 million acres was converted to urban uses in California between 1982 and 2007.

In Oregon, about 421,700 acres were lost to development between 1982 and 2007, including 171,800 acres of prime farmland.

"Oregon comes out ahead in comparison to most other states in large part because we have a land-use system that prioritizes protection of critical agricultural land," said Eric Stachon of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a land-use advocacy group.

"We're doing a good job," he said, "but we can and should do better."

"It shows that Oregonians value open space," Oregon State Conservationist Ron Alvarado said.

Washington lost 864,000 acres to development over the 25 years, including 167,000 acres of prime farmland, according to Jan Carlson, natural resource specialist with the Washington state NRCS.

While the nation is losing farmland, the NRCS report shows U.S. farmers are doing a better job of protecting soil.

According to the findings, soil erosion due to water decreased 43 percent between 1982 and 2007, declining from 1.68 billion tons per year to 960 million tons. Soil erosion caused by wind dropped from 1.38 billion tons per year in 1982 to 765 million tons in 2007.

In Oregon, soil erosion declined from nearly 8 tons per acre per year in 1982 to 4 tons in 2007.

Soil erosion also declined in Washington, California and Idaho, where water-caused erosion declined 48 percent over the 25 years and soil loss to wind erosion dropped 21 percent.

"The reduction reflects NRCS' emphasis on working with producers and landowners to reduce erosion," said Carlson said.

NRCS, which works with landowners to reduce soil loss, compiles the National Resource Inventory for non-federal lands every five years.

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