Montana State Researcher Part Of Study On Decline Of Development On Forest & Agricultural Land

Bozeman - A Montana State University researcher is part of a new study that finds rising gas prices led to a steep decline in the development of forest and agricultural land across the country from 2000 to 2015 compared to the previous two decades, resulting in a broad shift toward denser development patterns throughout the United States.

Published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Daniel Bigelow, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics in the College of Agriculture, and researchers from Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service also found that falling gas prices and, to a lesser extent, rising income drove land development from 1982 to 2000. Since then, however, income growth has been stagnant and gas prices have risen sharply. The researchers conclude that gas price increases, more than changes in income and population, most significantly shaped the recent shift toward denser development.

"Increasing gas prices raise commuting costs in areas with longer commutes, which makes land less attractive for housing development in such areas," said David Lewis, a natural resource economist at Oregon State and co-author of the paper.

The change in land development patterns led to 7 million acres of national forest and agricultural land being saved from development from 2000-15, which the researchers described as "a remarkable decline" with important implications for the natural environment.

The researchers found the pace of land development steadily increased in the 1980s and peaked in the mid-to-late 1990s before beginning a steady decline starting around 2000. It plateaued around 2010 at a level amounting to less than one-quarter of the peak development rate in the 1990s. Notably, the declining land development rates began well before the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

The researchers used data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resources Inventory from 1982 to 2015, the latest year for which data was available, to create a county-level dataset of land development patterns for the 48 contiguous U.S. states. Hawaii and Alaska were not included in the study.

"Other studies have documented or suggested this trend, but the causes and consequences of the change have not been explored in depth", Bigelow said. In the new paper the researchers took a more comprehensive look at the trend and analyzed several facets of land development, with a particular focus on population growth and changes in income and commuting cost.

The findings highlight a potentially significant connection between land development patterns and efforts to price carbon emissions that are aimed at mitigating climate change, the researchers said. Since gas prices would rise if carbon emissions were priced, the new research findings show how carbon pricing would indirectly conserve forest and agricultural lands by reducing land development.

The researchers note some limitations of the analysis, particularly that it didn't explicitly model the impact of land-use regulations. They also note that the findings are not necessarily representative of a similar global trend in land development. 

Perhaps, most importantly, they say the downward trend in land development is likely not permanent. For example, some speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic could shift where people prefer to live – from higher- to lower-density areas. That would add pressure to develop new lands in low-density areas.

Bigelow and his colleagues believe this research lays the groundwork to help study land development after the pandemic and other future large economic shocks.

"Land development is irreversible, so once land gets developed it generally is not going back to forest or the agricultural use that it was previously," said Bigelow. "That's why this is such an important issue to so many people and so many groups because it's not something that can be undone."


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