Owning land is part of the American dream. But what happens when everyone tries to grab a “slice” of American soil? Environmentalists have their list of concerns. One is that our “arable land” (meaning land that can be used for growing crops) is wearing thin and that we are overtaxing our land's ability to produce. Others focus on the potential damage of urbanization, suburban sprawl and industrial waste. And for environmentalists who care about global warming and the protection of endangered species, there's also worry about depleting the forests. citizenJoe puts some of these concerns in perspective.


How much land there is in America ERS:

  • 2.3 billion acres.

What it's used for ERS:

  • Forest use: 28% - or 642 million acres;
  • Grassland pasture and range: 26% - or 580 million acres;
  • Cropland: 20% - or 455 million acres
  • Other:

    • Roads, rail and airports: 1% - or 25 million acres;
    • State parks, wilderness and wildlife: 10% - or 239 million acres;
    • Urban areas: 3% - or 66 million acres.

What we use our land for

How that's changed over the years

Note: “special use” includes rural transportation, parks, wildlife, military land and “farmsteads”


Productivity of the land has grown, on average:

  • 1.88% per year since 1948 ERS

"Output" of farms (produce for human use):

  • Grew 45% from 1980 to 1999 Census

"Input" into farm productivity (all costs from labor, energy, etc):

  • Decreased 13% from 1980 to 1999 Census

Ratio of "output" to "input" (how much we get for how much we put in)

  • Grew 67% from 1980 to 1999 Census

Greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activities

  • 3.2% increase in methane emissions from 1990-2003 EPA
  • 0.7% increase in nitrogen oxide emissions from 1990-2003 EPA


Percentage of Americans living:

  • In urban areas: 75% (USDA) (note: USDA doesn't really define urban areas, but we think they mean cities plus localities with 2,500 that surround cities - aka the burbs). PRB puts the number at 79%. The UN says 81%.
  • In cities of 1 million people or more: 43% UN


Urban growth - number of acres cities cover

note: USDA, includes localities of 2,500+ people outside cities

Soil Erosion

Percent of US farmland with greatest potential for wind erosion: EPA

  • 15% of total, 63 million acres
  • Decreased by about 33% from 1982-1997

Percent of US farmland with greatest potential for water erosion: EPA

  • 22% of total, 89 million acres
  • Decreased by about 33% from 1982-1997

Municipal solid waste – aka garbage

Per capita waste generation: EPA

  • 4.5 pounds per person per day; 236.2 million tons total

What we toss




  • Total recycling rate: 30.6%; 72.3 million tons of materials
  • Auto batteries: 93.0%
  • Steel Cans: 60.0%
  • Yard Trimmings: 56.3%
  • Paper and Paperboard: 48.1%
  • Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Cans: 43.9%
  • Tires: 35.6%
  • Plastic Milk Bottles: 31.9%
  • Plastic Soft Drink Containers: 25.2%
  • Glass Containers: 22.0%

Recycling more - but tossing more too

Where the facts are from

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