Land Use in Montana: A Current Snapshot and Recent Trends


Perhaps the most fundamental way in which humans interact with the natural environment is through land use. Land-use change, to a large extent, is a necessary byproduct economic development, but there are justifiable concerns over the effects it can have on ecosystem services and functions. In this blog post, I will take a high-level look at the current distribution of land use in Montana and discuss  trends that have occurred over the past few decades. There are a number of different sources of land-use information but this post will focus on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service’s National Resources Inventory (NRI). The NRI has provided consistently updated information on land-use change since 1982, with the most recent information for 2017 being published earlier this year.

According to the 2017 NRI, land use for the 66 million acres of non-Federal land in Montana (excluding water bodies) breaks down as follows. A majority (55.7 percent) of Montana’s non-Federal land is accounted for by rangeland. Land used for crop production accounts for 23.3 percent, with no other use representing more than 10 percent of the total. The percentages accounted for by other uses are: forest (8.9 percent), pasture (7.1 percent), land in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP; 1.8 percent), development (1.7 percent), and other rural land (e.g., farmsteads and other farm buildings and barren land; 1.5 percent). Federal land accounts for 29.1 percent of the total non-water surface of Montana. Most of the Federal land in Montana is managed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, and would be classified as being in either range or forest use.

Non-Federal land use in Montana, 2017 (Source: USDA, National Resources Inventory)

How has the pattern of Montana’s land use changed since 1982? Cropland has seen the most significant change, declining by 1.7 million acres, which represents 10.2 percent of the state’s 1982 cropland acreage. Range use has also seen a large absolute drop of 1.3 million acres, although in relative terms this represents just 3.3 percent of the 1982 non-Federal range acreage. Land in forest use has also declined, though by a smaller amount in both absolute and relative terms (117 thousand acres, a 1.9 percent decrease). In contrast, the state has seen increased acreage of pastureland (1.6 million acres, a 51.4 percent increase). A large portion of the cropland loss is attributable to the introduction of the CRP in 1985, which retires environmentally sensitive cropland for a fixed contract period generally lasting 10-15 years. In 2017, CRP acreage stood at 1.2 million acres. Montana’s CRP acreage peaked in the 2000s, when over 3 million acres of cropland were retired under the program.

Montana’s population continues to rise, and it is impossible to talk about land use in the state without touching on urbanization, or the conversion of land in rural, resource-based uses to developed uses (e.g., residential housing). Developed land acreage has increased, on net, by 266 thousand acres since 1982, amounting to a 31.2 percent gain.[1] Most of the development in Montana has come from land formerly in cropland and rangeland use, with each accounting for 31 and 30.5 percent of all new development, respectively. Forest land (19.2 percent), pastureland (15.1 percent), and other rural lands (4.2 percent) round out the remaining sources of land development in Montana.

Land development is often a touchy subject, given the adverse (and generally irreversible) impacts it can have on the environment (e.g., the provision of air quality and wildlife habitat). The ongoing precipitous rise in housing prices in Montana, however, is generally thought to be the result of increased demand in a supply-constrained housing market. This implies that land development will need to increase to keep pace with population growth if housing is to become more affordable anytime soon. Although concerns regarding excessive land development, often termed “urban sprawl”, are legitimate, it remains that developed land represents a small fraction of the state’s land base. A boost in development will reduce housing prices and, if done in a way that minimizes impacts on natural and rural areas (e.g., by placing an emphasis on density and connections to existing developed areas), is likely to be welcome by those who have been priced out of the current housing market.

[1] Although developed land is rarely converted back to an undeveloped use, there has been a total of 292 thousand acres of land developed over the 1982-2017 period, so the data suggest that some developed land reversion has taken place. It is worth noting, however, that “development” is broadly defined in the NRI data, as it includes uses ranging from residential housing to logging roads.


About Author

Dan Bigelow is an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics at Montana State University. Prior to coming to MSU in summer 2019, Dan spent four years in Washington, DC working for the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. He holds a BS and MS in Resource Economics from the University of Massachusetts and a PhD in Applied Economics from Oregon State University. Dan's research focuses on the economics of land and water resource management and policy, primarily in application to the US agricultural sector.

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