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Owning Land

How is Land Used in America? A Look at U.S. Land Ownership

June 9, 2023

The United States of America is a massive nation, a sprawling expanse of roughly 1.9 billion acres that serve a variety of uses and are owned by many different people and entities. Recent headlines have highlighted Bill Gates’ investments in U.S. land ownership as well as land acquisitions from China and other foreign entities as cause for concern, though in reality, this may not be the case. 

This article will outline ways land is used in the United States and examine just who is purchasing land in the United States in 2023. 

How is Land in the United States Used?

The 1.9 billion acres of land that comprise the United States are comprised of a variety of features, traits, and uses, for example, wetlands make up approximately 6% of the land in the United States. Furthermore, 24.03% of American land is designated as forest, with an additional 13.80% designated as grassland and another 21.6% as shrubland. In terms of land used for agricultural production, roughly 22.51% of the land in America serves an agricultural purpose.

Of the remaining land in the United States, 5.24% of it is bodies of water like lakes, ponds, and rivers, along with another 5.74% being developed land. Finally, 1% of the land in the United States is considered barren, with .01% being ice and snow.

To further explain how land in the US is used, land use by acreage can also be examined. In the United States, roughly 654M acres are used for pasture range for livestock, 526.8M acres consist of forest, and 391.5M acres serve as cropland, with wheat comprising 21.5M acres and potatoes being around 1M acres. Another 168.6M acres of land are classified as “Special Use,” which could entail things such as national parks, ski resorts, churches, television and radio stations, and more. Finally, 69.4M acres are designated for urban use, with the remaining 68.9M acres designated as miscellaneous.

Public vs. Private Land Ownership in the U.S.

When looking at private vs publicly owned land in the United States, it becomes clear that private land ownership has become the preference of many across the country. In the United States today, roughly 60% of the land within our borders is owned by private individuals and corporations. Approximately 77 Million people in the United States own 1.3 Billion acres of private land, with 63% of those acres being farms and ranches, and the remainder being mostly forests.

If we examine the breakdown of private versus public land on a state-by-state level, we can see that Rhode Island, Kansas, and Nebraska have the lowest percentages of public land in their states, with Rhode Island having 1.5%, Kansas at 1.9%, and Nebraska at 2.8% of all land in the state being publicly owned. This is contrasted by Nevada, Idaho, and Alaska, which are comprised of mostly public lands, with Nevada at 87.8%, Idaho at 70.4%, and Alaska at 95.8% of the land in the state being under public ownership.

Largest Private Landowners in America

In addition to examining the breakdown of public versus private U.S. land ownership on the state level, it may also be beneficial to examine the largest private landowners in the United States. Recently there has been much talk of Bill Gates and his farmland purchases in the Midwest, but where does he actually rank in the list of America’s largest private landowners? Let’s take a look! 

Standing atop the list of America’s largest private landowners is the Emmerson Family with a total of around 2.4 Million acres. John Malone who owns roughly 2.2 Million acres of United States land comes in second place. John is followed by Ted Turner at 2 Million acres. Coming in at number four is the Reed Family, owning 1.7 Million acres, with Stan Kroenke in fifth place with 1.38 Million acres. 

The remaining members of the top 10 largest landowners in the United States are as follows: The Irving Family with 1.24 Million acres, Peter Buck with 1.23 Million acres, Brad Kelly with 1.13 Million acres, the Singleton Family with 1.11 Million acres, and the King Ranch Heirs with 911,215 acres.

Bill Gates, the subject of much controversy and concern over the last few years regarding his farmland purchases in the Midwest, does not even crack the top twenty largest landowners in the United States with his roughly 270,000 acres of farmland. He is, however, regarded as one of the largest private farmland owners in the United States, and has expressed an interest in protecting our nation’s food supply and investing in biofuel development.

Largest Foreign Landowners in the U.S.

Foreign land ownership in the United States has become a concern for many in recent months, with some states even passing legislation halting further foreign land purchases within their borders. Much of the worry surrounding foreign investment into United States land has to do with China’s purchases and the fear that further Chinese investment could have negative impacts on American agriculture, industry, or economics. As we examine foreign land ownership in the United States, it becomes clear that Chinese land purchases make up a very small percentage of foreign-owned American lands.

In terms of foreign land ownership in the United States, roughly 40 Million acres are owned by a foreign entity, however, that number takes into account U.S. entities with foreign shares. Without that inclusion, foreign land ownership in the United States totals around 29.1 Million acres or about 3.1% of the land in the United States.

If one were to examine the states with the highest percentage of foreign-owned land, Maine would rank in first place with 19.5% of the land in Maine being foreign-owned. Maine is then followed by Hawaii at 9.2%, Alabama at 6.2%, Louisiana at 5.8%, and Colorado and Arkansas tied at 4%. 

The largest foreign landowner in the United States is Canada with roughly 9.7 Million acres or around 1% of all U.S. land. Canada is followed by the Netherlands at around 4.4 Million acres, and then by Italy with 2.6 Million acres. Next is the United Kingdom whose land holdings in the United States total around 1.5 Million acres, followed by Germany with 1.4 Million acres. There is a remaining 7.1 Million acres of United States land owned by a variety of other countries, of which China ranks 18th place and holds around 192,000 acres.

While China remains a relatively small foreign landowner in the United States, it’s important to consider both the location and potential uses of the land that they’ve purchased. Much of the U.S. land owned by China is farmland, which has drawn concerns regarding their investment into the United States’ food supply. 

The contents of the land that China has purchased have also raised some eyebrows since much of the land that China has purchased in the United States is rich in rare Earth metals like Molybdenum which is used in the production of many alloys and lubricants. There have similarly been issues raised over the proximity of these foreign-owned lands to major U.S. defensive infrastructure such as missile storage/launch facilities. While China isn’t the largest foreign landowner in the United States, there are genuine concerns regarding their investments that should prompt our leaders to examine foreign investment into U.S. land more closely.

If you’ve got more questions about U.S. land ownership or are looking to carve out a piece for yourself, contact one of our experienced Land Professionals today and like our page on Facebook! 

About the Author
Bryce Berglund is National Land Realty’s Content Marketing Specialist. He is currently residing in Minnesota, where he attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Bryce is an appreciator of all things artistic, and likes to spend time at his cabin with his dog and family.