Land Use Change and Policy in Iowa’s Loess Hills

  •  Gaurav Arora    
  •  Peter Wolter    
  •  David Hennessy    
  •  Hongli Feng    


Land use changes have important implications on ecosystems and society. Detailed identification of the nature of land use changes in any local region is critical for policy design. In this paper, we quantify land use change in Iowa’s Loess Hills ecoregion, which contains much of the state’s remaining prairie grasslands. We employ two distinct panel datasets, the National Resource Inventory data and multi-year Cropland Data Layers, that allow us to characterize spatially-explicit land use change in the region over the period 1982-2010. We analyze land use trends, land use transitions and crop rotations within the ecoregion, and contrast these with county and state-level changes. To better comprehend the underlying land use changes, we evaluate our land use characterizing metrics conditional on soil quality variables such as slope and erodibility. We also consider the role of contemporary agricultural policy and commodity markets to seek explanations for land use changes during the period of our study. Although crop production has expanded on the Loess Hills landform since 2005, much of the expansion in corn acres has been from reduced soybean acreage. We find that out of the total 258 km2 increase in corn acreage during 2005-’10, about 100 km2 transitioned from soybeans. Data also indicate intensifying monoculture with higher percentage of corn plantings for two to four consecutive years during 2000-’10. In addition, crop production is found to have moved away from more heavily sloped land. Cropping does not appear to have increased on lands with higher crop productivity.

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