Assessing High Quality Agricultural Lands Through the Ecosystem Services Lens: Insights from a Rapidly Urbanizing Agricultural Region in the Western United States

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Globally, as the human population increases, so does the demand for developable land. More than ever, agricultural land is being developed to meet housing and commercial needs, but at the same time is necessary for food security and other critical ecosystem services (ES). High quality agricultural lands (i.e. those which can support high yields, a diversity of crops, and are resilient to climate change) may play an important role in balancing the demand for housing, food, and other ES. In this paper, we used the Ecosystem Service framework to investigate the quality of agricultural lands beyond that of their value for food production. We conducted our study in the Treasure Valley, Idaho, where the issue of agricultural land loss is particularly relevant due to severe development pressure, few restrictions on land use, and limited arable land. We quantified the relationships between agricultural land quality and ES supply in 2016, and then measured how ES supply is likely to change in the future under a “Business as Usual” land use scenario. We found that higher quality agricultural land was associated with food provision, livestock crop production, and nitrogen retention, whereas lower quality agricultural land was associated with carbon sequestration, habitat quality, and recreation. Urban development is projected to occur disproportionately on higher quality agricultural land. Over 15 times more higher quality agricultural land will be developed between 2016 and 2050 compared to lower quality agricultural land. With the expected loss of agricultural land to development, the landscape in 2050 will have a lower supply of four of the six chosen ES compared to 2016. We found that livestock crop production will decrease the most over the time period (−28.8%) followed by food provision (−22.8%), nitrogen retention (−19.3%), and habitat quality (−7.4%). However, carbon sequestration (+5.5%) and recreation (+1.6%) will increase. Overall, we found strong evidence that certain ES are associated with varying levels of agricultural land quality and higher quality agricultural land was shown to be particularly vulnerable to urban development. Our results suggest the need to consider additional values of agricultural land beyond its use for food production. We recommend the implementation of policies that consider the trade-offs of developing on varying quality of agricultural land to help balance the many competing demands of our lands.