People, crops, cattle vie for land in South

A Southern land rush is under way. Unlike the Oklahoma land rushes of the late 1800s, it is gathering steam so quietly, and in such a variety of ways, that few have noticed its wide scope. Fewer still are considering its implications or how to respond.

The land rush involves much more than just urban sprawl. It involves growing competition for a number of land uses as well: crops vs. cattle vs. country homes vs. timber vs. hunting vs. industry.

Agriculture, forestry, and conservation experts see even greater competition in the South in the years ahead as demand for land begins to outpace the acreage available.

They see a need to increase the productivity of farm and timber lands as well as to make greater use of tax and other incentives to protect such use. But few experts are studying how competing uses for land may clash. ''Until relatively recently, the South was an area where there was an excess of land,'' says Robert G. Healy, a senior associate of The Conservation Foundation in Washington, D.C., who is researching the issue of competing land uses in the South.

For decades the South lost population to the North, and many cotton fields on poor lands were left idle. During the depression millions of acres were abandoned by owners unable to pay taxes on them.

''There's still a lot of land not intensively used,'' says Mr. Healy. But as competition for land heats up, he foresees higher food and wood-products prices, a growing interest in water rights, already a major issue in the West, and a need to conserve dwindling natural areas, such as riverside hardwood forests.

Signs of a Southern land rush:

Crops. The amount of land used for crops in the South increased by more than 13 million acres from 1964 to 1978, latest surveys show. (As with most land-use data, reports are a number of years behind.)

The speed at which forest lands are being cleared for crops has probably slowed during the recession, but the trend toward more farmland is expected to be confirmed with newer data, says Healy.

Last year, the price of farmland in the South reversed its long upward trend and declined somewhat. But, says Neil Cook of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Little Rock, Ark., ''the competition for land is increasing in the long run.''

Timber. The US Forest Service projects that the amount of softwood timber coming from the South will increase from about 45 percent to 51 percent in the next 50 years.

Cattle. The amount of Southern land used for grazing may increase by 70 percent by the year 2000, according to the Forest Service.

People. The South's population continues to grow. Among other things, this is putting pressure on farmers to sell to developers.

''In the long run we expect the South will be the area where competition among major (land) uses will be felt the most severely,'' says Dr. Cook of the USDA.

Some of the jockeying for land is already well under way:

* Even as the total amount of agricultural land is increasing, residential, industrial, transportation, and other uses have squeezed some 12 million acres out of agriculture use from 1967-75, more than the rest of the nation combined, according to the US Soil and Conservation Service.

* Expanding farmlands have been pushing some timber and grazing operations onto poorer lands, Healy notes. This can result in slower tree growth and eventually higher prices for wood products (such as homes, furniture, and paper) , he says. This cropland expansion also tends to increase erosion.

* Hunters, among others, are concerned about the conversion to cropland (mostly soybeans) of hardwood forests along rivers, home to deer and other wildlife.

Through the Nature Conservancy, the Richard King Mellon Foundation committed some $50 million during the last five years for the purchase and protection of such lands.

USDA experts contacted said the market system will lead to land uses that bring the most profit. But they also stressed the need to identify which uses that might be, as well as the need to increase efforts to preserve and enhance agricultural land use.

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