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Individual Highlight

Natural Lands and Future Rural Migration

Photo of Snapshot : People of the U.S. move frequently, and they move for many reasons. One reason of growing importance is to live in places with natural landscapes and recreation opportunities. Where people move in the future will be influenced by rural land use decisions made today.

Principal Investigators(s) :
Cordell, H. Ken 
Research Station : Southern Research Station (SRS)
Year : 2011
Highlight ID : 419


This research benefits state and county planners, federal land management agencies, and numerous non-governmental organizations concerned with rural county population and development. The primary study investigated how natural amenities such as landscape and climate influenced migration patterns in the continental US over the past two decades. Using recent annual climate, land cover and natural amenities data, along with the recent annual economic and US Census migration data at the county level, models were estimated across all rural counties in the US. The models suggest that natural amenities show strong significant influences on county population migration. This is driven by preference for milder winters and cooler summers. The research also found that landscape variables are highly significant and generally consistent landscape and migration literature. Additionally, employment is a consistently significant determinant of migration.

Results of this study have important policy implications for both rural and urban development. Changes in rural migration flows are suggested to be the key for rural development, and economic factors are shown to be a strong driving force in rural migration. But, equally strong is the influence of natural amenities indicating a need for integrated development and natural resource plans.

Detection of climate change affects on rural migration patterns is an important outcome of this study. The 2007 IPCC, in its Climate Change 4th Assessment Report, projected greater frequency of heavy rainfall and severe flooding with the Great Plains being particularly vulnerable. Rising sea levels attributed to climate change will also affect rural migration in that it is predicted to cause significant increases in inundated dry land in the future. The extent of the impact of climate change on population migration and rural development in rural coastal counties will depend on the degree of vulnerability of property and risk to human health and safety.

This research is also important because it looks at the importance of landscape in rural migration patterns. It suggests there are opportunities for conserving rural scenic values in rural planning. The results suggest a preference for varied landscapes that feature a mix of forest land and open space (e.g. pasture and range land). Local policy-makers in areas endowed of such landscape should keep this in mind in formulating land use plans. The results were mixed regarding the influence of federal lands on rural county population patterns. The results suggest rural counties with federal-designated lands nearby are attractive to migrants. This reflects the value that people place on the recreation and scenic features of federally designated lands, suggesting the desirability of continued protection of federal designated lands.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

  • Dr. John C. Bergstrom, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Georgia, Athens, GA

Program Areas