Innovative conservation partnership offers economic incentives

Nov 8, 2013

A new pilot program set up by several conservation groups working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have received a grant that is hoped to help curb climate change.

The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), along with project partners Ducks Unlimited (DU), The Climate Trust (TCT) and The Nature Conservancy, announced positive results from their joint collaboration — an innovative Avoided Grassland Conversion carbon project. The project is one of nine groundbreaking climate change initiatives selected and funded by the NRCS’s 2011 Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) program, and is focused on greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation for one of the least protected and most imperiled ecosystems in the world.

The grassland and wetlands of North America not only provide vital habitat for a host of wildlife including migratory birds, but also a rich and resilient forage for livestock, and a significant carbon sink if left uncultivated. Unfortunately, pressures to convert native prairie are intensifying with high commodity prices. In addition, new farming technologies make crop production possible on lands once considered unsuitable.

The first outcome of this project is a collaborative effort between DU and NRCS that is preserving the soil carbon sequestered in the North Dakota counties of Burleigh, Emmons, Kidder, Sheridan, McLean, Stutsman, Logan and McIntosh by avoiding the conversion of these valuable prairies to cropland. This area is part of the Missouri Coteau region, a vast region of grasslands and wetlands that stretches across North Dakota and South Dakota and benefits livestock and wildlife.

Carbon that is otherwise sequestered, or trapped longterm in the soil, is released to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide when soils are tilled or disturbed. Under the leadership of Ducks Unlimited, the project successfully enrolled 114 eligible landowners and 50,000 acres in this cutting-edge program, and worked with partners to create an environmentally robust accounting methodology to quantify the carbon that remains in the soil as carbon offset credits.

Newly approved by the American Carbon Registry (ACR) and co-authored by project partners DU, TCT, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and Terra Global Capital, the Avoided Conversion of Grasslands and Shrublands (ACoGS) carbon offset methodology is the first of its kind and provides real opportunities for achieving a meaning ful level of emissions reductions in the agriculture sector.

In practice, the ACoGS protocol will enable grasslandbased agricultural producers to earn income from the sale of carbon credits generated through the preservation of their grasslands.

“This project provides Northern Great Plains producers with new ways to earn income from conservation activities, expanded opportunity for outdoor recreation and an opportunity to create jobs in their communities,” said Robert Bonnie, USDA under secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment. “The American Carbon Registry’s approval of this innovative ACoGS protocol enables vital projects like our partnership with Ducks Unlimited to preserve a treasured national landscape, while also preventing the release of greenhouse gas emissions.”

“In addition to the significant GHG emissions reductions achieved by this project, carbon financing allows local ranch families to maintain their traditional livelihood of cattle grazing by providing economic incentives,” said Dick Kempka, vice president of business development for The Climate Trust. “The project also generates significant environmental co-benefits by enhancing water retention, air quality and soil quality, in addition to preserving habitat for at least four endangered species that call the grasslands home.”

“Rural communities will not only benefit from project payments, but could also see economic benefits from outdoor recreation opportunities on grasslands, attracting hunters, photographers, and other nature enthusiasts from across the country,” said Steve Adair, director of DU’s Great Plains Region. “Research has shown the economic benefit of wildlife provided from grasslands is estimated at $63 per acre. This equates to moneyin-hand for these rural populations.”

“What’s great about this project is that it opens new opportunities to compensate ranchers for continuing to produce the benefits they have historically provided— the conservation of our grasslands for the benefit of people and wildlife that are now at risk from rangeland conversion,” said Joe Fargione, The Nature Conservancy’s director of science for North America.

Agriculture accounts for approximately 8 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions, while agriculture’s emissions have increased 11.5 percent since 1990. Specifically, more than 750,000 acres of native grassland were converted to cropland from 1997 to 2007. In the Prairie Pothole Region of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, annual losses of native grasslands have averaged approximately 50,000 acres per year since 2007, leading to a significant loss of soil carbon, and emitting 20-75 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MT- CO2e) per acre. Final project benefits are estimated to perpetually conserve 5,000 to 6,000 acres of native mixedgrass prairie. The protection of grasslands will also indirectly protect 500 to 600 acres of seasonal and semi-permanent wetlands situated in the protected grasslands.

The process of developing, planning and implementing the USDA-CIG climate change initiatives has played a key role in helping to inform ongoing development of agricultural offset protocols with a national impact. “This offset protocol will allow farmers and ranchers from across the United States to earn revenue for conservation practices from emerging environmental markets such as California’s carbon market,” said Robert Parkhurst, director of agriculture greenhouse gas markets at Environmental Defense Fund.

These projects have served as pilots, providing a bridge to carbon offset markets and the potential role of agricultural projects within these markets.

According to the groups involved, the DU-led prairie preservation effort is a primary example of how collaborations of this nature can accomplish a great deal by everyone doing their part to reach mutually beneficial goals. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor