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Struggling ranchers protect threatened grasslands by offering carbon credits (and get paid to do it)

It took years for the May family and their conservation partners to get the carbon project up and running. For them, the payoff wasn’t necessarily the money, but rather knowing that 15,000 acres of native grassland would be protected forever
Preston Hoffman, courtesy of Dallas May
It took years for the May family and their conservation partners to get the carbon project up and running. For them, the payoff wasn’t necessarily the money, but rather knowing that 15,000 acres of native grassland would be protected forever

Ranchers often consider themselves caretakers of their land and it's that kind of thinking that's motivating them to sign up for an innovative new approach called rangeland carbon offsetting. That's when ranchers agree not to till their soils so that carbon is captured there into perpetuity, keeping it out of the atmosphere where it could contribute to climate change.

Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards sat down with Birch Malotky who recently reported on the issue for the University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute's magazine, Western Confluence. She told us about the May family who got involved with the program.

Birch Malotky: The May family is a family of ranchers in southeastern Colorado and Prowers County, a multigenerational ranch family who have been working the land for decades. And like many ranchers, they were facing issues with unexpected weather patterns, issues with the low and variable price of beef and really high infrastructure and land costs. And as ranchers who own their own land, they have to pay their mortgage, they have to pay all their infrastructure costs. And they're really subject to sort of a lot of market volatility for the cost of their product, and then weather volatility. And so they've had to downsize their herd three times in the past couple of decades, mostly because of drought and then had to build back up and it really becomes a financial hardship. And then also just hurts the integrity of the herd as well.

Melodie Edwards: One person in the article ends up saying that ranchers are the last stronghold. And I just wonder if you might delve into that statement, and kind of talk about what it is and how it is that ranchers are protecting the grasslands? And you know why it's so important to protect the grasslands?

BM: Grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. And in the United States, they're one of the least protected in the northern Great Plains region, almost 90 percent of intact grasslands are privately owned, which means that it's not up to the federal government or state parks or anyone; it's up to the private landowners to manage them in a way that's good for grassland species. And they're important because, obviously, they're a unique ecosystem. They also provide water filtration and storage, they provide carbon sequestration. Because they're mostly privately owned, it's really important that we work with private landowners to ensure that they remain grassland. And so in a lot of cases, those are ranchers because they're able to graze on the grassland while keeping the ecosystem relatively intact.

ME: It sounds like something called the rangeland carbon offsets has been developing. And so I wonder if you can kind of explain what those are, and how that can help ranchers who are in the situation like the Mays?

BM: Yeah, it's this really cool potential win-win-win where ranchers are having a tough time, grasslands are under threat, and, obviously, we're facing major issues with climate change. And so what rangeland carbon credits are is ranchers are paid to ensure that the grassland under their care is never plowed to make way for row crop agriculture. And so that means permanent conservation of the grassland. That's payments for up to 50 years to the ranchers. And then that means that carbon stays in the ground forever.

ME: I wonder if you can talk just a little bit about how the May family found out about this opportunity, how they got involved and how it's helping them?

BM: Yeah, so the Mays actually kind of helped pioneer this. So last time I checked, there are less than a dozen of these grassland projects in existence, and that the Mays were the second ever. The Mays had historically been renting their land, and when they got the option to purchase their land, Dallas May, who's the head of the ranch right now, his first thought was, how can we protect this land forever? And so he reached out to a lot of conservation organizations and initially was just talking just about easements. But then Billy Gascoigne, who works for Ducks Unlimited, sort of floated this idea of adding a carbon credit project to an easement. And so everyone worked together, they sort of developed a brand new protocol for how this project would work. And now it's great. So the 20,000-acre May farm and ranch is protected forever from development, and the Mays receive a yearly payment for their carbon.

You know, one of the interesting things is, Dallas said to me, 'We're not in it for the money. The money helps, obviously, but it's all about keeping this land protected, keeping it native prairie the way God planted it' he said. So that's kind of the situation in the current financial market. But the other thing I should note is that we're seeing the price of carbon rapidly increasing and so even the sort of total value of carbon offset exchanges for 2021 was a 60 percent increase over 2020. And so, there may not be a huge financial incentive now. But there may be a greater financial incentive in the very near future.

ME: So we've kind of looked at it from the point of view of the rancher. But I wonder if you can talk about why corporations and organizations and people are interested in doing these offsets? What are their motives for doing it?

BM: Right. So I mean, the latest IPCC report came out, and it's basically like, things are super, super dire. And everyone wants to feel like they can do something. And then also, there's increasingly pressure on companies to become greener, to become more sustainable, to become more climate friendly. And so, it's a range. It can be individuals, it can be organizations, it can be corporations who either make a carbon neutral or carbon zero commitment, or who they flew and they want to offset their travel. That's what might lead someone to offsets in general.

I think what people really like about this particular type of offset, which is nature-based solutions, is that they can offer these co-benefits, like protecting important ecosystems and biodiversity and providing support to local communities.

ME: If there was a rancher out there listening, how would they go about even finding out more about whether they would qualify, and just participating in this kind of a program?

BM: Yeah, so I think a great way to start is working with local land trusts. Because you're going to need an easement eventually to complete a project. And your local land trust is going to have the resources or they're going to be able to connect you with a project developer who specializes in this. And that project developer is going to be able to look at your land and the county level information and your soil stuff, and they're going to be able to tell you if you're eligible and what sort of return you might be looking at. And so I would say starting with your local land trust to start the conversations, reach out and find who else to talk to about it.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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