Western ranchers embrace satellites

To protect their land, improve their bottom line, and help the climate

The goal was ambitious: use satellite technology to help save rapidly vanishing grasslands, introduce rare native species, lock tons of carbon in the soil and recruit a multinational company to help pay for it. Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) figured out how to do all this in Colorado.

More than one-third of U.S. land — 654 million acres — is grasslands and range. These landscapes sequester an enormous amount of carbon through photosynthesis. For example, the rangelands of the American West absorb about 150,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year. That’s approximately equivalent to the emissions of 40 coal-fired power plants.

EDF developed a way to pay cash-strapped ranchers to help fight climate change by restoring native grasslands and locking carbon into the soil by agreeing to not convert those grasslands to farmland. As a bonus, grasslands projects restore vanishing native wildlife. Under the system, ranchers receive credits for the carbon they save. Buyers of these credits — typically corporations — use them as offsets for their activities that contribute to climate change.

In July, EDF facilitated the sale of the first listed grassland carbon credits, allowing the Southern Plains Land Trust to restore two Colorado ranches that annually sequester 8,000 metric tons of soil carbon. Microsoft, which began a carbon neutrality program in 2012, purchased the credits. This project can serve as a model for working lands around the nation.

Located at the end of 30 miles of dirt road in Bent County, CO, Raven’s Nest and Heartland Ranches contain sweeping native grasslands, seasonal wetlands and twenty miles of prairie streams. The ranches, covering 28 square miles, are abundant with rare songbirds, raptors, wildflowers and mammals.

When the Southern Plains Land Trust acquired the ranches in 2015, they had been heavily used for decades.

The land badly need some rest,” recalls Nicole Rosmarino, executive director of the land trust.

Today, with income from its sale of carbon offsets, the land trust is nurturing 85 bison and other native grazing animals, including deer, elk and pronghorn antelope, all of whom naturally maintain the health of the grasslands.

It’s amazing how much you can bring back with just a few steps,” says Rosmarino. The animals are neither hunted nor sold for commercial purposes.

Microsoft praised the project.

We need new approaches to reduce carbon emissions. This innovative project has the potential to reduce emissions while also protecting biodiversity,” says Elizabeth Willmott, the company’s environmental sustainability program manager.

For ranchers, many of whom are financially strained and under pressure to convert to cropland, the carbon payments are enticing. “There is no shortage of ranches willing to participate,” says Robert Parkhurst, until recently head of agricultural greenhouse gas markets at EDF.

There’s real urgency to the program. Grasslands today are being converted to croplands at the highest rate in decades. From 2008 to 2012, 7.5 million acres of uncultivated land was converted to croplands. A rancher can get five times the revenue from cropland than from grassland.

EDF first created a grasslands carbon mechanism in 2013, but it proved too complicated for landowners. So we found a way to simplify the transaction and reduce its costs. Today, the Grassland Project Protocol uses biogeochemical modeling and emissions factors to quantify the amount of carbon that would be released from the soil if the land being used to create carbon credits were tilled. Offsets are generated for soil carbon, avoided use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and the carbon-spewing machinery that’s used in crop cultivation. Rosmarino keeps daily logs measuring the ranches’ carbon footprint, down to the impact of hay deliveries.

EDF made it economically viable for landowners to participate in the carbon market,” says Rosmarino. “Their technical assistance was invaluable.”

Crucially, technology keeps down costs. It was once prohibitively expensive to verify, through on-site visits, whether rangeland was being kept as rangeland, or turned into grazing land for cattle or irrigated fields for agriculture. But today, a third-party verifier (who could be located thousands of miles away from the offset site) uses satellite imagery to confirm the range in a given offset is healthy, avoiding costly site visits. In the case of carbon credits allocated to the Southern Plains Land Trust, the verifier is SCS Global, based in Emeryville, CA.

Today, nine grasslands preservation projects using EDF’s system are underway in Colorado, Montana and Oregon, with more coming. Groups such as The Nature Conservancy are participating. The system can now be expanded to other states and countries with grasslands, generating substantially more carbon reductions.

My dream is that, with more grasslands carbon projects, we’ll have more restored prairie and it will no longer be seen as a sacrifice zone for drilling, or flyover country,” says Rosmarino. “People will regard this special landscape as ecologically valuable and well worth protecting.”

Please take a look at more spectacular photos from the Colorado ranches here.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovation that is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave