Last month The High Lonesome Ranch hosted the Woodwell Climate Research Center and friends for a small gathering of great minds. The Rangeland Soil Health Conference, sponsored by the Mighty Arrow Foundation, was three days of panels, discussions, and workshops centering the role of western range management in climate mitigation strategies.
The first panel featured practitioners from large ranches in California, Colorado and Nebraska. There was a mix of production oriented producers and science oriented ranches. Each ranch had different goals in order to achieve their desired outcomes, but all recognized the various ecosystem services provided by good management of these landscapes. The speakers dove into some nitty gritty details, from how to account for elk grazing pressure to thoughts around market place offerings such as virtual fencing and carbon credits.
The second panel was focused on how to support land managers to optimize ecosystem services, with speakers from The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and The National Audubon Society. Together, along with others such as TomKat Ranch, these groups have dubbed themselves “Green Groups Graze,” collaborating to promote grazing as a critical strategy for improving rangeland soil health. One strategy that was particularly interesting was this idea of “rancher to rancher” learning. It will be critical to bring together the ranching community on a hyper local level to talk about what practices have worked in their context to make them more resilient in a changing climate. Many other topics were covered like financial incentives such as price premiums, educational/technical assistance, ecotourism opportunities, policy and advocacy, and necessary monitoring and research.
The next panel covered what meaningful indicators should be used to evaluate success of a ranch. They considered economic indicators like profitability, social indicators such as community impact and engagement, and ecological indicators as well as methods for monitoring these. Of course not all indicators are necessarily accurately measured, which lead seamlessly into the next discussion about soil carbon sequestration.
Conference attendees stepped out on to the ranch to look at our soils. We looked at 2 soil pits each dug about 5 feet deep. The first pit was in an irrigated hay field. It showed the benefits of extra water- well developed roots, good soil cover, and soil aggregation in the root zone. However, the history of tillage was obvious in this pit with hard compaction layers evident. Next attendees looked at an adjacent soil that had never been irrigated or tilled. The cover of grasses was reduced in this dry land area, but without the tillage layer, fine roots from the native grasses penetrated the full five feet of exposed soil. Woodwell soil scientists stressed the importance of minimizing tillage for boosting soil health and productivity.
The second day consisted mostly of discussions around policy and carbon markets as tools for incentivizing good land stewardship. We began with an overview of the current state of emissions and methods for capture carbon. Tech based methods to capture and store carbon like direct air capture and BECCS proved to be very costly and not tech ready. Natural methods were shown to be low cost, available to scale today, and provide many co benefits. These methods included soil carbon sequestration, biochar and others.
We moved into a detailed presentation about soil carbon markets, particularly soil credits. There are over 170 soil credits, each with its own developer, protocol, practices covered, and program details. In each step of this process there are numerous entities involved, which was acknowledged as a weak point of the design. Each group not only had their own agenda, but they also take their own fee off the top, which detracts from the payments to the land managers actually capturing the carbon. Through a detailed analysis of a dozen or so of these soil credit protocols, it was shown that none were rigorous enough to prove actual impact.
The last day of the conference was dedicated at exploring advocacy and advancing policy to support ranchers and land stewards. Speakers walked conference attendees through the legislative process emphasizing where the participants, whether non-profit workers, scientists, or ranchers, could help to better inform law makers on the needs of ranchers. More support for ranchers means better outcomes for wildlife, soil, recreation, and healthier rural economies.
The ranch staff was excited to host such a dedicated and dynamic group of stakeholders in the ranching community. HLR’s mission is to support regenerative ranching practices and to help support ranchers. This conference is a great example of what we hope to do, providing a center and facilities for these conversations on Colorado’s Western Slope.