Roger Gates: Grass, Soil, Hope
August 18, 2014
One of the consequences of being "connected" is a volume of announcements about things other folks believe I should be concerned about, involved in, or purchase. A recent salvo announced a new book with a title that intrigued me and an author I recognized. Any book that includes the word "grass" in the title at least grabs my attention; when it also includes "hope," I begin to anticipate some "good news" worth reading. In Grass, Soil, Hope – A Journey through Carbon Country, author Courtney White records his impressions of conversations and interactions with resource managers during his global expedition learning about the role of carbon in land environmental restoration.
I recognized White's name from a book published in 2008, Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. Also positive in its perspective, "Revolution" acknowledged the growing alliance between ranchers and conservationists as the recognized mutual interests. White was integral to the development of the Quivira Coalition, an alliance in the southwest U.S. that brought together ranchers and environmentalists, working toward conservation goals they recognized as mutually beneficial.
Quivira may have been one of the first such alliances, but I continue to be encouraged by growing cooperation between ranching and conservation interests. Temperate grasslands are receiving growing recognition as one of the most threatened ecosystems globally. Environmental advocates are aware that conservation of grasslands, particularly in the Northern Great Plains, is directly tied to the success and survival of ranching.
Current efforts by World Wildlife Fund serve as an example. WWF's "Sustainable Ranching Initiative" continues to invest in identification and demonstration of ranching practices which benefit grassland habitat and the many wildlife species it supports while simultaneously enhancing the sustainability of privately owned ranches. A recent "Sustainable Ranching" workshop held in western South Dakota was a demonstration of this emphasis.
The Grass, Soil, Hope travelogue begins and ends in the ranching country of the western U.S., but it takes the author also to New England, Australia and New Orleans. White is hopeful because of the positive results he observes as resource managers develop strategies to imitate natural systems and restore the landscape by capturing carbon. While the importance and consequences of reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide may remain controversial, the benefits of increasing levels of soil carbon, particularly in agricultural landscapes, are not in question.
Three practices that White records are immediately appropriate to grasslands in the northern Plains. Planned cell grazing and restoration of riparian and wetland habitat provide techniques to improve soil carbon. Conservation or no-till farming, enhanced through the use of cover cropping is also proving to provide deposits rather than withdrawals from the soil carbon bank.
Recommended Stories For You
Attitudes and behaviors are strongly influenced by the view of the world from which we operate. I particularly appreciated White's comment that some of our current problems and impending crises would be more successfully approached from a perspective of abundance rather than scarcity. Concentrating on what's scarce, what we're about to run out of, may lead to fear and isolation – probably not the best posture for problem solving. If instead, we view the world with an attitude of abundance, considering unlimited sunshine, the marvelous capacity of photosynthesis to utilize that energy to harvest carbon, the incredible function of soil ecosystems to further capture that carbon and improve soil productivity and enhance the water cycle and the encouraging record of human innovation and creativity, perhaps additional contributions and improvements, comparable to those reported by White are not only possible, but likely.
If you're more likely to view a video than read a book, "Soil Carbon Cowboys," a recent film produced by Peter Byck is available online: http://vimeo.com/80518559. An equally hopeful story, the creativity and innovation of three ranchers to restore their landscapes using grazing management to capture carbon is worth the viewing!
Grass, Soil, Hope – A Journey through Carbon Country is worth reading. It successfully portrays reasons to be hopeful about agriculture, particularly the role of livestock production, and our global future. The book is widely available, but here's one source: http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/grass_soil_hope:paperback
Roger Gates is an SDSU Extension Range Management Specialist