More Than Grassland
Few scenes are more classically American than rolling hills of prairies and grassland. They are, however, more than just a pretty picture. While the importance of grasslands may not be front of mind for some, many Americans rely on them every day.
There are about 528 million acres of privately-owned pasture and rangeland that represent over a quarter of the land in the 48 contiguous United States. Additionally, the federal government holds around 155 million acres that are available for grazing through the Bureau of Land Management.
Ranchers use both public and private grasslands to graze their cattle and sell meat to feed American families. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent analysis, the cattle industry brought nearly $80 billion of gross income in 2015. But the value is not limited to just the cattle industry – healthy grasslands are an important part of the environment. A balanced grassland ecosystem protects watersheds, which in turn helps to avoid droughts and floods and maintains a clean supply of drinking water. Over 100,000 species make grasslands their home, including birds and pollinators that are an important component of the agricultural system.
Although many people are aware of the economic and environmental value of grasslands, they may not be aware that grasslands are also important in an unexpected way: storing carbon. Grasses do a great job soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and through their root system, depositing the carbon into the soil. If the land is not tilled or developed, the carbon will stay there indefinitely. This process makes grasslands a “carbon sink.”
Recently, a study by U.C. Davis found that grasslands serve as an incredibly effective and resilient carbon sink – they can withstand drought, and because they store carbon underground, they will not release as much stored carbon into the atmosphere in the event of a wildfire as do other carbon sinks, like forests. Although this study is limited to California, the message is clear: while there is no question that forests serve as a vital carbon sink around the globe, grasslands are an important piece of the puzzle that is often overlooked.
Despite their incredible value, grasslands are under threat. Only about half of the nation’s native grasslands remain intact, and millions of acres are converted every year. In most cases, grasslands become converted into croplands as prices rise for commodity crops like wheat, corn, and soy. Some landowners face a difficult decision: maintaining their land as it has been for generations or convert it for a purpose that may be more immediately profitable.
Grasslands have value – they not only keep our environment healthy and clean, but they provide food and livelihood to countless American families. It’s time to acknowledge this value. Companies are stepping up to help reduce their own carbon emissions and are willing to put money towards the value of carbon stored in the soil. They can feel good about the fact that preserving this land not only stores carbon but also provides a suite of other economic and environmental co-benefits.
Creating and selling environmental commodities like carbon credits is complex. ClimeCo leverages the expertise of our environmental commodity staff who have decades of experience developing carbon offset projects for the North American carbon markets. ClimeCo can address a growing need in the marketplace for high-quality carbon offsets based on agricultural land management and the conservation of natural ecological systems. The preservation of native grasslands is an important tool in the protection of our environment against the effects of climate change.
 Natural Resources Conservation Service, “Range and Pastureland Overview,” accessed January 21, 2019, https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/landuse/rangepasture/?cid=nrcsdev11_001074.  Bureau of Land Management, “Livestock Grazing on Public Land,” October 2, 2016, https://www.blm.gov/programs/natural-resources/rangelands-and-grazing/livestock-grazing.  National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Overview of the United States Cattle Industry,” June 24, 2016, https://usda.library.cornell.edu/concern/publications/8s45q879d?locale=en.  United States Forest Service, “Ecosystem Services from National Grasslands,” accessed January 21, 2019, https://www.fs.fed.us/grasslands/ecoservices/index.shtml.  Pawlok Dass et al., “Grasslands May Be More Reliable Carbon Sinks than Forests in California,” Environmental Research Letters 13, no. 7 (2018): 074027, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aacb39.
 Anne M. Gage, Sarah K. Olimb, and Jeff Nelson, “Plowprint: Tracking Cumulative Cropland Expansion to Target Grassland Conservation,” Great Plains Research 26, no. 2 (November 23, 2016): 107–16, https://doi.org/10.1353/gpr.2016.0019.
About the Author
Lauren Mechak is a Policy Associate at ClimeCo who has more than 5 years of experience in environmental market policy and statistical analysis. She is a graduate from Duke University where she worked part-time at the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative to help Duke achieve carbon neutrality and wrote policy briefs for Duke’s Center for Science and Society.