Meet The Beetles

[This is a chapter from my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See:]

One of nature’s most important and overlooked carbon farmers is also an ancient symbol of regeneration and renewal: the scarab.

It’s a beetle, a member of the family Scarabaeidae, which includes more than 30,000 different species, part of the order Coleoptera, which encompasses 400,000 species of beetles (out of the 4 to 8 million still to be classified), constituting roughly 25 per cent of all known animal species on the planet. That’s a lot of beetles! Too many to keep in mind, so you’re forgiven if you hadn’t given them much thought. There’s one type, however, that definitely deserves our attention: the dung beetle.

It certainly caught the attention of the ancient Egyptians, who elevated the lowly dung beetle to the status of a god—and for good reason. Dung beetles united three sacred elements of their culture: sun, soil, and cattle. Scarabs fly to the dung patties created by cattle and disassemble them within hours, usually by rolling the manure into brood balls—where the beetles lay their offspring—and then burying the balls below ground in tunnels and chambers where the nutrients nourish soil microbes.

The ancient Egyptians knew this activity was critical to maintaining the health and fertility of the soil on which their civilization depended, which may be why they revered the dung beetle on a level with Osiris, the god of the underworld.Copy of beetles1

Alas, the scarab is not so revered today. In fact, dung beetle populations were nearly hammered into oblivion in the mid-twentieth century by the pesticides and insecticides of industrial agriculture. Only in recent years has their benefit to nature and agricultural ecosystems been rediscovered, including the role they can play sequestering atmospheric carbon in soil. It’s also been estimated that dung beetles can save farmers billions of dollars every year. How?

The story starts with a fly—the horn fly in particular.

Most people don’t realize that manure (dung) is a coveted resource in nature, fought over by many creatures, including the pests and parasites that literally “bug” cattle and other livestock. This includes the horn fly (Haematobia irritans—or blood-loving irritant) which arrived on American shores from Europe in 1887. The flies lay their eggs in cow pats and the larvae are incubated there (for as little as five days) until they transform themselves into new adult flies and emerge to begin their torment. Among other maladies, their persistent biting can cause infections in cattle.

A century ago, however, horn flies were not the scourge they became for a simple reason: dung beetles eliminated the manure before the eggs could hatch. A bevy of beetles can bury a field of fresh manure patties in a matter of hours—no dung, no flies!

This natural balance changed dramatically after World War II when farms, rangelands, and animals began to be sprayed with various synthetic compounds in the name of pest and parasite “control.” Not coincidently, dung beetle populations dropped dramatically (being a “pest” after all), leaving a lot of poop sitting on the ground. Horn fly populations exploded.

Flies can also serve as vectors for a variety of serious diseases that infect humans, including typhoid, cholera, amoebic dysentery, and tuberculosis. One cow patty can house as many as 450 different insect species and one pair of flies can parent as many as 1.5 million new pairs in as little as 14 weeks. Flies can quickly develop resistance to insecticides as well. For all of these reasons, in the early 1970s a handful of researchers and cattle ranchers decided to reject the application of ever-more chemicals and opted to bring back the sacred scarab instead.

Lead by US government entomologist Truman Fincher, an energetic effort began to establish viable populations of two species of dung beetle, one imported from Europe (Onthophagus taurus) and one from Africa (Onthophagus gazella), the latter via Australia where livestock producers were experiencing similar problems. In Africa, research had shown that an elephant dung pile supported 48,000 beetles, who buried the dung underground within hours.

One beneficiary of this work was Texas rancher Walt Davis, an early pioneer of high-density, short-duration cattle grazing, which he found to be ideal for the cultivation of dung beetles that trailed his herd of cattle like camp followers trailing an army of soldiers. When he quit using chemicals on his ranch in 1974, the scarab moved in.

“Those beetles really got to work,” Davis said in an interview in Dung Beetles and a Cowman’s Profits by Charles Walters. “In a paddock just vacated by a herd…in 48 hours there was no manure. It was gone!”

It was another example of returning to nature’s way of doing things, in this case dung removal.Copy of beetles2

According to Fincher, few people realized the significance of the dung beetles to ecosystems. Beetles are nature’s sanitation crew, he insisted. Their quick burial of dung hastens its decomposition, prevents the loss of nutrients, aerates the soil, and increases the depth of soil containing organic material. That sounds like a recipe for building soil and sequestering carbon.

Not only do dung beetles transport carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus underground when they remove manure, feeding the microbes a rich diet of organic food, their tunnels increase porosity in the soil, which means more water and oxygen reach the microbes as well, revving up their tiny engines. This increases storage of carbon in the soil, with important positive implications for watershed health, plant growth, food production, pollution abatement, and climate change. And all done for free—by nature!

In his book, Charles Walters points out that Onthophagus gazella was released precisely as the natural food and organic agriculture movements began to pick up steam in the US, reflecting a desire for nontoxic approaches to food production that continues to this day. “The mere existence of dung beetles,” wrote Walters, “is a greater guardian of the organic red-meat supply than all the inspection certificates and agencies of verification can account for.”

Then there’s the comic sight of beetles flying to fresh dung as if directed by radar. “No one can say that dung beetles are good flyers,” wrote Walters. “When their encased wings are uncovered like some secret weapon in a military silo, they rise up almost helicopter style, then lumber along like an early Wright Brothers plane.”

Alas, industrial agriculture and its allies were not so amused. The news that their chemicals were killing critters deemed essential to the health of rangelands was not welcome. Infamously, Truman Fincher was forced into early retirement by the US government at the behest of Industry, according to Fincher himself. His research was put on hold and his laboratory samples destroyed.

The lowly dung beetle has struggled to regain its proper place in the ecosystem ever since. Fortunately, it’s making a comeback, thanks in part to rising interest in regenerative agriculture.

Hopefully, one day the scarab will return to its former lofty status!

To Learn More: Dung Beetles and a Cowman’s Profits by Charles Walters. Acres USA, Austin, TX, 2008.

Here is an informative TED talk on the dance of the dung beetle:

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Beyond Resilience

[This is a chapter from my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet to be published by Chelsea Green in October. See:]

Managing New Normals

Restoring land to health means trying to return it to something like normal ecological conditions. But what if the definition of normal changes in the meantime?

An ecosystem’s capacity to absorb a shock, such as a drought, flood, or forest fire, and then bounce back as quickly as possible is called resilience. Since it’s a critical part of ecosystem health, ecologists have made a big effort to understand what constitutes “normal” conditions in order to help a system be as resilient as possible, especially if the shock has been caused by humans, such as overgrazing by cattle. But what if a system’s definition of normal changes? What if a region’s annual precipitation dropped by half—and stayed there? Or when the rains did fall, they came as unusually large flood events or at the wrong time of year? What does resilience mean in this context?

It’s not an abstract question. Under climate change, scientists tell us, we’ll be experiencing all manner of new normals. For restoration purposes, this means we need to search the management toolbox for practices that go beyond short-term resilience and allow an ecosystem to endure long-term deviations from normal conditions.

What would those practices be? Mike Reardon has an idea.

Since the late 1990s, Reardon has used a wide variety of land restoration tools on his family’s 6500-acre Cañon Bonita Ranch, located in northeastern New Mexico. These tools include tree removal, brush clearing, prescribed fire, planned grazing, erosion control, riparian restoration, water harvesting, dam building, and ranch road repair—all in service of restoring ecological health to the land after decades of mismanagement by previous landowners. Reardon’s overall goal is to support a multitude of diverse wildlife on the property and his work has been highly effective in this regard. Today, however, he faces a new challenge: How do you maintain forward progress when prolonged drought limits the use of certain tools?

In 1997, an expert with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service told Reardon that there were “too many trees” on his ranch. This was news to Reardon, who lives in Albuquerque and readily admits to being a novice about land health when he began managing the ranch. Too many piñon and juniper trees, the expert said, meant a reduced amount of open, grassy habitat for wildlife. In the past, nature corrected this situation with periodic, lightning-sparked wildfires that would thin out the trees, allowing the land to bounce back with perennial grasses. However, a century of fire suppression by landowners and cooperating agencies across the region, coupled with poor livestock management, eventually eliminated the land’s grass cover, resulting in widespread tree encroachment.

To reverse this situation, Reardon focused first on reducing the density of piñon and juniper trees on the ranch. His original tools were handheld loppers and a chainsaw. Then came a spin trimmer, a front-end loader, and a Bobcat skid-steer. Next, Reardon hired a professional woodcutting crew from Mexico. To date, nearly three thousand acres have been cleared on the ranch, though some stands of trees were left for wildlife.

Next, during the years when grass (and rain) was abundant, Reardon alternated the use of two other tools to further reinvigorate the grasslands: prescribed fire and planned grazing. With the assistance of neighbors and fire experts, Reardon has completed two controlled burns, ten years apart, which effectively suppressed tree seedlings. Reardon also employed the tool of high-density, short-duration grazing by cattle during the vegetative dormant season (December through March). This “living fire” recycles old grass into cattle manure, which helps to build grass cover.

Here’s a photo of the abundant and diverse grasses that returned to the Cañon Bonita ranch (that’s Mike Reardon on the left):Copy of normals1

All three tools worked. Grass came back with a flourish, teaching Reardon an important lesson.

“I learned that bare ground was enemy number one,” Reardon said, “so I do everything I can to get grass to grow. And not just any grass, I want perennials and I want as much diversity as possible.”

The next job for the resilience toolbox was water. In order to create more surface water for wildlife to drink, as well as grow a year-round supply of nutritious food, twelve earthen dams and four metal tanks (with windmills) were repaired, modified, or constructed across the ranch. He also implemented a five-phase wetland and riparian restoration project that employed many of the innovative practices pioneered by specialists Bill Zeedyk and Craig Sponholtz.

They designed and implemented treatments for a two-mile stretch of Cañon Bonito Creek, which ran through the center of the ranch. Their goals were to decrease stream bank erosion and downcutting and to raise the water table. They also wanted to reconnect the creek to its floodplain in order to re-wet adjoining wet meadows and increase the amount of live water. They also hoped to increase forage species, including wetland vegetation, and increase cover for wildlife. There was even a plan to harvest water from ranch roads using a variety of techniques, including redesigned road crossings and water-harvesting rock structures in canyon side channels.

Reardon also implemented a detailed monitoring program on the ranch in order to see how changes were progressing. This included vegetation and bare-ground monitoring, moisture data collection, wildlife population surveys, and photographic documentation, including sixty photo points along Cañon Bonito creek alone.

The message of the monitoring data was clear: conditions were improving. Under Reardon’s management, the ranch progressed from a monoculture of blue grama grass to hosting a diversity of more than 55 different grass species. Dry springs began to flow again and wildlife populations shot up by a factor of ten. Despite a drying trend that began in 2002, deer, elk, and wild turkey populations continued to rise and things seemed to be returning to normal. It looked like Reardon had succeeded in rebuilding resilience on the ranch.

Except—the definition of normal was changing. The drought, for example, went on and on—and still goes on.

Today, year-round water in the Cañon Bonito creek is rare, though there is still a steady trickle in the spring area. A relict population of ponderosa pines is dying, along with piñon and juniper trees. Small populations of perennial grasses, previously restored, are now dying as well. And wildlife populations are in decline—wild turkey populations have dropped by 75 percent. As for the land management toolbox—persistent drought means that prescribed fire is off the table and grazing by cattle is limited to selected areas of the ranch.

Reardon has learned the hard way that getting “beyond resilience” is easier said than done.

On the good news front, there is still plenty of ground cover holding the soil in place, capturing “airmail topsoil,” as Reardon puts it, during local dust storms, as well as any raindrop that falls from the sky. The wetland and riparian restoration work have kept the ground moist where otherwise it might have gone dry. It also helps to dissipate the destructive forces of unusually big flood events, such as one the ranch endured on September 2013, when nearly five inches fell in a matter of hours. Thanks to all the vegetation that had grown along the stream banks, the effects of that flood were not nearly as devastating as they would have been otherwise.

Here’s a photo of the new normal of big flood events on the ranch:Copy of normals3

For Reardon, the whole experience points to important lessons learned for the new normals of hotter, drier conditions and chaotic moisture events.

“Use your time effectively,” he said, “focus on sweet spots, have a plan, pull together a diverse group of supporters and professionals, be willing to listen and learn, trust the data, be willing to admit mistakes, be proactive, become land literate, and get ready for the next storm—dust, rain, snow, whatever Mother Nature brings. It will rain again!”

Sage words as we move deeper into the twenty-first century!

More Courtney:

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The Mystrey of the Missing Carbon

It’s a whodunit with huge consequences for life on Earth.

Somehow, a whole lot of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has gone missing and it’s becoming a scientific detective story to figure out where it went and why. The Principle Investigator into this mystery is NASA, which launched a satellite called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) on July 2nd, 2014, into an orbit around the Earth in hopes of cracking the case.

OCO-2 is designed to precisely measure carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, in particular the amounts that are “inhaled and exhaled” annually by living things on the planet. This ‘breathing’ pattern was first discovered by Dr. Charles Keeling and is captured beautifully in the famous Keeling Curve (see: The cause of the breathing pattern is the relationship between sources (emitters) and sinks (absorbers) of CO2. Carbon sources include: fossil fuel combustion, forest fires, decaying organic matter, and the biowaste created by micoorganisms. Carbon sinks include: green plants, oceans, rocks, and soil. The planet ‘breathes in’ when the sinks are working at maximum efficiency (ie summer, when plants are greenest) and ‘breathes out’ when they are not (winter). This breathing becomes a discernable pattern (the Keeling Curve) because there are more deciduous trees, which drop their leaves in the fall, in the northern hemisphere than in the southern.

This breathing is part of the great carbon cycle, by which carbon molecules travel from source to sink to source to sink, round and round. It’s nature’s way of keeping carbon in balance, especially if there’s been a natural disruption. If too many volcanoes go off in a short amount of time, for instance, CO2 levels can rise to very high levels. Or if plants die off as the result of an ice age, levels can fall dramatically. In all cases, when these imbalances occur, the sinks and sources work to restore an equilibrium and get the planet breathing ‘normally’ again – a process, by the way, that takes thousands or millions of years.

Unfortunately, humans have been provoking an asthma attack on Earth since the Industrial Revolution, principally by digging up and burning 300-million-year old carbon in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas. In terms of quantity and speed, it’s a source of CO2 that the planet has never experienced before, which means sinks have never had to work this hard in so short a period of time to soak up all this new carbon – the oceans especially – which is where the mystery come in.

Of the billions of tons of CO2 that are currently being pumped into the atmosphere every year as a consequence of human activity (up by a factor of three since the 1950s), approximately 50% stays there, causing global warming. The other 50% is being soaked up by the plant’s sinks, scientists say, with oceans accounting for 27%. That means 23% is going into the land sink, principally green plants, but no one knows precisely where! This is important because encouraging a particular sink to become even more efficient could soak up additional CO2 and help combat climate change.

So where is the missing 23% of the CO2 that we are pumping into the atmosphere going? The authors of most of the articles that I read assume its being taken up by new vegetation, trees specifically. That’s because more plants = more photosynthesis = more soaking up of CO2, which gets stored as biomass in the tree or plant. That’s great news, except for one thing: scientists can’t find a corresponding amount of new trees and plants! The main suspects are the Amazon and the boreal forests of North America and northern Europe, but scientists haven’t been able to correlate new growth in either ecosystem with all that missing carbon. It is presumed that OCO-2 will identify the specific forested culprit.

But what if we’ve got the wrong suspect in mind?

An obvious answer, to me anyway, is soil. There is a great deal of scientific evidence that biologically-rich soil covered with green and growing plants can sequester significant amounts of atmospheric carbon via photosynthesis. However, none of the articles I read about the missing 23% mentions the soil. A good example is a fascinating article in National Geographic titled ‘The Case of the Missing Carbon’ (

The author writes that that ability of trees and plants to “put on weight” accounts for the missing carbon. However, he notes, even when this ‘extra weight’ is tallied, there is still 1.5 billion tons of carbon missing! Could it be the soil? The author doesn’t say – because he doesn’t mention soil as a sink at all.

This is a common oversight, unfortunately. When it comes to carbon sinks and the role they can play in combating climate change (remember, 50% of the new CO2 being manufactured today is being absorbed by planetary sinks), the focus is almost always on trees and shrubs. Like Cinderella, soils aren’t invited to the party. This is a crime because it’s been well established that soils have the potential capacity to soak up large amounts of CO2. I suspect this ‘mystery’ isn’t a mystery at all – all that ‘missing’ carbon is being stored in soils!

Hopefully, OCO-2 will corroborate my hunch. If it does, then perhaps we can take a big step towards recognizing the potential of soil to assist in the fight against climate.

Here’s a photo of the usual suspect: forest1

 There’s another culprit in this mystery: the U.S Congress.

In recent years, in response to rising concerns about the Earth’s geophysical environment and the impact humans are having on it (and vice versa), NASA launched a series of satellites into orbit to precisely measure various conditions on the planet. Five of these satellites fly in a tight cluster called the A-Train (after a popular swing-era tune), one of which is OCO-2. In addition to carbon dioxide levels, the A-Train records data about airborne pollutants, water vapor, clouds, vegetation, and much more. The goal is to create a synchronous ‘snapshot’ of a specific part of the Earth from multiple perspectives, which will help us humans guide our decisions and actions (hopefully).

Congress, however, wants to dismantle the A-Train. In May, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology voted to gut NASA’s budget for its earth science programs by roughly 25%. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), an avowed skeptic of global warming science, said that NASA should be focusing on space, not Earth. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden shot back by saying the budget cuts would “set back generations worth of progress in better understanding our changing climate, and our ability to prepare for and respond to earthquakes, droughts and storm events.”

The Committee’s proposed cuts boggle the mind – but not more than their hypocritical reasoning, if you can call it reasoning at all. Here’s an illustration: Smith wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he said “Instead of letting political ideology or climate ‘religion’ guide government policy, we should focus on good science. The facts alone should determine what climate policy options the U.S. considers.”

Except – if you eliminate the satellites, you have no data! How can decisions be based on the facts without any facts? I’m not naïve enough, of course, to know what’s really going on here, but it staggers the mind nonetheless. It’s one thing to dispute the data or conclusions based on facts, but it’s another to block the fact-gathering itself. Here’s Smith again: “We don’t know enough yet to make decisions that are going to hurt our economy or hurt the American people. Let’s continue to gather the facts, make sure the science is correct.”

Incredible. Call it The Case of the Missing Data. The criminal is Congress and the murder victims are future generations of Americans.

I don’t know the answer to this mystery other than hope for more democracy. We know what to do about carbon – stop burning it and start storing it – but I don’t know what to do about a political ideology that not only rejects scientific conclusions but actually blocks their formulation. Vote ‘em out of office, I suppose, and pray that their replacements are more willing to gather data and accept scientific consensus. But figuring that out is beyond my pay grade.

In the meantime, I’ll keep rooting for NASA’s A-train! Here’s an illustration: a-train(arch)_new

Courtney White:

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Two Announcements

Hi everyone. I just wanted to make two quick announcements:

I’ve bitten the bullet and launched a Facebook page. Take a look:

Second, I have a new book coming out in September from Chelsea Green Press titled Two Percent Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change.

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Terra Cognita

What a difference twenty years make.

On April 23rd, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a major voluntary, incentive-based effort to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, expanding renewable energy production, and increasing carbon sequestration in partnership with various agricultural producers across the nation. Specifically, this effort aims to achieve a net reduction of 2% of greenhouse emissions by 2025, or the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road, according to the press release.

While this goal is not particularly ambitious, frankly, it does represent a startling change from the type of conservation priorities on federally owned lands that I encountered when I co-founded the Quivira Coalition nearly twenty years ago. It’s an important indication not only how serious climate change has become as a policy issue, but also a testament to how far soil carbon has risen as a climate change mitigation strategy. If you had told me as recently as 2010, when I began researching a book on soil carbon, that the Secretary of Agriculture would be supporting publicly the implementation of practices that sequestered carbon in soils, I would not have believed you.

But here’s what the press release said: “USDA intends to pursue partnerships and leverage resources to conserve and enhance greenhouse gas sinks, reduce emissions, increase renewable energy and build resilience in agricultural and forest systems.”

Here are some of the USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Action announced at the April press conference:

  • Soil Health: Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. For example, the effort aims to increase the use of no-till systems to cover more than 100 million acres by 2025.
  • Grazing and Pasture Lands: Support rotational grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, avoiding soil carbon loss through improved management of forage, soils and grazing livestock.
  • Stewardship of Federal Forests: Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects, or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. This includes plans to reforest an additional 5,000 acres each year.
  • Urban Forests: Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, storm water runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal, and property values.

Twenty years ago, goals like these would have made all of us fall out of our saddles. Words like adaptation, mitigation, sequestration and even resilience were not on anyone’s agenda, much less the words climate change. At the time, we worked mainly on improving land health – the ecological processes that sustain life in rangelands and riparian areas. Mostly, we focused on living things above the ground, such as plants, animals and people. The microbial subsurface universe was terra incognita for many of us. And carbon? Wasn’t that just some element on a Periodic Chart?

How the times have changed.

It’s especially heartening to see the Secretary of Agriculture support rotational grazing. One of Quivira’s principle goals was to spread the news about the multiple benefits short duration, management-intensive cattle grazing, now generally called holistic planned grazing. We took a lot heat from a lot of quarters for our advocacy, including from employees of the USDA’s Forest Service. For a while in the mid-2000s, Quivira was a grazing permittee on the Santa Fe National Forest where we attempted to ‘walk the talk’ of progressive land management. Our hopes for implementing a planned grazing system on the allotment, however, were met with a large amount of indifference (i.e. passive opposition) by the local Forest Service district office. To see the Secretary of Agriculture now become an advocate for the very system we tried to implement is both exciting and bittersweet.

AS a result of this experience, I’ll remain skeptical until I see the Secretary’s words actually reach the ground.

It’s the same with his support for no-till farming systems. On a conventional farm, a tractor and a plow are required in order to turn over the soil and prepare it for seeding and fertilizing, a process the often requires three passes of the tractor over the field. In a no-till system, a farmer uses a mechanical seed drill pulled behind a tractor to plant directly into the soil, requiring only one pass. The drill makes a thin slice in the soil as it moves along, but nothing resembling the broad furrow created by a plow. The soil is not turned over and any growing plants or crop residue on the surface are left largely undisturbed, which is a great way to reduce erosion and keep soil cool and moist, especially during the hot summer months.

These are all good reasons why no-till has grown in popularity with farmers around the world.

One of the major disadvantages of no-till, however, is its lack of weed control. When farmers don’t plow, the weeds say “thank you very much” for all that undisturbed soil and grow vigorously. To kill weeds in a no-till system, many farmers apply chemical herbicides to their fields. Lots of it. They also spray pesticides to keep the bugs in check. Additionally, many no-till farmers use genetically modified seeds, often in combination with the synthetic herbicides. All of this is verboten in an organic farming system, of course, which brings us to the Holy Grail of regenerative agriculture: organic no-till. It combines the best of both worlds—no plow and no chemicals. It operates on biology – plus the tractor and the seed drill.

I doubt Vilsack has organic no-till in mind with this new effort to fight climate change, but who knows? After twenty years, at least it’s a start!

In this graphic, replace the words ‘organic matter’ with ‘carbon’ and see how it all links together.soil_food_web_biochar_blm

To explain how the USDA’s new policy on carbon sequestration in soils might work, it’s worth a quick review of a protein in the soil called glomalin, one of nature’s superglues.

The story starts with mycorrhizal fungi, which are long, skinny filaments that live on the surface of plant roots with which they share a symbiotic relationship, trading essential nutrients and minerals back and forth. This fungi-root mutualism reduces a plant’s susceptibility to disease and increases its tolerance to adverse conditions, including prolonged drought spells or salty soils.

Fungi in general are best known to humans as the source of mushrooms, yeasts, and the molds that make cheeses tasty, ruin houses in humid climates, and produce antibiotics. Like plants, animals, and bacteria, fungi form their own taxonomic kingdom. There are an estimated 2 to 5 million individual species of fungi on the planet, of which less than 5 percent have been formally classified by taxonomists.

Carbon molecules, in the form a sugar called glucose, pass from plant roots into a mycorrhizal fungus where they eventually makes their way to one of its hyphae – hairlike projections that extend as much as 2 inches into the soil in a never-ending search for nutrients. Then, in a process that is not completely understood by scientists, the carbon molecule is extruded from the hyphae as a sticky protein called glomalin.

As a plant grows, hyphae break off and the now free-floating glomalin quickly binds itself to loose sand, silt, and clay particles. Soon, small clumps of glomalin-glued particles form larger and larger aggregates, kind of like a vast, intricate tinker toy construction. As the aggregates grow bigger they become stronger and more stable, making the soil increasingly resistant to wind and water erosion. This process also makes the soil more porous (fluffy), with lots of tiny pockets in between the tinker-toy aggregates, and this facilitates oxygen infiltration, water transport, micro-critter movement, and nutrient transfer.

 Next stop: humus – carbon rich soil, dark, rich, and sweet-smelling.

You can feel glomalin, by the way. It’s what gives soil its tilth—the smooth texture that tells experienced farmers and gardeners that they are holding great soil in their hands. To create tilth, the soil engine needs both biology and chemistry working together, and glomalin is the glue that binds them.

Glomalin itself is a tough protein. It can exist up to fifty years without decaying or dissolving. When locked into the stable tinker-toy structure of humus, it can persistent for even longer periods of time. Healthy soils have a lot of glomalin, which means this: since glomalin is 30 to 40 percent carbon, it is the ideal safedeposit box for the long-term sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is what scientists call “deep carbon”—the kind that stays in the soil for decades, or longer. There are fewer hungry microbes this deep in the soil, which adds to the stability and longevity of the carbon storage.

It’s a simple equation: lots of deep glomalin = lots of secure carbon storage. It’s also a fragile equation, however. A plow can destroy this safe-deposit box in a heartbeat, releasing its carboniferous contents back into the atmosphere. Plows also tear mycorrhizal fungi into bits, slaughtering them in droves, putting an end to our unsung heroes.

No one knew glomalin existed until it was discovered in 1996 by Sara Wright, a soil scientist with the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Maryland. She named it after glomales, the taxonomic order that includes arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. Not only did she uncover its role in soil-building and carbon sequestration, but a subsequent four-year research project under her direction demonstrated that levels of glomalin could be maintained and raised with regenerative farming practices, including no-till planting.

In the study, Wright observed that glomalin levels rose each year after no-till was implemented, from 1.3 milligrams per gram of soil (mg/g) after the first year to 1.7 mg/g after the third. A control plot in a nearby field that was plowed and planted each year had only 0.7 mg/g. In a further comparison, the soil under a fifteen-year-old buffer strip of grass had 2.7 mg/g of glomalin. She also discovered that some plants don’t attract arbuscular fungi to their roots, including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, mustards, rapeseed, and canola.

Before 1996, determining the carbon content of a farm’s soil was largely based on measuring its soil organic matter (SOM), which is roughly 58 percent carbon. Thanks to the discovery of glomalin, soil carbon can now be measured quite precisely. This sort of data is very useful in determining how much deep carbon a specific farming or ranching practice is sequestering. It has economic implications as well, since carbon trading markets, such as the ones recently established in California could potentially use levels of glomalin as a “currency” to pay landowners for mitigating carbon dioxide pollution.

Here’s an idea: employ a farming or ranching practice that is known scientifically to increase levels of glomalin and get compensated financially!

That’s what I would recommend to Secretary Vilsack, anyway.

Here’s an electron microscope image of glomalin (the small spherical shapes) on a fungus:


The Carbon Ranch

[This is the final excerpt from my book Age of Consequences. I return to the theme of carbon, climate and hope – the subject of new posts to follow]

Novelist and historian Wallace Stegner once said that every book should try to answer an anguished question. I believe the same is true for ideas, movements, and emergency efforts. In the case of climate change, an anguished question is this: what can we do right now to help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) from its current (and future) dangerously high levels?

In an editorial published in July of 2009, Dr. James Hansen of NASA proposed an answer: “cut off the largest source of emissions—coal—and allow CO2 to drop back down . . . through agricultural and forestry practices that increase carbon storage in trees and soil.” I consider these words to be a sort of ‘Operating Instructions’ for the twenty-first century. Personally, I’m not sure how we accomplish the coal side of the equation, which requires governmental action, but I have an idea about how to increase carbon storage in soils.

I call it a carbon ranch.

The purpose of a carbon ranch is to mitigate climate change by sequestering CO2 in plants and soils, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and producing co-benefits that build ecological and economic resilience in local landscapes. “Sequester” means to withdraw for safekeeping, to place in seclusion, into custody, or to hold in solution—all of which are good definitions for the process of sequestering CO2 in plants and soils via photosynthesis and sound stewardship.

The process by which atmospheric CO2 gets converted into soil carbon is neither new nor mysterious. It has been going on for millions and millions of years, and all it requires is sunlight, green plants, water, nutrients, and soil microbes. According to Dr. Christine Jones, a pioneering Australian soil scientist, there are four basic steps to the CO2/soil carbon process:

Photosynthesis: This is the process by which energy in sunlight is transformed into biochemical energy, in the form of a simple sugar called glucose, via green plants—which use CO2 from the air and water from the soil, releasing oxygen as a byproduct.

Resynthesis: Through a complex sequence of chemical reactions, glucose is resynthesized into a wide variety of carbon compounds, including carbohydrates (such as cellulose and starch), proteins, organic acids, waxes, and oils (including hydrocarbons)—all of which serve as fuel for life on Earth.

Exudation: Around 30-40 percent of the carbon created by photosynthesis can be exuded directly into soil to nurture the microbes that grow plants and build healthy soil. This process is essential to the creation of topsoil from the lifeless mineral soil produced by the weathering of rocks over time. The amount of increase in organic carbon is governed by the volume of plant roots per unit of soil and their rate of growth. More active green leaves mean more roots, which mean more carbon exuded.

Humification: This is the creation of humus—a chemically stable type of organic matter composed of large, complex molecules made up of carbon, nitrogen, and minerals. Visually, humus is the dark, rich layer of topsoil that people associate with rich gardens, productive farmland, stable wetlands, and healthy rangelands. Land management practices that promote the ecological health of the soil are key to the creation and maintenance of humus. Once carbon is sequestered as humus, it has a high resistance to decomposition and therefore can remain intact and stable for hundreds or thousands of years.

Additionally, high humus content in soil improves water infiltration and storage, due to its spongelike quality and high water-retaining capacity. Recent research demonstrates that one part humus can retain as much as four parts water. This has positive consequences for the recharge of aquifers and base flows to rivers and streams, especially important in times of drought.

In sum, the natural process of converting sunlight into humus is an organic way to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester it in soil for long periods of time. If the land is bare, degraded, or unstable due to erosion, and if it can be restored to a healthy condition, with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral, and nutrient cycles, covered with green plants with deep roots, then the quantity of CO2 that can be sequestered is potentially high. Conversely, when healthy, stable land becomes degraded or loses green plants, the carbon cycle can become disrupted and release stored CO2 back into the atmosphere.

Healthy soil = healthy carbon cycle = storage of atmospheric CO2. Any land management activity that encourages this equation, especially if it results in the additional storage of CO2, can help fight climate change. Or as Dr. Christine Jones puts it, “Any . . . practice that improves soil structure is building soil carbon.”

image description The Carbon Cycle (courtesy of the Quivira Coalition)

What would those practices be? There are at least six strategies to increase or maintain soil health and thus its carbon content. Three sequestration strategies include:

Planned grazing systems. The carbon content of soil can be increased by the establishment of green plants on previously bare ground, deepening the roots of existing healthy plants, and the general improvement of nutrient, mineral, and water cycles in a given area. Planned grazing is key to all three. By controlling the timing, intensity, and frequency of animal impact on the land, a “carbon rancher” can improve plant density, diversity, and vigor. Specific actions include the soil cap–breaking action of herbivore hooves, which promotes seed-to-soil contact and water infiltration; the “herd” effect of concentrated animals, which can provide a positive form of perturbation to a landscape by turning dead plant matter back into the soil; the stimulative effect of grazing on plants, followed by a long interval of rest (often a year), which causes roots to expand while removing old forage; targeted grazing of noxious and invasive plants, which promotes native species diversity; and the targeted application of animal waste, which provides important nutrients to plants and soil microbes.

Active restoration of riparian, riverine, and wetland areas. Many arroyos, creeks, rivers, and wetlands in the United States exist in a degraded condition, the result of historical overuse by humans, livestock, and industry. The consequence has been widespread soil erosion, loss of riparian vegetation, the disruption of hydrological cycles, the decline of water storage capacity in stream banks, and the loss of wetlands. The restoration of these areas to health, especially efforts that contribute to soil retention and formation, such as the reestablishment of humus-rich wetlands, will result in additional storage of atmospheric CO2 in soils. There are many cobenefits of restoring riparian areas and wetlands to health as well, including improved habitat for wildlife, increased forage for herbivores, improved water quality and quantity for downstream users, and a reduction in erosion and sediment transport.

Removal of woody vegetation. Many meadows, valleys, and rangelands have witnessed a dramatic invasion of woody species, such as pinon and juniper trees where I live, over the past century, mostly as a consequence of the suppression of natural fire and overgrazing by livestock (which removes the grass needed to carry a fire). The elimination of over-abundant trees by agencies and landowners has been an increasing focus of restoration work recently. One goal of this work is to encourage grass species to grow in place of trees, thus improving the carbon-storing capacity of the soil. The removal of trees also has an important cobenefit: they are a source of local biomass energy production, which can help reduce a ranch’s carbon footprint.

Three maintenance strategies that help keep stored CO2 in soils include:

The conservation of open space. The loss of forest, range, or agricultural land to subdivision or other types of development can dramatically reduce or eliminate the land’s ability to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere via green plants. Fortunately, there are multiple strategies that conserve open space, including public parks, private purchase, conservation easements, tax incentives, zoning, and economic diversification that helps to keep a farm or ranch in operation. Perhaps most importantly, the protection of the planet’s forests and peatlands from destruction is crucial to an overall climate-change-mitigation effort. Not only are forests and peatlands important sinks for CO2; their destruction releases stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

The implementation of no-till farming practices. Plowing exposes stored soil carbon to the elements, including the erosive power of wind and rain, which can quickly cause it dissipate back into the atmosphere as CO2. No-till farming practices, especially organic ones (no pesticides or herbicides), not only protect soil carbon and reduce erosion, but they often also improve soil structure by promoting the creation of humus. Additionally, farming practices that leave plants in the ground year-round both protect stored soil carbon and promote increased storage via photosynthesis. An important cobenefit of organic no-till practices is the production of healthy food.

Building long-term resilience. Nature, like society, doesn’t stand still for long. Things change constantly, sometimes slowly, sometimes in a rush. Some changes are significant, such as a major forest fire or a prolonged drought, and can result in ecological threshold-crossing events, often with deleterious consequences. Resilience refers to the capacity of land, or people, to “bend” with these changes without “breaking.” Managing a forest through thinning and prescribed fire so that it can avoid a destructive, catastrophic fire is an example of building resilience into a system. Managing land for long-term carbon sequestration in soils requires building resilience as well, including the economic resilience of the landowners, managers, and community members.

All of these strategies have been field-tested by practitioners, landowners, agencies, and researchers and demonstrated to be effective in a wide variety of landscapes. The job now is to integrate them holistically into a “climate-friendly” landscape that sequesters increasing amounts of CO2 each year.

Copy of notill1 Organic no-till farming (courtesy of the Rodale Institute)

Reality check: the increased sequestration of CO2 in soils won’t solve climate change by itself. It won’t even be close if the emissions of greenhouse gases are not dramatically reduced at the same time. According to experts, this reduction must be on the order of 50-80 percent of current emissions levels within fifty years.

A carbon ranch can help in three ways: by measuring and then reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions an agricultural operation contributes to the atmosphere; by producing renewable energy “on-ranch,” which it can use itself and/or sell to a local or regional power grid; and by participating in local food and restoration activities that lower our economy’s dependence on fossil fuels.

A carbon ranch can also help by confronting the controversy over “offsets” and carbon “credits”—the two strategies most frequently touted by governments, businesses, and others for encouraging the creation of a so-called “carbon marketplace.” In this marketplace, “credits” created by the sequestration of CO2 in one place can be “sold” or traded to “offset” a CO2 polluting entity, such as a coal plant or airline company, someplace else, supposedly to the benefit of all. In reality, these schemes appear to mostly offset our guilty feelings rather than actually affect atmospheric levels of CO2.

Here are these ideas in more detail:

Reducing the “footprint” of a carbon ranch. This is a two-step process: assess the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are rising from a particular landscape or operation, follow this assessment with a concerted effort to reduce these emissions. One way to measure this carbon footprint is to conduct a Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) of an enterprise, which is an inventory of the material and energy inputs and outputs characteristic of each stage of a product’s life cycle. This is a well-recognized procedure for tracking the ecological impacts of, say, a television set or a refrigerator, and different types of LCAs exist for different types of products.

For a carbon ranch, there are four important measures of its LCA: (1) cumulative energy use; (2) ecological footprint; (3) greenhouse gas emissions; (4) eutrophying emissions

The first three measurements are relatively straightforward, and there are many credible methodologies today to calculate energy use, ecological footprints, and emissions, though most are designed for urban contexts or industrial agriculture.

However, the fourth measurement—eutrophying emissions—has been the source of considerable controversy in recent years. It refers to the amount of methane produced by the digestive system of livestock during its time on the ranch, farm, or feedlot—and in the public’s mind, the connotation is negative. That’s because the public has conflated a natural biological process—belching cows—with fossil fuel-intensive industrial livestock production activities, including chemical fertilizer production, deforestation for pasture, cultivation of feed crops (corn), and the transportation of feed and animal products. As a result, there is an impression among the public at large that one answer to the climate crisis is to “eat less red meat”—an opinion that I have heard repeatedly at conferences and meetings.

Personally, I think an answer is to eat more meat—from a carbon ranch.

For the purposes of a carbon ranch, the methane emission issue is just one part of the overall “footprint” assessment. The goal of a Life-Cycle Analysis is to measure an operation’s energy use and emissions so that it can reduce both over time. Ultimately, the goal is to become carbon-neutral or, ideally, carbon-negative—meaning the amount of CO2 sequestered is greater than the ranch’s carbon footprint.

Producing renewable energy. Anything that a carbon ranch can do to produce energy on-site will help balance its energy “footprint” and could reduce the economy’s overall dependence on fossil fuels. This includes wind and solar farms; the production of biodiesel from certain on-site crops for use in ranch vehicles; biomass for cogeneration projects (this is especially attractive if it uses the woody debris being removed from the ranch anyway); micro-hydro, micro-wind, and solar for domestic use; and perhaps other as yet unrealized renewable energy alternatives.

Participating in a local economy. A carbon ranch should carefully consider its role in the “footprint”of the greater economy. Are its products traveling long distances or otherwise burning large amounts of fossil fuels? It is generally accepted that involvement in a local food market, where the distances between producer and eater are short, shrinks the fossil “footprint” of a ranch considerably. There is some contradictory research on this point, however. In my opinion, the technical issues of local versus global food systems in terms of food miles traveled is largely neutralized by the wide variety of cobenefits that local food brings economically and ecologically.

The trouble with offsets. Many observers—myself included—have become increasingly skeptical of the offset concept at regional or national scales. Objections include: (1) We need actual net reductions of atmospheric CO2, not just the neutralizing “offset” of a polluter by a sequesterer. And we need these net reductions quickly; (2) It is not acceptable to let a big, industrial polluter “off the hook” with an offset; (3) It is unrealistic to expect the same system that created the climate problem in the first place—i.e., our current economy and specifically its financial sector—to solve this problem and to do so with the same financial tools.

While offsets and carbon credits may not be the economic engine of the future, they highlight an important challenge for carbon ranching: profitability. If not offsets, then how can a landowner who desires to mitigate climate change earn a paycheck, without which there will no carbon ranching?

One idea is to include “climate-friendly” practices as an added value to the marketing of ranch products, such as its beef. Another is to create a “carbon market” at the local level. A county government, for example, could help to create a local carbon market to help offset its judicial buildings or schools or prisons. It could possibly do so through its ability to tax, zone, and otherwise regulate at the county level. It would still have to deal with some of the other challenges confronting offsets, but at least it would keep the marketplace local.

Another idea might be to reward landowners financially for meeting sequestration and emissions goals. The federal government routinely subsidizes rural economic development enterprises, such as the ongoing effort to bring high-speed broadband Internet to rural communities. Additionally, the government often provides incentives to businesses for market-based approaches, including corn-based ethanol production, solar power development, and wind technology (and don’t forget the federal government’s catalyzing role in the birth of the Internet). It would be perfectly logical, therefore, to reward early adopters of carbon ranching with a direct financial payment as a means to create new markets.

None of this will be easy. In fact, the obstacles standing in the way of implementing a carbon ranch and sharing its many cobenefits are large and diverse. Is it worth trying anyway? Absolutely. If a carbon ranch could make a difference in the fight against climate change—now developing as the overarching crisis of the twenty-first century—then we must try. The alternative—not trying—means we consign our future to politics, technology, and wishful thinking, none of which have made a difference so far.

Best of all, a carbon ranch doesn’t need to be invented. It already exists. We know how to grow grass with animals. We’ve learned how to fix creeks and heal wetlands. We’re getting good at producing local grassfed food. We’ll figure out how to reduce our carbon footprint and develop local renewable energy sources profitably. We don’t need high technology—we have the miracle of photosynthesis already.

Answers to anguished questions exist, but too often our eyes seem fixed on the stars and our minds dazzled by distant horizons, blinding us to possibilities closer to home. A carbon ranch teaches us that we should be looking down, not up.

At the grass and the roots.IMG_1762

Published in The Age of Consequences (Counterpoint Press) see:

The Fifth Wave

[This the second of two parts]

The Third Wave

The next wave of conservation, which stirred after World War II, had two principal components: an emphasis on science and a focus on private land. This was no accident—these components represented important shortcomings of the previous two waves. Federalism, by definition, focused on public lands, which meant that one-half of the American West—its privately owned land—had been largely neglected by the conservation movement. This became a pressing concern after the war as the suburban and exurban development of private land sped up considerably. Meanwhile, the rise of ecology and other environmental disciplines meant that data and scientific study could now complement, and sometimes supplant, the emotional and romantic nature of environmentalism. An illustrative example is the rise and growth of the Nature Conservancy, a landmark nonprofit organization that is now one of the largest conservation groups in the world.

In 1946, a small group of scientists in New England formed an organization called the Ecologists Union with the goal of saving threatened natural areas on private land, especially biological hot spots that contained important native plant and animal species. The protection of biologically significant parcels of land had traditionally been the job of the federal government, state wildlife agencies, or private hunting and fishing groups. Parks, forests, refuges, wilderness areas, and game preserves were the dominant means by which protection was provided to critical areas in the years leading up to World War II. But a growing number of scientists believed this strategy wasn’t sufficient any longer because it largely overlooked privately owned property—land that was rapidly being paved over in the postwar boom.

The Ecologists Union changed its name in 1951 to the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and embarked on a novel strategy: private land acquisition for ecological protection. In 1955, the organization made its first purchase—sixty acres along the New York–Connecticut border. Six years later, it donated its first conservation easement, which restricts development rights on a property in perpetuity, on six acres of salt marsh, again in Connecticut. This new strategy of buying and preserving land caused the organization to grow rapidly. By 1974, TNC was working in all fifty states, often in tandem with state and federal agencies. It wasn’t all about acquisition, however. Frequently, TNC acted as the middleman buyer between a willing seller and the federal government. In the process, TNC became adept at real estate deals, developing a business acumen that was as novel for a conservation organization at the time as was its land-protection strategy. TNC also started an ambitious land trust program to accept conservation easements on property it did not own.

Soon, TNC was working internationally, buying land and facilitating major conservation projects. In 2000, it launched the “Last Great Places” campaign, raising over one billion dollars for land acquisition and research. By 2007, TNC was protecting more than 117 million acres of land and five thousand miles of rivers in the U.S. alone.prd_019481      A Last Great Place – a karst ecosystem in Arkansas

But it wasn’t just about buying land. Employing hundreds of scientists, TNC has based much of its conservation work on research, including a science-based modeling approach to large landscapes that helps the organization determine where to work, what to conserve, and what strategies should be employed. Their work was no longer simply focused on saving the rarest species here and there, as it had been in the 1950s. Now they worked at the ecosystem level across a large landscape so that all species might thrive—a strategy TNC calls “enough of everything.” They do this by establishing science-based priorities and then setting out to influence the social, political, and economic forces at work in these biologically important landscapes.

TNC’s approach has been replicated by many other third-wave conservation organizations, including Conservation International, the Trust for Public Land, and the World Wildlife Fund. It also helped to ignite a land trust movement around the world. Today, there are over seventeen hundred individual land trusts in America alone, focused on private property of every shape and size, from small community or regional trusts to statewide agricultural organizations.

A great deal of science-based conservation work was also integrated into various nonprofit organizations, public agencies, and private operations. The growing impact of ecology in conservation during the 1940s—thanks in no small part to Aldo Leopold—also led schools and universities to embrace science-based curriculums and implement numerous environmental-study programs across the country. Professional journals in ecology proliferated as a result. At the same time, many public lands–focused environmental organizations incorporated science into their advocacy work, especially those focused on saving large predators, wildlife corridors, and endangered species.

In contrast to environmentalism, however, the third wave eschewed the noisy emotionality and confrontational tactics of the second wave, preferring the quiet diplomacy of research and deal making to accomplish its goals. Although it still adhered to a protection paradigm that it shared with the first two waves, it was guided by data, not poetry, and it sought cooperation, not regulation or litigation, to accomplish its objectives. And as the success of TNC demonstrates, this wave was extraordinarily effective—for a while.Copy of File0001A land monitoring workshop on the Gray Ranch.

The bloom began to fade in 1990, when TNC purchased the beautiful and biologically rich 322,000-acre Gray Ranch, located in the boot heel of southwestern New Mexico. Sheltering more than seven hundred species of plants, seventy-five mammals, fifty reptiles, and 170 species of breeding birds, the Gray Ranch was considered one of the most significant ecological landscapes in North America, which is why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had coveted the Gray as a wildlife refuge for decades. Indeed, in the 1980s, a similar-sized ranch in southern Arizona, called the Buenos Aires, was purchased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the same Mexican millionaire who owned the Gray Ranch. This time, however, the financial terrain was different, and TNC was needed to broker a deal, which it did at a high financial cost to the organization. No matter—TNC had every intention of quickly reselling the Gray Ranch to the federal government and recouping its investment.

Except the transfer never took place.

When local residents heard of the Gray’s purchase and pending resale to the federal government, they raised vigorous objections. Going first to their elected representatives and then to the media, their opposition became front-page news across the West, and for a reason: it fit a changing mood in the region. Across the West, pushback against federalism and environmentalism had been gathering steam, often expressed noisily as an exercise of private property-rights. It was more complicated than that, of course, but the bottom line was the same: push had come to shove in the rural West. The Animas-area residents raised three objections to what TNC was trying to accomplish: (1) the Gray was still a working cattle ranch and thus a tax-paying, cowboy-hiring member of the local economy, and residents wanted it to stay that way; (2) a wildlife refuge would destroy the cultural and historical significance of the Gray, which was part of the historic Diamond A ranch, one of the area’s legendary operations; and (3) it was time to stop this pattern of transferring private land to the federal government.

It was this latter point that made the headlines.

Local residents took their complaints directly to TNC officials where, to their surprise, they found a sympathetic reception. That’s because TNC was hearing similar complaints in other places around the West. It gave the organization pause—not simply because they didn’t like controversy, but because TNC had always considered itself to be a cooperative conservation group. Their method was to buy land and easements from willing sellers, to work collaboratively with government agencies, and to create deals that benefitted people and nature while keeping a low profile. But local residents disagreed, saying TNC was not being cooperative—not with them, anyway. The complaints stung, causing TNC to ask itself an important question: could it accomplish its scientifically guided conservation goals while maintaining the Gray Ranch as a privately owned working cattle ranch? And perhaps just as importantly: could it find a conservation buyer who would help them recoup their substantial financial stake in the property?

The answer to both questions proved to be “yes.”

In 1993, the Nature Conservancy sold the Gray Ranch to Drum Hadley, a local rancher who also happened to be an heir to the Budweiser beer fortune. After the sale, Hadley and members of his family created the Animas Foundation, named for the nearest town, to manage the ranch for conservation as well as community goals. That seemed like a contradiction to many environmentalists, who subsequently objected to TNC’s new plan, though to no avail. It all added up to a new approach toward conservation. Success would require that TNC, the Gray Ranch, local residents, and public agencies effectively cooperate together. To that end, a year later, TNC and the Animas Foundation became charter members of the Malpai Borderlands Group, a pioneering collaborative partnership of ranchers, conservationists, and government agencies in the region—setting the stage for the next wave of conservation in the West.

The third wave faded for two reasons mainly: first, the benefits of a protection paradigm, whether science based or not, grew less effective over time as environmental troubles diversified. Climate change, for instance, largely defies the paradigm—what does “protection” mean under rising temperatures, water scarcity, and climatic disorder? Piecemeal protection also exposed the paradigm’s limitations as subdivision developments boomed across the West. TNC and other organizations were confronted with a growing dilemma: What benefit is there in buying a large property for protection purposes if the neighboring ranches sell out to a subdivider, thus fragmenting the surrounding land? Also, the top-down approach of the third wave, which shared a command-and-control philosophy with federalism and environmentalism, met increasing resistance from bottom-up groups, limiting its effectiveness. Locals wanted to be heard and involved now. Directives by outsiders, no matter how well-meaning, provoked pushback among the grassroots.

Second, this wave failed to develop a viable economic program to go along with its protection paradigm. While supportive of working landscapes, it struggled to help local residents find paychecks in conservation-friendly enterprises. For example, while TNC could afford to manage its own land without a profit motive, it had great difficulty finding an economic strategy that would keep its neighbors in business (and thus keep “For Sale” signs from appearing). As the subdivision crisis in rural counties heated up in the 1990s, TNC realized that it could not buy all the critical land needed to protect species. There simply wasn’t enough money. Nor would conservation easements complete the job. Some sort of conservation economy would be necessary—other than tourism and recreation. To this end, TNC tried a variety of economic strategies, including a “Conservation Beef” pilot project in Montana, but it wasn’t enough. Despite TNC’s success, it became clear to many that in order to accomplish the landscape-scale effort needed to help species and local people, especially if it involved public lands, a new approach would be required, one that featured partnerships and profits.

IMG_2469Members of a collaborative nonprofit in northern Montana

The Fourth Wave

In 1991, the Forest Service extinguished a five-hundred-acre fire burning on private land along a stretch of the remote Geronimo Trail Road, located in the southeastern corner of Arizona. On the surface, it was an unremarkable event—the Forest Service had long reacted to wildfires with the same response: put it out. Period. Except this fire proved to be different. The local ranchers did not want it extinguished, agreeing with scientists that fire had an important role to play in ecosystem health. They asked the federal government to let the fire burn, arguing that it posed no appreciable threat to life or property. The landowner was supportive too; in fact, he had thinned the overgrown brush recently in order to create the right conditions for fire’s return. But the Forest Service didn’t listen. It put the fire out over all protest. This routine act, however, ignited the community into action. “No more,” it said aloud. Consequently, within three years, the nonprofit Malpai Borderlands Group was born. They were determined to do things differently within the nearly one-million-acre borderland they called home. They decided to give collaboration a try.

It was a similar story around the West at the time. When a federal judge shut down logging in old-growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest in 1991 in response to a lawsuit by environmentalists over the spotted owl, it ignited a storm of protest in rural communities. It also lit two small, but important, bonfires of change. The first was in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon, where a small coalition of activists, loggers, and Forest Service personnel met for potluck suppers and peacemaking. The second was a similar group that met in the only place they considered neutral in the logging-dependent town of Quincy in Northern California—the public library. The goal of both groups was the same: better forest management through collaboration, not confrontation.

In Montana, the Malpai Borderlands Group quickly inspired two groups of ranchers to give collaboration a try, one in the Blackfoot River Valley northeast of Missoula, and the other in the Madison Valley, northwest of Yellowstone National Park. Like Malpai, residents in both valleys grappled with a host of challenges, including the threat of land fragmentation due to subdivisions, curtailment of livelihoods due to endangered species regulations, and changing demographic trends. Instead of fighting the future, however, they chose to link arms with conservationists, scientists, and agency employees with the goal of making progress where it mattered: on the ground. It wasn’t easy, especially in the beginning. In many places, trust had to be rebuilt or created; in others, key players wouldn’t come to the table. This changed over time, however, as people began to see genuine results. The process was messy, difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating, but it worked.

One name for this new wave is the “radical center”—a term coined by rancher Bill McDonald of the Malpai Borderlands Group. It was radical because it challenged various orthodoxies at work at the time, including the belief of environmentalists that conservation and ranching were part of a zero-sum game—that one could only advance if the other retreated. The “center” referred to the pragmatic middle ground between extremes. It meant partnerships, respect, and trust. But most of all, the center meant action—a plan signed, a prescribed fire lit, a workshop held, a hand shook. Words were nice, but working in the radical center really meant walking the walk.

II know because I did a lot of the walking myself.IMG_4186Collaborative restoration project on Comanche Creek, New Mexico

The fourth wave drew strength from the first three waves, while filling in blanks and correcting important deficiencies. It aimed to protect open space and wildlife, valued working landscapes, incorporated public lands, employed ecology and other sciences, and required trust and fairness. But it also strove toward economic realities, often by exploring and promoting the diversification of business enterprises on private lands.

In doing this work, the fourth wave emphasized profits along with protection, arguing persuasively—as Aldo Leopold tried to do years earlier—that good stewardship flowed from ethical and regenerative attitudes toward land, business, and people. Profit could be a force for conservation, the fourth wave said, not against it, as so many environmental activists had insisted. The proof was in the pudding of these early collaborative efforts: conservation and capitalism (of the local sort) worked effectively side-by-side across the West. The keys were partnerships and dialogue—handshakes and countless meetings. It all led to a rapid expansion of collaboratives of varying stripes in the late 1990s, including the formation of many watershed-based nonprofit organizations. The radical center united, rather than divided.

One area where it worked best was ecological restoration. Ecology had led to a deeper understanding of land sickness—to use Leopold’s term—and what to do to restore forests, rangelands, and riparian areas back to health. Ranchers, conservationists, agency personnel, and others began to implement these ideas in pilot projects around the region, including the use of livestock to control noxious weeds, riparian and upland restoration work for water-quality and wildlife-habitat improvement, tackling forest overgrowth through thinning and prescribed fire, and repairing and upgrading low-standard roads in order to restore natural hydrological cycles. Success, however, required cooperation among multiple stakeholders, particularly across private/public and urban/rural divides.

For all its success, however, the fourth wave will too, in time, begin to fade. As the wave evolved from its gridlock-breaking and peacemaking roots into an effort that has brought ecological and economic health to the region and its people, the world evolved too, bringing with it new challenges and opportunities. In short, the times are changing again, especially as we enter into a period of increased climate instability and economic stress.

NY 015Severine von Tscharner Fleming

The Fifth Wave

I traveled up New York’s Hudson Valley to visit a young leader of the emerging agrarian movement by the name of Severine von Tscharner Fleming. I had met Severine a few times before, and I knew her to be an astonishingly energetic and successful advocate for young farmers like herself. For starters, in 2007, she founded the Greenhorns, a nonprofit organization that has become an influential grassroots network dedicated to recruiting and supporting young farmers and ranchers. Severine also cofounded the National Young Farmers Coalition, manages a weekly radio show on Heritage Radio Network, writes a popular blog, speaks at countless conferences, and organizes endlessly via the Web. And she’s a farmer too.

Severine told me young people are inspired to get into farming for a wide variety of reasons. It starts typically with a journey through apprenticeships and internships as each young farmer discovers which parts of a farming life he or she wishes to pursue, followed by hard work to gain proficiency in, say, carpentry, horse wrangling, or irrigation system maintenance, without going into debt, and usually before starting a family.

Who are these young farmers? According to Severine, most are from cities and suburbs—thus the “greenhorn” moniker—and many come from the social justice or food poverty movements. Another portal is the Food Corps, which is a project of AmeriCorps and places young people in food-oriented jobs, often building school gardens. Many young farmers attended farms when they were kids or went on field trips to local farms through their elementary schools. A few participated in 4-H, though not as many as one might think, she said. The educational backgrounds of young farmers today varies widely, including engineering, public health, computer science, literature, anthropology, and earth science, but the decision to go into farming after examining all the options is the same: to live a life with dignity and purpose and have a positive impact on the community.

“We’ll seize opportunities to buy inexpensive battered pastures and compacted soils,” she said at a conference, “and then heal those lands using good land stewardship techniques. We’ll reclaim territory from commodity crops and try our best not to churn or ruin our own soils while we build up enough capital to stop rototilling. We’ll process our own darn chickens and build our own darn websites. We are just as stubborn and innovative as farmers have always been.”

According to the USDA Agricultural Census, the number of young people farming in the U.S. is on the rise. Though it is still a minority of the tiny minority of Americans who are farmers, it reinforces the argument that a movement is growing, called by many a New Agrarianism.

What does “agrarian” mean exactly? In Latin it means “pertaining to land.” My dictionary defines it as relating to fields and their tenure or to farmers and their way of life. Berry broadens this definition, calling it a way of thought based on land—a set of practices and attitudes, a loyalty and a passion. It is simultaneously a culture and an economy, he says, both of which are inescapably local—local nature and local people combined into “a practical and enduring harmony.” The antithesis of agrarianism is industrialism, which Berry says is a way of thought based on capital and technology, not nature. Industrialism is an economy first and foremost, and if it has any culture, it is “an accidental by-product of the ubiquitous effort to sell unnecessary products for more than they are worth.”

An agrarian economy, in contrast, rises up from the soils, fields, woods, streams, rangelands, hills, mountains, backyards, and rooftops. It embraces the coexistences and interrelationships that form the heart of resilient local communities and local watersheds. It fits the farming to the farm and the forestry to the forest. For Berry, the agrarian mind is not regional, national, or global, but local. It must know intimately the local plants and animals and local soils; it must know local possibilities and impossibilities. It insists that we should not begin work until we have looked and seen where we are; it knows that nature is the “pattern-maker for the human use of the earth,” as he describes it, and that we should honor nature not only as our mother, but as our teacher and judge.FSKA11-2010 084Rancher Tom Sidwell on his restore grassland, eastern New Mexico

I first ran across the term New Agrarianism in 2003 in a book of essays on the topic collected and edited by Eric Freyfogle, a law professor at the University of Illinois. The term resonated with me because it described exactly what I was seeing on the land. In fact, I could have used Freyfogle’s own words from his essay “A Durable Scale” to describe my experience. “Within the conservation movement,” he wrote, “the New Agrarianism offers useful guiding images of humans living and working on land in ways that can last. In related reform movements, it can supply ideas to help rebuild communities and foster greater virtue. In all settings, agrarian practices can stimulate hope for more joyful living, healthier families, and more contented, centered lives.”

In his essay, Freyfogle produced a list of New Agrarians that was spot on:

  • The community-supported agriculture group that links local food buyers and food growers into a partnership, one that sustains farmers economically, promotes ecologically sound farm practices, and gives city dwellers a known source of wholesome food.
  • The woodlot owner who develops a sustainable harvesting plan for his timber, aiding the local economy while maintaining a biologically diverse forest.
  • The citizen-led, locally based watershed restoration effort that promotes land uses consistent with a river’s overall health and beauty.
  • The individual family, rural or suburban, that meets its food needs largely through gardens and orchards, on its own land or on shared neighborhood plots, attempting always to aid wildlife and enhance the soil.
  • The farmer who radically reduces a farm’s chemical use, cuts back subsurface drainage, diversifies crops and rotations, and carefully tailors farm practices to suit the land.
  • The family—urban, suburban, or rural—that embraces new modes of living to reduce its overall consumption, to integrate its work and leisure in harmonious ways, and to add substance to its ties with neighbors.
  • The artist who helps residents connect aesthetically to surrounding lands.

The faith-driven religious group that takes seriously, in practical ways, its duty to nourish and care for its natural inheritance.

  • The motivated citizens everywhere who, alone and in concert, work to build stable, sustainable urban neighborhoods; to repair blighted ditches; to stimulate government practices that conserve lands and enhance lives; and in dozens of other ways to translate agrarian values into daily life.

To this list I could add from my recent research:

  • The carbon farmer or rancher who explores and shares strategies that sequester CO2 in soils and plants, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and produces cobenefits that build ecological and economic resilience in local landscapes.

Freyfogle shares Berry’s belief that agrarianism is the proper countervailing force to industrialism and its surfeit of sins, including water pollution, soil loss, resource consumption, and the radical disruption of plant and wildlife populations—the focus of the earlier waves of conservation. Freyfogle goes on to add broader anxieties: the declining sense of community; the separation of work and leisure; the shoddiness of mass-produced goods; the decline of the household economy; the alienation of children from the natural world; the fragmentation of neighborhoods and communities; and a gnawing dissatisfaction with core aspects of our modern culture, particularly the hedonistic, self-centered values and perspectives that control so much of our lives now.

In contrast to these negative attributes of modern life, the new agrarianism is first and foremost about living a life of positive energy and joy, says Freyfogle. Nature is the foundation of this joy, but so are the skills necessary to live a life. At its best, the agrarian life is an integrated whole, with work and leisure mixed together, undertaken under healthful conditions and surrounded by family.

“When all the pieces of the agrarian life come together,” Freyfogle wrote, “nutrition and health, beauty, leisure, manners and morals, satisfying labor, economic security, family and neighbors, and a spiritual peacefulness—we have what agrarians define as the good life.”

And it is to this good life that the fifth wave aspires.

Published in The Age of Consequences (Counterpoint Press) see:


The Fifth Wave (Part I)

[Chapter 25 of The Age of the Consequences]

“All things alike do their work, and then we see them subside. When they have reached their bloom, each returns to its origin . . . This reversion is an eternal law. To know that law is wisdom.” —Lao-Tsu

The First Wave

In the fall of 1909, twenty-two-year-old Aldo Leopold rode away from the ranger station in Springerville, Arizona, on his inaugural assignment with the newly created United States Forest Service. For this Midwesterner, an avid hunter freshly graduated from the prestigious Yale School of Forestry, the mountainous wilderness that stretched out before him must have felt both thrilling and portentous. In fact, events over the ensuing weeks, including his role in the killing of two timber wolves—immortalized nearly forty years later in his essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” from A Sand County Almanac—would influence Leopold’s lifelong conservation philosophy in important ways. The deep thinking would come later, however. In 1909, Leopold’s primary goal was to be a good forester, which is why he chose to participate in a radical experiment at the time: the control and conservation of natural resources by the federal government.

aldo-leopold-with-horse                    Aldo Leopold as a new Forest Service ranger in the Southwest

Beginning in 1783, the policy of the federal government encouraged the disposal of public lands to private citizens and commercial interests including retired soldiers, homesteaders, railroad conglomerates, mining interests, and anyone else willing to fulfill America’s much-trumpeted manifest destiny. However, this policy began to change in 1872, when President Ulysses Grant signed a bill creating the world’s first national park—Yellowstone—launching the U.S. government down a new path: retention and protection of some federal land on behalf of all Americans.

In 1891, four years after Leopold’s birth, this trend accelerated when Congress created the national forest reserve system, which protected large swaths of valuable timberland from development. These reserves were renamed national forests and were dramatically increased in size in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, who burned the midnight oil with Gifford Pinchot, his visionary secretary of agriculture. Three years earlier, Roosevelt had created the first national wildlife refuge—Pelican Island—in southern Louisiana.

These parks, forests, refuges, and monuments (the latter created by the Antiquities Act of 1906) were part of an audacious conservation philosophy that emphasized state and federal control and scientific management of natural resources. For Pinchot and other leaders in the budding conservation movement, the need for a new approach could be summed up in one word: scarcity. Take timber, for instance. Appalled by the razing of the great white pine forests of the upper Midwest by private industry after the Civil War, Congress created the forest reserve system and gave it the mission of conserving valuable timberlands for future national needs.

It was a mission vigorously supported by Pinchot, who believed that a nation’s natural resources should serve the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens. This new conservation philosophy was captured in the U.S. Forest Service’s first field manual: “Forest Reserves are for the purpose of preserving a perpetual supply of timber for home industries, preventing destruction of the forest cover, which regulates the flow of streams, and protecting local industries from unfair competition in the use of forest and range. They are patrolled and protected, at Government expense, for the benefit of the Community and home builder.”

Reversing resource scarcity and arresting the associated land degradation would now be the job of government.


Meanwhile, scarcity of a different sort motivated John Muir, an itinerant mountain lover and amateur geologist from Scotland. Worried about the loss of wildness and beauty to development, Muir campaigned vigorously for the creation of national parks and monuments, adding his voice to what quickly became a chorus of support for the protection of wilderness, wildlife, and natural wonders for nonutilitarian purposes. It worked. The national park system expanded from two dozen units in 1916—the year Congress created the National Park Service—to over four hundred only eight decades later. The federal role in the West continued to expand after World War II, when the vast public rangelands were organized into the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In 1964, Congress added an additional layer of protection with the passage of the Wilderness Act, which ensured that roadless areas on public lands would remain “untrammeled” for generations to come.

It was all part of the first wave of conservation, which I’ll call federalism.

These were heady days for professionals such as Leopold, but also exciting times for day-trippers and vacationers across the nation, newly liberated by rising affluence and declining prices of automobiles. Recreation quickly took its place alongside resource protection as part of the mission of federal land agencies. Starting in the 1920s, America embraced its parks and forests with fervor as citizens hit the roads in rising numbers. In the process, a benevolent and ever-helpful “Ranger Rick” became synonymous with the U.S. government in the public’s eyes.

Meanwhile, the nation’s embrace of the great outdoors had an important collateral effect: federalism as a conservation philosophy began to extend beyond land ownership and management to the belief that governmental regulation of the environment was needed in order to protect citizens from harm. Thanks to pressure from activists, more and more regulatory work was assigned to the federal government over the decades, culminating in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1969 and a raft of historic environmental legislation in the early 1970s.

Federalism, it seemed, was destined to keep rolling ashore.

Today, however, it is clear that this first wave of conservation has faded. In retrospect, its apogee as an effective conservation strategy in the West was reached in the early 1950s, just prior to the eruption of major controversies involving the government’s dam-building program on the Colorado River and its over-harvesting of timber on our national forests—controversies that began to sour the public on some of our federal agencies.

This souring mood grew during the 1960s and 1970s as activists fought the government over hard-rock mining, cattle grazing, and endangered species protection on public lands, causing many urban residents to shift their view of federal agencies from the good guys to the bad guys. It was a shift shared by many rural residents, who began to view the government as captive of urban interests, environmental activists especially. As a result, federal employees began to find themselves in the crossfire of an increasingly rancorous struggle between activists and rural residents across the West. It added up to one conclusion: federalism as an effective conservation strategy was fading away.Copy of Clearcutting-Oregon Clear cut on national forest in Oregon

That’s not to say the idea of public land staled—the democratic ideal represented by public ownership of Western lands is still strong. What has changed is the government’s ability to do conservation effectively. It has faded in recent years for a variety of reasons, including shrinking budgets, reduced personnel, increased public demands, a bevy of conflicting laws and regulations, and the rising hostility of political interests. But the conservative and conformist nature of bureaucracies had a role too. Over time, a resistance to innovation grew among the agencies, as did a certain degree of arrogance. Toss in a lack of synchronicity with the times, as public opinions changed and new ideas came along, and by the 1970s, the result was increased ineffectualness.

Not that federalism didn’t try to evolve with the times. Over the years, it embraced a variety of new conservation concepts, including wilderness protection, sustained yield, adaptive management, endangered species protection, an ecosystem approach, and so on. But none of them altered the fact that what had once been federalism’s chief asset—its role as a buffer between nature and its exploiters—had by the 1970s become its chief liability: it now stood between the land and innovation.

I experienced this firsthand with Quivira’s work with federal land agencies, including our promotion of progressive livestock management, our direction of riparian restoration projects, and our operation of the only public lands grassbank in the West (where Quivira became a Forest Service livestock permittee). I’ll cite three examples. First, it became clear that the default position of agencies on anything out of the box was “no”—no to this idea, no to that activity; no, you can’t do this; no, you can’t do that. Getting to “yes” wasn’t impossible with the agencies, but their regulatory mandates, musical-chair personnel changes, and ever-rising workloads make getting to “yes” a time-consuming, expensive, and very frustrating process for potential partners. It is much simpler for the federal agencies to say “no.”

Second, there were few positive internal incentives for agency employees to try anything new. In fact, disincentives abounded, including the perpetual threat of lawsuits by watchdog groups. Innovating within the system is rarely rewarded and sometimes punished. Thinking out of the box might mean getting pushed out of your job. There is less stress for employees if they act by the book—which often made partners feel like they were talking to a stone wall.

Third, there is a culture of command and control within the federal agencies, the Forest Service especially, that discouraged partnerships and innovation. Agencies often have the last word on a project, and they know it. This means that when they enter into a collaborative effort, the partnership is unequal. The agencies have the ability to shut things down, and all it takes is one person in a position of power. Throw in the inevitable change of leadership among line officers every three to four years, and the risk of “no” rises substantially. For example, of the approximately twenty Forest Service employees involved in the creation of the grassbank in 1998, nineteen had moved to new jobs within five years, essentially orphaning the project from the government’s perspective.

It all adds up to an ineffective Status Quo on public lands today. The trouble is that in the twenty-first century, the Status Quo isn’t really an option anymore. Managing land for climate change, for instance, will require rapid, flexible, and innovative responses—a tall order for federal agencies. To their credit, agencies sense this and are trying to find ways to respond, but reform, innovation, and breaking gridlock look largely out of their reach now. Perhaps federalism will reinvent itself, gather strength, and rise again as a new wave of conservation. I hope so. There is still a big need for federal oversight and expertise, and the idea of public land ownership is an important one in a democracy.

Mt Timpanogos, Uinta National Forest, UtahOur public lands

The Second Wave

The next wave of conservation in the American West is what we today call environmentalism. The early stirrings can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century as the destructive effects of the Industrial Revolution began visibly to impact the natural world, especially wildlife populations. Early prophets included Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, and John Muir. A vocal advocate for federalism, Muir also played a key role in the development of the second wave when he founded the Sierra Club in San Francisco in 1892. Initially a hiking and camping association for outdoor enthusiasts, the Sierra Club quickly drew activists into its fold, no doubt inspired by Muir’s relentless campaign to protect Yosemite National Park from a proposed dam in Hetch Hetchy Valley (a dam that Gifford Pinchot enthusiastically supported). Although Muir lost the fight, his defeat propelled the Club and other budding conservation organizations to become vigilant in defense of the nation’s parks, forests, and refuges—and to keep a watchful eye on the federal agencies entrusted to protect them.

Muir_and_Roosevelt_restored President Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite

As the nation’s love affair with the great outdoors took off, conservation groups swelled with new members and advocates, beginning a period of vigorous activity, including a highly public fight in 1955 to stop another dam project, this one located in Echo Park, deep inside Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. Led by the Sierra Club’s president, David Brower, an avid mountain climber, the conservation community set itself squarely against Congress and the federal government in a high-stakes showdown. It won. The dam was never built. Riding the momentum of this victory, the second wave swelled in 1963 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which propelled activists into the arena of human health and industrial pollution, transforming the conservation movement into what today is simply called environmentalism.

There are two principle reasons why this movement grew large and effective: (1) it built on the strengths of federalism while confronting its weaknesses, and (2) it synchronized itself with the rapidly changing times, including changing demographics, embracing new ideas and values, and putting them to work effectively.

S5049-lgAutomobile camping in Yellowstone

Although the early phase of the second wave was consonant with the goals of federalism, especially the push to create new parks and monuments, as early as the 1930s, it started to have doubts about governmental effectiveness. Led by Aldo Leopold, who had left Forest Service employment in 1924, conservationists began to question the ability of agencies in the wake of the Dust Bowl to implement what Leopold later dubbed a “land ethic.” Some government programs worked, but many did not, especially after the positive incentives they employed (direct payments to landowners, technical assistance, etc.) ended. That left many agencies holding the “stick” approach to conservation, rather than the “carrot.” However, Leopold came to believe that both approaches were ineffective in the long run because a land ethic needed to come from the heart, not a bureau. He urged the conservation movement to lift its sights to change America’s ethics, not just its policies.

Activists responded vigorously to Leopold’s call, and environmentalism swelled, especially as America’s economy rocketed into the stratosphere after World War II. They began by pushing federal agencies to adopt higher environmental standards. Activists raised alarms, for example, when the Forest Service embarked on a vast timber-cutting program in the 1950s that included widespread clear-cuts. They also criticized the BLM for its poor oversight of livestock grazing and hard-rock mining on public lands and they maintained their struggle with the Bureau of Reclamation, winning a widely publicized fight to stop two dams in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They also criticized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its inadequate oversight of endangered species, and they even turned up the heat on the National Park Service, which they thought was dragging its feet on wilderness designation.

In this work, the second wave both shaped public opinion concerning environmental protection as well as followed its lead. In the mid-1960s, a series of natural disasters and slow-boil crises caught the public’s attention, including smog in big cities, toxic-waste dumps, oil spills, rivers catching on fire, urban sprawl, and a growing concern about nuclear power. The consequence of this rising concern was the passage of a raft of federal legislation in the early 1970s aimed at ensuring clean air, clean water, endangered species protection, wild and scenic river designation, and an open planning process for the management of public land.

Environmentalism also tapped into changes on the economic front out West, as recreation and tourism became significant engines of prosperity—a development that would eventually be called the “New West.” It was a booming amenity-based economy that emphasized recreation (hiking, fishing, biking) over traditional forms of work (mining, logging, farming, cattle ranching). However, the denigration of work in favor of play, especially on public lands, led to numerous clashes with rural residents, many of whom staunchly opposed this new economy. Feelings on both sides hardened during the 1980s, causing environmentalists to dig in and redouble their efforts, which proved successful on many fronts.

In reality, it was a sign of the wave’s inevitable fading.

6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e54f2506458834-800wi              Rate of species extinction globally since 1700

Today, despite environmentalism’s continued hard work, high profile, and large memberships, it is clear that the movement is no longer an effective conservation strategy in the West. Two important metrics support this observation: (1) the continued steady decline of animal and plant species populations and their habitats around the planet, and (2) a steady loss of interest in nature and outdoor activities among Americans, especially the younger generation, a trend with alarming ramifications for both nature and people—a condition that author Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Environmentalism didn’t cause these two developments, of course, but it has become increasingly ineffective at reversing, or even curbing, them.

There are three primary reasons why.

The first is author and farmer Wendell Berry’s long-standing criticism that environmentalism never developed an economic program to go along with its preservation and health programs. It had no economic retort, in other words, for industrialism. It never truly confronted our economy, the source of most environmental ills, and without an effective alternative, the average American had no choice but to participate in a destructive model of economic growth. I saw this played out during my time in the Sierra Club, where I learned that most activists considered environmental problems to have environmental solutions, ignoring their economic sources. This meant we spent too much time and energy on symptoms instead of causes. Aldo Leopold flagged this problem decades earlier when he cautioned us against trying to “fix the pump without fixing the well.” We didn’t heed his advice, and for fifty years, we focused our attention on the pump while the well began to run dry.

Many environmentalists might argue, in contrast, that they did have an economic agenda: tourism and recreation. This is true—and for a while, the benefits of both looked generous. But over time, recreation and its associated side effects—congestion, exurban sprawl, transitory populations—began to take on darker hues and may have even made the situation worse. As the twenty-first century progresses, with its concerns about climate change, carbon footprints, oil depletion, food miles, and sustainability in general, an economy based on tourism looks increasingly shaky.

Second, environmentalism is ebbing because it left the land behind. The movement lost the feeling of “the soil between our toes,” as Leopold put it, meaning it lost an intimate understanding of how land actually works. As a result, it lost what Leopold described as the role of individual responsibility for the health of the land. “Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal,” he wrote, and “conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” But by losing the feel of soil between our toes, the movement missed the opportunity to understand, and thus preserve, land health—the foundation on which all health depends.

For example, I learned early in my work with Quivira that while activists and others could recognize poor land use, such as overgrazing, and rightly worked to correct it, they lost an understanding of good land use, particularly those for-profit activities such as logging and ranching that could be conducted sustainably. Instead, as the movement drifted away from land, it began to equate non-use with the highest and best use of land, especially on the public domain. The exception was recreation, of course, though it has become increasingly clear that as far as twenty-first-century challenges go, play can’t handle the weight.

Third, the environmental movement never really walked the walk of a land ethic. While trumpeting Leopold’s famous call to enlarge our ethical sphere to include plants and animals, environmentalists ignored his insistence that people and their economic activities be included too. “There is only one soil, one flora, one fauna, and one people, and hence only one conservation problem,” Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac. “Economic and esthetic land uses can and must be integrated, usually on the same acre.” Or this from his essay, “The Ecological Conscience”: “A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community, and the community includes the soil, waters, fauna, and flora, as well as people.”

A land ethic encompassed it all. But environmentalists didn’t heed Leopold’s advice. Instead, many engaged in a form of environmental isolationism. Work was segregated from nature, and nature was largely confined to parks, wildernesses, refuges, and other types of protected areas. Not only was there no attempt to integrate people into nature economically under this preservationist paradigm, but an energetic effort was made by some activists to curtail certain land uses, such as ranching, whether they maintained the integrity, stability, and beauty of the community or not. The land, in their minds, had to be saved apart from the people, and their pitch to the public emphasized dehumanized landscapes—pretty pictures of wild country and charismatic wildlife. In general, while activists were quick to invoke Leopold in their campaigns to save this or that, they ignored his holistic view that “bread and beauty grow best together.”

In its time, environmentalism accomplished an astonishing amount, and the world has benefitted immensely from its diligent efforts. As with federalism, however, it reached its “bloom” and began to fade away.

To be continued…IMG_3023 The working wilderness

For more on Courtney’s writing see:

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The Working Wilderness

[An excerpt from Chapter 18 of my book The Age of Consequences]

During a conservation tour of the well-managed U Bar Ranch near Silver City, New Mexico, I was asked to say a few words about a map a friend had recently given to me.

We were taking a break in the shade of a large piñon tree, and I rose a bit reluctantly (the day being hot and the shade being deep) to explain that the map was commissioned by an alliance of ranchers concerned about the creep of urban sprawl into the five-hundred-thousand-acre Altar Valley, located southwest of Tucson, Arizona. What was different about this map, I told them, was what it measured: indicators of rangeland health, such as grass cover (positive) and bare soil (negative), and what they might tell us about livestock management in arid environments.

What was important about the map, I continued, was what it said about a large watershed. Drawn up in multiple colors, the map expressed the intersection of three variables: soil stability, biotic integrity, and hydrological function—soil, grass, and water, in other words. The map displayed three conditions for each variable—“Stable,” “At Risk,” and “Unstable”—with a color representing a particular intersection of conditions. Deep red designated an unstable, or unhealthy, condition for soil, grass (vegetation), and water, for example, while deep green represented stability in all three. Other colors represented conditions between these extremes.

In the middle of the map was a privately owned ranch called the Palo Alto. Visiting it recently, I told them, I had been shocked by its condition. It had been overgrazed by cattle to the point of being nearly “cowburnt,” to use author Ed Abbey’s famous phrase. As one might expect, the Palo Alto’s color on the map was blood red, and there was plenty of it.

I paused briefly—now came the controversial part. This big splotch of blood red continued well below the southern boundary of the Palo Alto, I said. However, this was not a ranch, but part of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, a large chunk of protected land that had been cattle-free for nearly sixteen years.

That was as far as I got. Taking offense at the suggestion that the refuge might be ecologically unfit, a young woman from Tucson cut me off. She knew the refuge, she explained, having worked hard as a volunteer with an environmental organization to help “heal” it from decades of abuse by cows.

The map did not blame anyone for current conditions, I responded; nor did it offer opinions on any particular remedy. All it did was ask a simple question: Is the land functioning properly at the fundamental level of soil, grass, and water? For a portion of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, the answer was “no.” For portions of the adjacent privately owned ranches, which were deep green on the map, the answer was “yes.”

Why was that a problem?

I knew why. I strayed too closely to a core belief of my fellow conservationists—that protected areas, such as national parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges, must always be rated, by definition, as being in better ecological condition than adjacent “working” landscapes.

Yet the Altar Valley map challenged this paradigm at a basic level, and when the tour commenced again on a ranch that would undoubtedly encompass more deep greens than deep reds on a similar map, I saw in the reaction of the young activist a reason to rethink the conservation movement in the American West.

From the ground up.   Here’s the map:


Here’s a view of the ranch:


Here’s a view of the wildlife refuge:


My decision received a boost a few weeks later while sitting around a campfire after a tour of the beautiful one-hundred-thousand-acre CS Ranch located in northeastern New Mexico. Staring into the flames, I found myself thinking about ethics. I believed at the time, as do many conservationists, that the chore of ending overgrazing by cattle in the West was a matter of getting ranchers to adopt an ecological ethic along the lines that Aldo Leopold suggested in his famous essay “The Land Ethic,” where he argued that humans had a moral obligation to be good stewards of nature.

The question, it seemed to me, was how to accomplish this lofty goal.

I decided to ask Julia Davis-Stafford, our host, for advice. Years earlier, Julia and her sister Kim talked their family into switching to holistic management of the land, a decision that over time caused the ranch to flourish economically and ecologically. In fact, the idea for my query came earlier that day when I couldn’t decide which was more impressive: the sight of a new beaver dam on the ranch or Julia’s strong support for its presence.

The Davis family, it seemed to me, had embraced Leopold’s land ethic big time. So, over the crackle of the campfire, I asked Julia, “How do we get other ranchers to change their ethics too?”

Her answer altered everything I had been thinking up until that moment.

“We didn’t change our ethics,” she replied. “We’re the same people we were fifteen years ago. What changed was our knowledge. We went back to school, in a sense, and we came back to the ranch with new ideas.”

Knowledge and ethics, neither without the other, I suddenly saw, are the key to good land stewardship. Her point confirmed what I had observed during visits to livestock operations across the region: many ranchers do have an environmental ethic, as they have claimed for so long. Often their ethic is a powerful one. But it has to be matched with new knowledge—especially ecological knowledge—so that an operation can adjust to meet changing conditions, both on the ground and in the arena of public opinion. Of course, a willingness on the part of a rancher to “go back to school” is a prerequisite to gaining new insights. Tradition, however, seemed to have a lock on many ranchers.

The same thing is true of many conservationists. In the years since I cofounded the Quivira Coalition, I came to the conclusion that it had been a long time since any of us had been back to school ourselves. Tradition was just as much an obstacle in the environmental community as it was in agriculture. It wasn’t just the persistence of various degrees of bovine bigotry among activists, despite examples of healthy, grazed landscape like the U Bar, either. It was more a stubbornness about the relation between humans and nature—they should be kept as far apart as possible—expressed in the long-standing dualism of environmentalism that said recreation and play in nature were preferable to work and use.

If conservationists went back to school, as the Davis family did, what could we learn? Aldo Leopold had a suggestion that can help us today: study the fundamental principle of land health, which he described as “the capacity of the land for self-renewal,” with conservation being “our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

By studying the elements of land health, especially as they change over time, conservationists could learn that grazing is a natural process. The consumption of grass by ungulates in North America has been going on for millions of years—not by cattle, of course, but by bison, elk, and deer (and grasshoppers, rabbits, and even ants)—resulting in a complex relationship between grass and grazer that is ecologically self-renewing. We could learn that a re-creation of this relationship with domesticated cattle lies at the heart of the new ranching movement, which is why many progressive ranchers think of themselves as “grass farmers” instead of beef producers.

We could also learn that many landscapes need periodic pulses of energy, in the form of natural disturbance—such as fires and floods (but not the catastrophic kind)—to keep things ecologically vibrant. Many conservationists know that low-intensity fires are a beneficial form of disturbance in ecosystems because they reduce tree density, burn up old grass, and aid nutrient cycling in the soil. But many of us don’t know that small flood events can be positive agents of change too, as can drought, windstorms, and even insect infestation. Or that animal impact caused by grazers, including cattle, can be a beneficial form of disturbance.

We could further learn, as the Davis family did, that the key to healthy disturbance with cattle is to control the timing, intensity, and frequency of their impact on the land. The CS, and other progressive ranches, bunch their cattle together and keep them on the move, rotating the animals frequently through numerous pastures. Ideally, under this system, no single piece of ground is grazed by cattle more than once a year, thus ensuring plenty of time for the plants to recover.

The keys are regulating where cattle go, which can be done with fencing or a herder, and the timing of their movement, in which the herd moves are carefully planned and monitored. In fact, as many ranchers have learned, overgrazing is more a function of timing than it is of numbers of cattle. For example, imagine the impact 365 cows would have in one day of grazing in one small pasture versus what one cow would do in 365 days of grazing in the same pasture. Which is more likely to be overgrazed? Hint: have you ever seen what a backyard lot looks like after a single horse has grazed it for a whole year?

We could also learn, as I did, that much of the damage we see today on the land is historical—a legacy of the “boom years” of cattle grazing in the West. Between 1880 and 1920, millions of hungry animals roamed uncontrolled across the range, and the overgrazing they caused was so extensive, and so alarming, that by 1910, the U.S. government was already setting up programs to slow and to heal the damage. Today, cattle numbers are down, way down, from historic highs—a fact not commonly voiced in the heat of the cattle debate.

A willingness to adopt new knowledge allowed the Davis family to maintain their ethic yet stay in business. Not only did it improve their bottom line; it also helped them meet evolving values in society, such as a rising concern among the pubic about overgrazing. Rather than fight change, they had switched.

As the embers of the campfire burned softly into the night, I wondered if the conservation movement could do the same.File00171

Age of Consequences:

Courtney’s web site:

Life Is Great

[excerpt from Chapter 9 of The Age of Consequences]

With a flick of the switch, I banish the darkness.

It’s four a.m. on a Monday—time to get some work done before the sun, or the kids, stir. In the bathroom, I twist both faucet handles at the sink and watch groggily for a few seconds as the water twirls merrily down the drain. Where does this water from come? An ancient aquifer nearby, as I recall. Can’t be rainwater, I say to myself as I splash water onto my face in an attempt to ward off a desire to go back to bed; we only get twelve inches of precipitation a year here, if we’re lucky. Which reminds me. Drying my face with a cotton towel, fresh from yesterday’s laundry, I make a mental note to buy rain barrels for our roof’s downspouts, adding it to a lengthy to-do list.

Leaving the bathroom, I wend my way into the kitchen, where I make an unsteady beeline for the coffeemaker. I didn’t touch a drop of the evil brew until I was thirty-one, giving in only after a move to our home at seven thousand feet and a subsequent snow storm that winter. I grew up in the desert and lived in Los Angeles for years, so snow was a difficult concept for me to grasp initially, requiring what has since become a comfort food—a warm cup of coffee. In any case, I am grateful that a steady and apparently endless supply of the evil roast is available to someone who lives far, far away from a coffee plantation. If there were a coffee god, my daily ritual would include an oblation of thanksgiving, perhaps in the form of a teaspoon of sugar.

Mug in hand, I drift into the living room and settle into a chair at the computer desk, waiting for the caffeine to work its magic. Although it’s not quite summer yet, the windows are cracked open enough to let dryland smells into the house. It’s a remarkable privilege to live here in this beautiful place, in what geographers call a high, cold desert. Prehistorically, there was only enough food, water, wood, and arable land to support small populations of people, most of who had to move frequently to find fresh resources or dodge a drought. It’s totally different today, of course—except for the same sparse amounts of local food, water, fuel, and arable land. Thankfully we have oil, without which I wouldn’t be able to live here. Perhaps another offering is in order, this time to the gods of petrochemicals, who we never, ever want to anger.

Two hours later, I shut down the computer, rise from the chair, stretch my stiff muscles, then stride purposefully toward the kitchen to start the breakfast marathon. I switch on a lot of lights, even though the dawn is brightening quickly outside. I stab our old radio to life and reel instantly at the news: terror threats, political gridlock, greed, avarice, unemployment, upcoming elections. After a few minutes, I stab the radio off, not wanting to scare the kids. I switch on the CD player instead, filling the kitchen with the reassuring strains of a Mozart concerto. Then I turn to the main event of the morning: the breakfast menu.

Like many of their friends, our twins will only eat from a short list of acceptable items, very few of which correspond with anyone else’s preferences, necessitating a kind of daily food ballet. For example, our daughter likes sausage, which we buy organically and locally, soaked in maple syrup from Vermont. She’ll eat English muffins too. But our son won’t touch either one. He prefers industrially produced corn dogs, which no one else will eat (for various reasons). However, he likes Mexican meals, so burritos are popular in our house—except with our daughter. Gen prefers granola with yoghurt, or polenta, or Irish oatmeal, none of which the kids will touch.

I like eggs, which we procure from our small flock of chickens in the backyard. Gen loves them too, but the kids told us the other day that they are tired of eggs. Our daughter still likes homemade waffles, though our son is tired of them as well. He’ll eat fried potatoes, but she won’t. She likes cereal, but he doesn’t, of course. They are united, however, in their opposition to anything green at suppertime, which we force them to eat anyway. We do agree on organic milk, butter, hamburger, pasta, and rice, fortunately. Otherwise, we might starve.

We won’t starve, of course. That’s because our food system is a miracle, I think to myself as I pull a package of frozen sausage from the freezer and place it in the microwave oven for defrosting. We can eat what we want—or refuse what we want—from wherever we want, at any time we want. Peaches in February? No problem. Shrimp in a high, cold desert? No sweat. Coffee from an obscure island in the South Pacific, chocolate from Europe, lettuce from California, plasticware from China, honey from Albuquerque, canned green beans from God knows where? No problem. Even the microwave is a miracle. Look: the sausage is defrosted in a minute, ready for frying. I pull out a nonstick pan—another miracle—and place it on the stove. Hash browns, eggs, English muffins, marmalade, corn dogs, sliced cheese and meat for lunches, and sandwich bread quickly follow. It makes for a heap of food on the kitchen table, suggesting that a prayer to the food gods is probably in order as well.

After a final round of good-bye kisses, the family pulls out, and I retreat to the kitchen to put things away. Later, after some bill paying, a walk with the dogs, and a shower, I settle down with a stack of maps and guidebooks to Europe. Gen and I turn fifty this fall, and we’ve decided to treat ourselves and the kids to a whirlwind tour of Rome, Venice, and Paris, with lots of Roman ruins and medieval castles in between. Ever since Gen and I visited Venice, it’s been a dream of mine to celebrate my birthday alongside the Rialto Bridge, which I’m determined to fulfill. Why not? Other than the expense, it’s easy to get to Europe, and once you’re there, it’s easy to get around. My plan is to use it all: planes, trains, buses, taxis, boats, and a rental car. Everything is in the guidebooks—where to go, what to eat, where to sleep.

Besides, it’ll be a history lesson for the kids. Us too—a firsthand look at Western civilization, including centuries of wars, hardships, political upheavals, religious rifts, technological breakthroughs, economic strife, and social progress . . . all so we can watch cable TV, surf the Internet, goof off with video games, and get diabetes and cancer.

And travel to Europe. Here’s a photo I took of the Rialto Bridge in Venice: ITALY-FRANCE 233

I put the map and guidebooks away, pack my travel bag quickly, check on the chickens, and head out the door. I jump into the truck and head into town, where I need to put in time at the day job and run a few errands before catching my flight. I settle down to work, which means I must stare, once more, deep into a computer screen.

Perhaps because I grew up in an archaic age, I stubbornly resist being sucked into the virtual 24/7 world that has consumed so much of our society. I’m still an eight-to-five guy, which means I don’t do much email on the weekends and I don’t do social media at all (no Twitter or Facebook accounts for me). My cell phone is just a phone. It doesn’t entertain me, check the stock market, or cook supper. I haven’t even programmed it with the phone numbers of friends and family. I’m required to memorize their numbers. That’s all right. I’m trying to inhabit as much of the 3-D universe as possible, fearful that our expanding obsession with the 2-D world is setting us up for a major fall. But that’s another topic for another day.

At noon, I shut down everything, pack up, say some quick good-byes, and jump back into the truck. I need to run a few errands in town, starting with a pit stop at the bank to cash a check. My next stop is a natural foods grocery store. I need snacks for the trip. Cruising briskly down the aisles, I realize the store is another mundane miracle of our modern era. It is packed to its organic gills with every conceivable type of food, all in impressive abundance. The cornucopia includes fresh French bread, humanely raised chicken, a dozen varieties of olive oil, wild salmon from Alaska, goat cheese from Switzerland, yoga magazines, wine galore, buffalo burgers, and an entire aisle dedicated to chips, salsas, and other snack foods. Today, I grab two apples, some organic dried apricots, a premade pesto-and-turkey sandwich, a bag of potato chips, and a cup of coffee to go. I’m in and out in under ten minutes.

That’s a miracle too.

Soon, I’m on the interstate, heading south. My mind drifts. The cornucopia in the natural foods store recalls a quote from the poet Ogden Nash that I read years ago. “Progress was good for a while,” I think he said, “but then it went on and on.”

Approaching the airport in Albuquerque, I sidle off the freeway and shake my head clear of road thoughts. It’s time to concentrate. Airports are miracles too, though increasingly stressful ones. The flight is uneventful, and I arrive at my destination a few minutes early. Deplaning, I pick up my suitcase at a carousel, secure my rental car from a generic company (I can only tell them apart by their colors), and hit the road—all in under thirty minutes. That’s amazing too, but it’s all so familiar and routine to me by now that I don’t pause to consider it.

I consult a map before driving to my hotel, which is conveniently located between the highway off-ramp and a large shopping mall. After checking in and depositing my belongings in the room, I drive over to the mall to explore supper options. The mall itself is ringed by chain restaurants, giving the impression that I’m entering an orbit around a giant, many-mooned planet. It certainly feels like a universe unto itself. Slipping beneath the outer ring of restaurants, I opt for a local sports-themed place on the planet’s surface instead.

After a successful landing, I walk inside the restaurant, where I am immediately assaulted by a dozen very large television screens, each blaring a different sporting event. As I wait for a table, I scan the mammoth room, noting that every available space on the walls is occupied by something neon, mostly beer advertisements. I feel like I’ve walked into a holy place—the Temple of Brew. Observing my awed expression, one of the temple’s acolytes approaches and guides me to a booth, where I plop down and dutifully order a beer from a very long list. I have no idea what I’m getting. I don’t drink much, but I don’t want to offend the beer gods either.

It’s a lovely evening. But the beer has made me droopy, so after three figure eights around the lot, I climb into the rental, drive back to the hotel, go to my room, grab a book from my bag, and slip into bed. There’s no reason to turn on the TV, not even curiosity. No need to catch up on pop culture tonight. Besides, it’s been a long, amazing day. It’s a remarkable world, I think to myself as the god of drowsiness begins to work its magic.

Progress is good . . . was good . . . still is. I know it went on too long probably, but that’s all right for the time being. Things are good—but for how much longer? The book slips in my hands. Despite our troubles, I feel fortunate to be alive today, now, here. I should give thanks to somebody, I think groggily. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, perhaps, or my parents. Perhaps an offering to another god is in order—maybe the god of rental cars. Or central heating. Or fluffy pillows. The book slips again. I put it down.

I reach for the light and, with a twist of a button, darkness engulfs me once more.

Age of Consequences:

Courtney’s web site: http://www.awestthatworks.comPicture 165