Public lands as carbon sinks (continued …)

“Reduced grazing saves carbon”

A few years ago we discussed a Wohlfahrt study in the Mojave Desert which strongly suggested that desert ecosystems may play a significant role in sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere and sinking it into the soil.  Studies in Germany likewise demonstrated that human impact to soils both decreases the amount of climate changing gases they draw and sink out of the atmosphere as well as increased the emission of warming gases from the impacted soils into to the atmosphere.

Studies in China demonstrating how rest from grazing dramatically increases the landscape’s potential to sink carbon showed how other countries are approaching the idea that land-use management, particularly halting livestock grazing “could facilitate significant C [carbon] and N [nitrogen] storage on decade scales in the context of mitigating global climate change” (Wu et al. 2008).

Public lands as carbon sinksThe Wildlife News 2008

When you think about public lands and the value that these places have to serve our efforts to curb global climate change I’d like you to consider a new idea that is as old as dirt ~ passive restoration. Yes, I’m suggesting that part of the answer might be to removeour footprint on those places we can – and in doing so – let the land catch it’s breath.[…]

The cool thing about this is, promoting the things that you love about public lands in the West does reduce global warming gases – a lot.

Unfortunately, although a soil carbon sequestration study has begun in the west, western politics deters much scientific inquiry from directly tackling the obvious question about the western landscape’s potential to sequester carbon given the presence or absence of the region’s most ubiquitous land-use impact – livestock grazing.  Instead of testing the question:  Do grazed landscapes sequester more carbon than rested landscapes ?  If so, how much ? and establishing a crucial baseline, researchers are more motivated to look at how different grazing regimes may relatively increase or decrease a landscape’s potential to sequester carbon. The given: continued livestock grazing.

Fortunately, researchers in other countries are able to take this question on more directly – which might provide some onus for more forthright hypotheses about how land-use decisions on our corner of the planet may help to reduce or mitigate the effects of global climate change.

Reduced grazing saves carbonNational Rural News – Agribusiness and General – General – Stock & Land [Australia],  6/8/11

A team from the Queensland and James Cook universities analysed the exclosures, and concluded that removal of all grazing had the potential to sequester carbon in soil and vegetation at a rate of 0.92-1.1 carbon dioxide equivalents per year (CO2-e/y) over 40 years.

“If 50 per cent of eastern Australia’s mulga lands (half of 25.4 million ha) were managed for carbon sequestration and biodiversity through the control of all herbivores, then annual sequestration rates could reach between 11.6 and 14 Mt CO2-e/y, which is between two and 2.5 per cent of Australia’s annual emissions,” the researchers wrote.


  1. Peter Donovan Avatar

    Brian, there’s a way out of politics on this one. Enter non-grazed parcels in the Soil Carbon Challenge, a competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter, based on measurement. Use any practice or non-practice you want, with the exception of importing carbonaceous material from somewhere else.

    We don’t map carbon, we measure soil carbon change. It’s not research, it’s monitoring. It’s not words or politics, it’s performance.

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar


      this is interesting. i’ll speak to some folk about entering some state land that’s being rested from grazing due to conservation bidding of state land

  2. mike post Avatar
    mike post

    I dont disagree however the evidence is growing that moderate grazing is essential for several endangered species and certain critical habitats. how do you reconcile the two issues?

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar

      mike, i think you’re looking at that premise from the wrong side.

      this is a good question – as it is a pervasive problem, particularly with land management agencies and much of the science coming out of “captured” land-grant universities and the like.

      i’d answer your question with a question of my own:

      what’s the baseline ?

      if we are to use the context of the status quo – which involves abusive levels and seasons of use of livestock – as the baseline from which we approach the question of how to recover habitats, then perhaps “moderate” grazing makes sense in a relative restorative context when compared against current abusive grazing levels/practices – but if we looked at species and habitats endemic to arid and semi-arid systems that evolved without such impact – and used the historical baseline of NO grazing – then your suggestion that:

      moderate grazing is essential for several endangered species and certain critical habitats.

      is absurd.

      “repeatedly striking a child with a belt is essential to maintaining the self-esteem and emotional health of said child” only makes sense when the only alternative is a bat (or something worse than the belt).

      Agencies and other livestock-industry sympathetic schools-of-thought frequently make your suggestion using pre-determined baselines which favor Livestock – Livestock is always the given. That is – they look at a landscape pounded for over a century to dust, shit-hole, simple vegetation communities etc. and they suggest that “moderate” grazing is improving habitat ! The headline reads: “Moderate grazing improves habitat !”

      We live in the West – most landscapes did not evolved with the pressure of exotic livestock – that condition ought serve as the baseline for any inquiry as to grazing’s effect.

      I’m certainly willing to explore this more if you’d like to expand on your previous comment though …

      1. WM Avatar


        ++much of the science coming out of “captured” land-grant universities and the like.++

        Are you suggesting researchers at land grant university are not objective, and following good scientific method to conduct studies and report out?

        1. Brian Ertz Avatar

          i’m suggesting that land grant universities are subject to different revenue source incentives which are far less insulated from political influence than other institutions and that generally you see a great deal more sympathy for agricultural endeavors and i would say that this impacts the integrity of much of the scientific inquiry conducted – particularly at the administrative levels – which has the effect of implicit and explicit pressure on researchers.

          1. JB Avatar

            I don’t think bias is a function of land grant status; rather, it is a function of the field one works in and where the money for that particular study comes from.

            The field of conservation biology, for example, makes explicit assumptions that bias research in favor of conservation (i.e., they generally assume conservation of biodiversity trumps other human goals). Likewise, if your funding comes from the agricultural industry then you start with the assumption that livestock production is a good thing (and so should trump other human goals).

    2. JB Avatar

      Funny, I would have thought the obvious answer is that native species graze too?

      1. Brian Ertz Avatar

        very true ! i guess i just assumed he wasn’t referring to grass-hoppers 😉

      2. JB Avatar

        I think the fundamental point is that grazing (whether by native or non-native species) affects what is on the landscape. Sometimes humans look at these effects and say, “that’s good”–as when we use goats to clear out fuel to prevent forest fires. Other times we don’t so much like what we see (e.g. denuded watersheds). In any case, it is the people, not the land that cares…

  3. Bob Avatar

    Brian I’d love to show you some of your public land in the west where there is no grazing by cattle. You’ll also find few native animals. You’re so anti-cattle you can’t see.

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar

      township and range bob ~ i’d be happy to check it out next time i’m around 😉

      next time you’re in central idaho i’d be happy to take you down the road as well and show you a couple of watersheds with cattle – and a couple without … night and day – one of my favorite things to do 😉

  4. Bob Avatar

    No doubt you can show me bad grazing I see it also point was native wildlife benefits from good cattle grazing.
    You don’t need a township just visit any large tract not grazed by cattle in more than 20 years, then visit a well managed ranch bordering. Have someone who lives there every day show you the wildlife. You can’t manage land with a computer or driving down the road. You have to live with it daily.
    I place those who think all cattle grazing is good with those who think all cattle grazing is bad.

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar

      there’s just one problem with this ~ i’m afraid “well managed ranch” went the way of the dodo Bob. you’ll have to point one out for me.

  5. Bob Avatar

    Well fancy a response like that from you, may I suggest you enlarge your circle of friends to include more people from outside the “marvel cult”. I mean it is allowed one would hope for your benefit.
    The point still stands.

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Brian Ertz