Ranchers want to sequester more carbon

01/04/2018

The lawsuit against the Point Reyes National Seashore has stalled three park ranchers hoping to implement carbon sequestration practices to combat climate change. The practices range from the reduced tilling of grazing lands to the restoration of riparian areas, but a condition in the suit that prohibits new or expanded uses on ranchlands managed by the seashore could prevent the ranchers from adopting them.

Next month, park officials and representatives of the Marin Resource Conservation District, the agency that administers funds for such practices elsewhere in Marin, will meet to discuss the proposals, though a letter from the seashore’s acting superintendent, Cynthia MacLeod, to the R.C.D. in November gave some hints as to what might and might not be allowed.

The so-called carbon farm plans that the ranchers wish to pursue would be developed and rolled out under the guidance of the Marin Carbon Project, a local program that has pioneered methods designed to sequester carbon. 

After receiving the applications from the ranchers who lease land in the park, the conservation district contacted the park service to run the idea by the landowner. 

“We can’t give a blanket yes,” park spokeswoman Melanie Gunn said. “Some ranchers have already been doing some of these practices related to carbon farming and some have not… We need to look at the individual lease agreements held by the ranchers that have applied to the program to determine whether the practices would be new, or not, and therefore in violation of the settlement.” 

Last year’s settlement agreement with three national environmental organizations mandated that the park amend its general management plan. It also ordered ranching operations to continue to operate on the existing terms and conditions of their interim leases, which end in 2022. In the meantime, the settlement states that the park “shall not allow for expanded or new uses (e.g. additional or new types of livestock or crops, or other commercial operations like bed and breakfast or processing facilities).” 

Though the park generally follows standards from the Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Ms. Gunn said that the hope is that the amendment will further define overall best management practices for the historic ranches. 

Carbon farming

The Marin Carbon Project began a decade ago and has since grown into a consortium of agricultural groups, university researchers, county and federal agencies and nonprofits. In 2013, it launched a year-long carbon farming program on three farms in West Marin—Stemple Creek Ranch, Straus Dairy and Corda Ranch. 

The project’s implementation task force, which included the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, the University of California Cooperative Extension and the Carbon Cycle Institute, tailored the management practices for each farm. 

After performing extensive baseline soil sampling and rangeland assessments, the ranchers applied close to 4,000 cubic yards of compost supplied by West Marin Compost on nearly 100 acres of rangelands across their three farms. The ranchers also established windbreaks, restored riparian habitat and planted grass, plants and trees, among other improvements.

Their example has shown that the application of compost in conjunction with the other practices increases the capacity for vegetation to capture and store carbon in the soil, and provides other biological benefits such as improving the soil’s water-holding capacity and resilience in the face of drought.

Nancy Scolari, who directs the R.C.D., said that preliminary data shows that the demonstration ranches are sequestering 3,362 metric tons of CO2e annually—equal to the total emissions from 720 passenger vehicles per year.

Ms. Scolari said the district has completed 10 additional plans for other farms, with a total of 20 plans expected in the next three years thanks to funding primarily from the United States Department of Agriculture. 

And interest in the seashore is broad, she said. Three ranchers applied this year after the R.C.D. put out requests for applications last fallbut three others just missed the deadline, and she believes many more are interested.  

Kevin Lunny, a third-generation rancher and the president of the Point Reyes Seashore Ranchers Association, said “everyone is interested.” 

“Everyone sees the benefit,” Mr. Lunny said. “There are such exciting results coming out of this kind of work and I love the idea that we could be a model for the park to have a zero or a negative carbon footprint. These practices are not only good for the land, for the soil, but also for the ranching businesses as well. It’s truly a win-win.”

But a Nov. 6 letter from Ms. MacLeod asked the R.C.D. to clarify just what they would like to do, and outlined which types of practices are more likely to be approved and which aren’t. 

According to her letter, practices that would likely not conflict with the terms of the settlement include riparian restoration, riparian forest buffers, critical area planting (which is specific to erosion control or riparian restoration), wetland restoration, tree and shrub establishment and combustion system improvement. 

These are all practices that the park and the R.C.D. already help to implement on seashore ranches, she wrote.

Other practices that may or may not be permitted are no-till techniques that reduce or eliminate tilling of the soil (which releases carbon into the atmosphere). Improved nutrient management, such as refining locations for current manure spreading practices; prescribed grazing, such as rotating cattle on smaller plots to reduce impact; cover cropping and the planting of species for forage or biomass also fall under this category.

Activities that would likely not be permitted include silvopasture establishment—an agroforestry practice that integrates livestock management—on grazed grasslands, windbreak or shelterbelt establishment, hedgerow planting, restoring degraded rangeland with compost, range planting or installing an anaerobic digester (in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen). 

In her letter, Ms. MacLeod clarified that the park’s decision on the carbon farm plan requests “is not a judgment on the validity, effectiveness, benefits or impacts of any proposed practice in the future should the NPS authorize continued ranching in the park through the General Management Plan Amendment process.” She went on to say that a decision “regarding a proposed activity during the interim period should be interpreted only as a judgment for consistency with the conditions of [the settlement agreement].”

Whether the ranchers’ requests to make their operations more environmentally friendly is ultimately deemed to be in conflict with the park’s settlement remains to be seen.  

Mr. Lunny, for his part, doesn’t think they meet the settlement’s definition of “new or expanded uses.” 

“Concerning the settlement, to me, when I look at, I don’t think there is any conflict at all,” he said. “When [the settlement] talks about new practices, it’s saying not chickens, not diversification of crops, and not starting a bed and breakfast—that’s what I understand. Carbon farming includes common practices that are good for the land. Is the settlement prohibiting good stewardship?”