Why Resilient Grasslands Are Unsung Heroes in the Fight Against Climate Change

Cool Effect
5 min readSep 9, 2022

Whether they’re savannahs, prairies, or steppes, Earth’s grasslands are heroes in the fight against climate change — no matter what you call them. And while trees get a lot of credit when it comes to reducing emissions, our often-overlooked grasslands are one of the planet’s greatest carbon reservoirs, storing more carbon than all forests and rainforests combined.

Some estimates put grasslands’ carbon storage at close to 200 tonnes per acre, and with grasslands in the United States alone accounting for over 8.4 million acres, their importance when it comes to climate change can’t be overstated. But our grasslands are in trouble — roughly 2.6 million acres were lost in North America alone in 2019, a size roughly comparable to Yellowstone National Park. In fact, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2020 Plowprint Report, an area the size of four football fields is converted to cropland every minute. And with close to 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by land use change and degradation, taking action to protect our pristine lands from this kind of rapid development is more important than ever.

To really understand the importance of grasslands’ role in keeping carbon emissions out of our atmosphere, it’s important to understand the science of not only how they work, but why they work so well. Like all plants, grasslands’ grasses and shrubs have the ability to both emit and store carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis, so as these plants die and regrow, some of that carbon dioxide is stored in the soil and roots. When these grasslands are left alone, the stored CO2 remains where it belongs, in the soil. When these grasslands are disturbed, through processes like tilling, the stored CO2 is released into the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change.

Even more so than forests, if properly managed, protected, and maintained, grasslands can play a significant role in helping address global climate change. Because the majority of grasslands’ carbon sequestering happens below the surface, they are much more resilient in the face of natural disasters like wildfires. When grasslands burn, the carbon fixed underground tends to remain in the roots and soil rather than being released into the atmosphere. In fact, some recent studies seem to indicate that in the long run, grasslands sequester more carbon thanks to fire than forests lose.

One grasslands protection project on our platform knows all too well the tremendous impact wildfire can have on sustainability efforts. Dallas and Brenda May are the owners of May Ranch, a sustainable, nationally recognized conservation sanctuary home to many endangered species. Working closely with Ducks Unlimited to protect their pristine grasslands ensures that their land will remain protected for future generations, all while storing carbon, protecting native animals and their natural habitats, and allowing the family to make a sustainable living off of the land they’ve lived on for generations.

Unfortunately, in April of this year a fire ravaged over 9,000 acres of May Ranch, devastating the land and putting the May’s sustainable livelihood in jeopardy. But thanks to the inherent resilience of carbon absorbing grasslands, May Ranch’s positive impact on the planet didn’t go up in smoke. Rebuilding and restoring will be difficult and they’ll need all the support they can to get fully operational again, but the fire didn’t burn up the impact they’ve made for the planet.

Grasses have already begun to reemerge at May Ranch, giving hope for a greener future. Image courtesy of The Colorado Sun.

Billy Gascoigne, who helped establish the May Ranch project alongside the May family and partners in the conservation community back in 2016, noted that “Thanks to the ranch’s status as a carbon-reducing project and procurement of a conservation easement years ago, ecosystem recovery is already underway. In fact, much of the ranch has greened back up from timely and favorable moisture. If anything, the fire has reinforced our commitment to the importance of carbon sequestering, and renewed much of the community’s passion for protecting and maintaining these incredibly important working grasslands.”

That same passion for protecting these lands is why we’re excited about the newest project launching on our platform, Where The Buffalo Roam, located in southeastern Colorado and run by the Southern Plains Land Trust (SPLT). SPLT purchases land in order to provide urgently needed refuge to a wide variety of native grassland animals and plants — so far it has protected over 38,000 acres in the preserve network.

Not only does this project naturally store CO2 in the roots of prairie plants, it also improves biodiversity, keeping dozens of rare grasses and hundreds of types of flowers protected, along with creating an improved habitat for local wildlife. Bison, commonly referred to as Buffalo, are one example of the local wildlife in the area that are benefitting from the project. Research even shows that Buffalo are beneficial for grassland ecosystems and create landscape diversity thanks to their grazing, trampling and wallowing (rolling on the ground) practices. Most importantly, this project ensures long term maintenance of intact grasslands, as older plants are thought to sequester a disproportionate amount of CO2 than newer ones.

And if this project proves to be a successful one, it’s hoped that it will inspire any more reluctant landowners to put the planet first and rely on carbon offset sales to help maintain their livelihoods while also sustaining the planet.

Whether they’re located in Colorado or anywhere else on the planet, the bottom line is that preserving grasslands is an essential element of fighting climate change. Thanks to the tempting economics and potential profit involved with converting grasslands to agricultural use, many are tempted to plow up these crucial carbon reservoirs and put profit before the planet. Protecting and sustainably maintaining these grasslands is difficult, but carbon projects like May Ranch and Where The Buffalo Roam inspire us every day with their commitment to fighting the good fight and following the principles of Carbon Done Correctly. Thanks to their hard work and your support, preservation of grasslands can, and will, continue to play a crucial role in keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees and protecting the planet for future generations.

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