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Conservation Innovation Grant produces carbon farming opportunities in N.D.

By Ciji Taylor

- An aerial view of the Prairie Pothole Region, near Wing, North DakotaJim Ringelman, Ducks Unlimite

An aerial view of the Prairie Pothole Region, near Wing, North Dakota. Credit: Jim Ringelman, Ducks Unlimited.

A Missouri Coteau wetland near Bismarck, N.D., in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region-An aerial

A Missouri Coteau wetland near Bismarck, N.D., in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region. Credit: Jim Ringelman, Ducks Unlimited.

The Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana provides sanctuary to millions of nesting waterfowl each summer. With an innovative partnership led by Ducks Unlimited, USDA is helping to provide new opportunities for agricultural producers in the region to sequester carbon while cultivating new revenue streams.

With the help of a grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, these partners have created a carbon credit system for private landowners in North Dakota who agree to avoid tillage of grasslands. Grasslands store carbon dioxide, one of the leading greenhouse gases contributing to climate change.

The North Dakota Prairie Pothole project, funded by a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant of $161,000, provides potential new revenue streams for landowners while avoiding greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon sequestration.

This project was one of nine greenhouse gas mitigation projects funded by a Conservation Innovation Grant in 2011. This project in the Prairie Pothole Region is preserving critical wildlife habitat while changing the future of farming. The Climate Trust, American Carbon Registry, The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund and Terra Global Capital helped support the project.

“The NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant was the true catalyst that helped jumpstart this project and bring a number of multidisciplinary partners together,” said Eric Lindstrom, Ducks Unlimited government affairs representative.

The partnership worked to develop the necessary quantification tools for grassland producers to receive compensation for the carbon storage benefit of maintaining working grasslands.

“With high commodity prices, it can be economically attractive for farmers and ranchers to till the land and plant row crops on marginal agricultural lands,” said Adam Chambers, air quality scientist for NRCS’ National Air Quality and Atmospheric Change team. “Carbon credits provide landowners with another working lands opportunity and an additional revenue option other than tillage.”

The grasslands of the Prairie Pothole Region have tremendous potential to store carbon in soils and biomass, which reduces the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, one of the leading greenhouse gases contributing to climate change, Chambers added.

Land enrolled in the project is required to remain un-tilled; however, the lands can be set aside for conservation purposes or be utilized as working lands for grazing and haying. Ranchers can graze animals and even plant pollinator habitat or enhance forage quality that doesn’t disturb the soil’s vast carbon stores.

“Basically, you’re farming carbon while running a normal diversified agricultural operation,” said Chambers, who has a PhD in natural sciences.

In order to measure carbon offsets, project partners developed the Avoided Conversion of Grasslands and Shrublands offset quantification methodology recently approved by the American Carbon Registry. This methodology provides producers with a template for quantifying and verifying their carbon reductions. Voluntary carbon reductions, in the form of carbon credits, can be sold into voluntary carbon markets.

“This project provides Northern Great Plains producers with new ways to earn income from conservation activities, expanded opportunity for outdoor recreation and an opportunity to create jobs in their communities,” said Robert Bonnie, USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment. “The American Carbon Registry’s approval of this innovative ACoGS protocol enables vital projects like our partnership with Ducks Unlimited to preserve a treasured national landscape, while also preventing the release of greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Innovative NRCS CIG program enables NRCS to work with public and private entities, like Ducks Unlimited, to accelerate technology transfer and adoption of promising technologies and approaches to address some of the Nation's most pressing natural resource concerns.

“Rural communities will not only benefit from project payments, but could also see economic benefits from outdoor recreation opportunities on grasslands, attracting hunters, photographers, and other nature enthusiasts from across the country,” said Steve Adair, director of DU’s Great Plains Region. “Research has shown the economic benefit of wildlife provided from grasslands is estimated at $63 per acre. This equates to money-in-hand for these rural populations.”

For more information on this project and other NRCS efforts, visit the Conservation Innovation Grant website or a local NRCS field office.


USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service helps America’s farmers and ranchers conserve the Nation’s soil, water, air and other natural resources. All programs are voluntary and offer science-based solutions that benefit both the landowner and the environment.

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