My View: Rangeland can make money, aid climate
Claire Withycombe's article on the economic challenges of Oregon rangeland (and other public lands like the Elliot State Forest), left out an essential economic factor. It is called eco-economics, which describes an environmentally sustainable economy.
Without a viable ecological system there is no economic system. Our conventional economic and rangeland approaches have not been accounting for this foundational aspect of our economy. Instead they have been leading us down an ecologically destructive path. There is, however, another way that can support economic and ecological prosperity.
In his latest book, "Drawdown," Paul Hawken pulls together global research that identifies over 80 carbon-sequestering solutions. They include managed grazing and pasture cropping, which can restore the health of soil and provide double crops of grains and animals. Managed grazing involves optimally grazing herbivores on grasslands. Either too few or too many herbivores on the land leads to deterioration of the soil through compaction, erosion, loss of carbon in the soil, as well as loss of the soil's capacity to absorb water.
Holistically managed grazing restores the ability of soil to capture both carbon from the atmosphere and water.
Pasture cropping involves optimizing grazing animals and planting annual crops in a living perennial pasture. The farmer can reap two crops from the same land, grain and wool or meat. Pasture cropping is practiced on more than 2,000 farms in Australia and is spreading throughout the temperate farming world.
Practitioners who use managed grazing not only report healthier soil and cattle, some have noticed the return of perennial streams that dried up under conventional rangeland practices. Having more water in the soil and streams would also likely help prevent wildfires. Some practitioners report that their soil can soak up eight to 14 inches of rain per hour, where hardened soils erode with as little as one inch of rain.
The carbon-absorbing capacity is similarly significant. Many ranchers who started at 1 percent carbon in the soil now can measure 6 to 8 percent or more.
Oregon rangeland could be held in trust by the state, and managed by ranchers and farmers looking for a secure piece of land to work which would benefit their animals, farms and contribute to restoring a healthy climate. It could be a win, win, win opportunity for jobs, healthier land less prone to wildfires, healthier animals, and bringing carbon back into the earth, removing it from our atmosphere.
But what about the methane, many ask. Herbivores produce methane through their digestion, and methane has a greater impact than carbon. Hawken and his team of researchers have done the math and note that there is still a net decrease in greenhouse gas with a potential reduction of carbon by 16.34 gigatons.
Furthermore, new research suggests a phenomenal reduction of greenhouse gases from methane can be achieved by supplementing herbivore diets with seaweed. Some scientists discovered that seaweed decreases methane from livestock by 12 percent. A particular species of red algae, Asparagopsis taxiformis, that is only beginning to be studied, has decreased methane production by 99 percent in the lab, and by 70 to 80 percent in sheep. It hasn't yet been studied in live cows.
The possibilities of reversing climate change by these and other carbon-sequestration pathways leaves some to think we can relax our efforts to rapidly get off of fossil fuels. However, we are way behind the eight-ball in achieving an eco-economy, and need to be working with every solution we know.
It is time to work together to grow jobs, revenue for the state, and use our rangeland for the good of all by restoring our soil. Managed holistically, Oregon rangeland can be a major contributor to averting climate catastrophe and restoring the health of Oregon land and rural communities.
Harriet Cooke, MD, MPH lives in Southwest Portland.