Mitigation or adaptation? It’s usually an either/or choice: either we work on ways to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere or we find ways to adapt to new conditions created by climate change, including reducing society’s vulnerabilities and raising its resilience. Fighting to close a coal plant or developing green energy alternatives, for example, is a different job than translocating an imperiled species or planning for inevitable sea level rise. Same problem, separate responses. Different tribes. Mitigation and adaptation even have separate conferences!
Complicating matters, mitigation and adaptation strategies are often set against one another in a kind of “Sophie’s choice” of unhappy outcomes. Save the endangered desert tortoise in southern California, for instance, or allow its habitat to be destroyed by vast arrays of solar panels? Save a critical wildlife corridor or convert it to food production in order to help feed a global human population that is racing toward nine billion by 2050? Manage land inside a national park for carbon sequestration, or stick to its original leave-it-alone conservation purpose? Light a prescribed fire to restore a forest to health, adding CO2 to the atmosphere, or do nothing and hope for the best?
Mitigate or adapt? Choose!
Fortunately, there is a third path. A significant amount of overlap between mitigation and adaptation exists, especially in the realm of agro-ecology. You just don’t hear about it very often. It doesn’t get much play in the media or in big reports, such as the recently released National Climate Assessment (http://ncadac.globalchange.gov/). Even when it is mentioned it’s often in the dry jargon of research, including the frequently used term “co-benefits.” For example: mitigating atmospheric carbon dioxide by sequestering it as soil carbon via plant photosynthesis has the co-benefit of improving soil fertility and increasing water-holding capacity. Cool stuff! But that description is too wonky for a general audience and too abstract for many landowners, which is a shame because there’s a lot of good news going unreported.
To help spread this good news (as well as push back against either/or thinking, which is a particular peeve of mine) I decided to start writing a series called ’2% Solutions for Hunger, Thirst, and CO2.’ These are short case studies of innovative practices that soak up carbon dioxide in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production, and increase water quality and quantity. The idea is that a 2% increase in soil carbon produced by only 2% of the nation’s population for 2% of the GDP can make all the difference in the world!
‘Healing the Carbon Cycle with Cattle’
In 2004, cattle ranchers Tom and Mimi Sidwell bought the 7,000-acre JX Ranch, south of Tucumcari, New Mexico, and set about doing what they know best: earning a profit by restoring the land to health and stewarding it sustainably.
As with many ranches in the arid Southwest, the JX had been hard used over the decades. Poor land and water management had caused the grass cover to diminish in quantity and quality, exposing soil to the erosive effects of wind, rain, and sunlight, which also diminished the organic content of the soil significantly, especially its carbon. Eroded gullies had formed across the ranch, small at first, but growing larger with each thundershower, cutting down through the soft soil, biting into the land deeper, eating away at its vitality. Water tables fell correspondingly, starving plants and animals alike of precious nutrients, forage, and energy.
Profits fell too for the ranch’s previous owners. Many had followed a typical business plan: stretch the land’s ecological capacity to the breaking point, add more cattle when the economic times turned tough, and pray for rain when dry times arrived, as they always did. The result was the same: a downward spiral as the ranch crossed ecological and economic thresholds. In the case of the JX, the water, nutrient, mineral, and energy cycles unraveled across the ranch causing the land to disassemble and eventually fall apart.
Enter the Sidwells. With 30 years of experience in healing land, they saw the deteriorated condition of the JX not as a liability, but as an opportunity. Tom began by dividing the entire ranch into 16 pastures, up from the original five, using solar-powered electric fencing. After installing a water system to feed all 16 pastures, he picked cattle that could do well in dry country, grouped them into one herd and set about carefully rotating them through the pastures, never grazing a single pasture for more than 7-10 days, typically, in order to give the land plenty of recovery time. Next, he began clearing out the juniper and mesquite trees on the ranch with a bulldozer, which allowed native grasses and forbs to come back.
As grass returned – a result of the animals’ hooves breaking up the capped topsoil allowing seed-to-soil contact – Tom lengthened the period of rest between pulses of cattle grazing in each pasture from 60 days to 105 days across the whole ranch. More rest meant more grass, which meant Tom could graze more cattle – to stimulate more grass production. In fact, Tom increased the overall livestock capacity of the JX by 25% in only six years, impacting the ranch’s bottom line.
Another significant positive impact of their management was on the carbon cycle.
By growing grass on previously bare soil, by extending plant roots deeper, and by increasing plant size and vitality – all as a result of good stewardship – the Sidwells are sequestering more CO2 in the ranch’s soil than the previous owners had. The process by which atmospheric CO2 gets converted into soil starts with photosynthesis, which transforms sunlight into biochemical energy using CO2 from the air and water from the soil. Then through a complex sequence of chemical reactions, this energy is resynthesized into carbon compounds, many of which are exuded directly into soil to nurture the microbes that grow plants and build healthy soil. Round and round. It’s an ancient equation: more plants mean more green leaves, which mean more roots, which mean more carbon exuded, which means more CO2 can be sequestered in the soil, where it will stay.
In other words, if bare, degraded, or unstable land can be restored to a healthy condition with properly functioning carbon, water, mineral, and nutrient cycles and covered in green plants with deep roots, then the quantity of CO2 that can be sequestered is potentially high.
There’s another benefit to carbon-rich soil: it improves water infiltration and storage, due to its sponge-like quality. Recent research indicates that one part carbon-rich soil can retain as much as four parts water. This has important positive consequences for the recharge of aquifers and base flows to rivers and streams, which are the life bloods of towns and cities.
It’s also important to people who make their living off the land, as Tom and Mimi Sidwell can tell you. In 2010, they were pleased to discover that a spring near their house had come back to life. For years, it had flowed at a miserly rate of ¼ gallon-per-minute, but after clearing out the juniper trees above the spring and managing the cattle for increased grass cover, the well began to pump 1.5 gallons a minute 24 hours a day!
In fact, the water cycle has improved all over the ranch, a consequence of water infiltrating down into the soil now because of the grass cover, rather than sheeting off erosively as it had before. This is good news for microbes, insects, grasses, shrubs, trees, birds, herbivores, carnivores, cattle, and people.
What the Sidwells are doing on the JX is reassembling the carbon landscape. They have reconnected soil, water, plants, sunlight, food and profit in a way that is both healing and sustainable. They did it by reviving the carbon cycle as a life-giving element on their ranch, and by returning to nature’s principles of herbivory, ecological disturbance, soil formation, microbial action, and good food. In the process, they improved the resilience of the land and their business for whatever shock or surprise the future may have in store.
‘Water for Bats – and Cattle’
It’s getting harder to find a good drink of water in the arid West, even if you’re a bat.
Over the course of twenty years in the field, bat biologist Dan Taylor has watched natural water sources, such as creeks and ponds, shrink and decline across the region. By some estimates 80-90% of the West’s riparian (water associated) habitats – by far the most important to wildlife – have been degraded, mostly by human activity, including a lot of overgrazing by cattle. He believes this downward trend of water availability will continue as climate change raises temperatures and alters precipitation patterns, hurting the chances of survival for wildlife and domestic livestock alike.
However, contrary to author Mark Twain’s famous quip that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting” in the West, Taylor and his employer, Bat Conservation International, have found a way for bats and cattle to coexist in a hotter and drier West. And not only coexist – but depend on one another for survival.
Bats, like most mammals, need water everyday, especially during hot weather when they can lose 30% of their body weight in a single afternoon. Bats are the slowest-reproducing mammal on the planet for their size, averaging just one young per year, which means reducing environmental stress is critical. Bats depend on free water for their survival – they don’t get enough from the food they eat – and it must be pooled water. Bats drink on the fly and thus require a “swoop” zone, just like airplanes do at airports, of a sufficient length and free from obstacles. The depth of the pooled water isn’t important, just the access for swooping.
Which is where livestock (and humans) come in.
Hundreds of thousands of water developments for livestock have been put in place across the West since the 1950s, many in the form of stock troughs. Most, however, are not bat-friendly. Obstacles, such as wire fences and cross-braces in the swoop path can prove deadly to a bat in flight. If a bat strikes one and falls into the water it will drown without an escape ramp. Some bat species can maneuver in small spaces (e.g. 3×4 feet), but most need a pool at least ten feet long, and a few require a path 50-100 feet long (like a river or stock pond) to get a drink. Humans can enhance stock troughs for bats at minimal cost by: (1) maintaining a steady water supply (i.e., don’t turn the water off when the cows leave); (2) keeping the water’s surface as free of obstructions as possible; and (3) providing permanently installed wildlife escape ramps and ladders made from long-lasting material, such as expanded metal.
“As these livestock water developments increasingly replace or augment diminishing natural sources,” said Taylor, “they have become crucial for many species, especially when animals are stressed by drought, high temperatures or rearing young. Without reliable sources of water, wildlife must either leave or die – to the long-term detriment of rangelands and forests.”
Bats are essential both to healthy ecosystems and human economies. They pollinate plants and disperse seeds, for example. Some plants, including the wild agave, require bats for pollination and thus for reproduction. No bats, no wild tequila! Bats also eat tons and tons of night-flying insects, including beetles, moths, grasshoppers and crickets, many of which cost American agriculture billions of dollars annually, such as army cutworm moths and leafhoppers. There are forty-five bat species across the U.S., twenty-five of which are found in the Southwest. Improving their access to safe watering sources is thus critically important, especially in dry times.
This work also benefits other birds that drink in flight, including swifts, swallows and nighthawks. Pollinators of all types like pooled water too, as do many other wildlife species, from javelina to cougars. It’s not just troughs – enhancements to stock ponds are critical as well. The federally-listed Chiricahua Leopard Frog, for example, has come to depend on stock ponds for its survival in certain parts of the Southwest. Of course, enhancing this type of water is beneficial to livestock as well.
In fact, Taylor believes that well-developed stock ponds could be key to climate change adaptation for many species in the arid West.
“Stock ponds capture surface runoff and have been used to water livestock for more than a century,” Taylor said. “They’ve also become an essential source of water for countless species of western wildlife including big game, birds, bats, other small mammals, and amphibians. But many are dry or degraded today. We can restore them, but do it in such a way that we create a kind of wetland pond, which will be good for all animals.”
This restoration involves lining the bottom of the old stock pond with clay soil and compacting it, which will prevent water leakage; lessening the slopes of the pond and rebuilding spillways in order to reduce erosion and give the pond a more natural appearance; and installing large woody debris (such as logs), constructing small coves along the water’s edge, and planting native species in order to create a diverse habitat for wildlife. Fencing is modified so that cattle have access to the pond at only one point – which is hardened by gravel or other material to reduce erosion.
“The end result of these improvements is much higher quality water for livestock, more reliable water for livestock and wildlife, and the creation of high quality wetland habitat,” said Taylor. “It’s a classic win-win, especially as these areas get hotter and drier under climate change.”
I’m writing more – and I’ll post them here as they arrive.
Here’s a preview:
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.