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New Era for US Public Lands Under Native American Leadership?

President Biden’s decision to reinstate Tom “Mr. Monsanto” Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary is a disaster for nutrition and farming, but his choice of Deb Haaland for Interior Secretary, managing the 500 million acres of public lands, could benefit the climate in ways that could also improve food security. 

The stakes are high; fossil fuel extraction on public lands is responsible for one quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Here are a few of the things climate and regenerative agriculture activists are hoping for from Secretary Haaland:

1. #OurClimateSolution 

As a Congresswoman, Deb Haaland cosponsored the American Public Lands and Waters Climate Solution Act (#OurClimateSolution), a good first step in the path toward eliminating fossil fuel extraction on public lands and making public lands carbon sinks. 

However, this bill only applies to new coal, oil or gas leases. One of President Biden’s first acts was to sign an executive order to temporarily block new drilling on public lands.

2. #UndoTrump

Biden’s temporary ban on new drilling on public lands doesn’t mean as much after Trump’s extraction bonanza. Trump approved the sale of 1,400 leases out of 3,000 Bureau of Land Management applications, primarily in New Mexico and Wyoming―in his last three months alone. That’s on top of drilling leases on 550,000 acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that Trump gave away for a mere $14.4 million.

Trump made at least 125 rule changes to favor special interests on public lands, according to Yale Environment 360’s report, “On U.S. Public Lands, Can Biden Undo What Trump Has Wrought?” In Trump’s final hours, Biden's #UndoTrump list got even longer when Trump gave governors the right to veto federal land acquisitions.

This is a dire situation that only the boldest agenda can hope to overturn. According to the climate plan on his website:

Biden believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face. It powerfully captures two basic truths, which are at the core of his plan: (1) the United States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge, and (2) our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected.

However, “Joe Biden will not end fracking, he has been very clear about that,” as we learned in the debates.

3. #ClimateStewardshipAct

Haaland also sponsored the transformative Climate Stewardship Act. Recognizing that soils, forests and wetlands already sequester 11 percent of all U.S. emissions, this bill aims to increase this by planting more trees, restoring wetlands and greatly scaling up the adoption of farm and ranch conservation practices. 

To increase carbon sequestration on farm and range lands, the bill would dramatically increase spending on the Conservation Stewardship Program. While this is a Farm Bill program controlled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the CSP has the potential to increase carbon sequestration on lands controlled by the Department of the Interior, as farmers and ranchers working on public lands are newly eligible to enroll in the program. 

Farmers and ranchers raising livestock on public lands can get CSP payments for adopting advanced grazing management, including management-intensive rotational grazing, according to a 2020 alert from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. In fact, graziers are being encouraged to adopt these practices with payments of at least 150 percent of the normal annual CSP rate.

4. #GrasslandsConservation

"No other ecosystem on the planet has the same capability to sequester carbon and reduce the impacts of climate change."

That's one of the arguments made for a North American Grasslands Conservation Act by five organizations proposing new investments in “conserving and restoring our native grasslands for ranchers, wildlife, and future generations.”

Unfortunately, grasslands are also one of the most endangered ecosystems, because it’s so easy to plow them into farmland.

The USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program has been the main vehicle for conserving grasslands, but over the last thirteen years, enrollment, which is voluntary, has plummeted from 36.7 million acres (2007) to 21.9 million acres (2020).

Its impact is still significant. Grasslands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program reduce flooding and erosion during extreme weather events, while sequestering 49 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. That’s the equivalent of taking 9 million cars off the road each year, according to the National Wildlife Federation, the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever.

USDA crop insurance subsidies create perverse incentives to plow up grasslands. The Farm Bill’s Highly Erodible Land Conservation provision attempts to lessen this incentive, at least in the six states that surround the prairie pothole region, by reducing subsidies for the first four years on any cropland converted from prairie. Known as Sodsaver, the rule is estimated to protect 12 million acres of highly erodible grasslands.

But, the Department of the Interior could do even more by permanently protecting grasslands and ensuring they are managed in perpetuity for maximum carbon sequestration.

5. #RegenerativeRanching

"A well-managed grazing system stores more carbon in the soil than grasslands that are not grazed."

That’s the conclusion of North Dakota grassland ecologist Rebecca Phillips quoted in a January 2021 Successful Farming article on the topic, “Livestock’s Role in a Changing Climate: The Grazing of Livestock Stores Carbon in the Soil.”

At RegenerativeRanching.org there are several profiles of “innovative land managers [who] thoughtfully harness the impact of grazing livestock as a valuable tool for ecological management to improve soil health, decrease bare ground, and increase water infiltration and retention.” 

RegenerativeRanching.org includes eight profiles of regenerative ranching on public lands. For an overview, listen to “Restoring Public Lands Through Grazing,” an episode of the “Down to Earth: The Planet to Plate Podcast” of the Quivira Coalition. 

The Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge uses regenerative ranching to maintain wildlife habitat. It improves conditions for native wildflowers (and their pollinators) through the reduction of grass thatch and grass height. It has also been proven to enhance winter bird diversity. Grazing has worked so well that acreage has increased as the refuge has grown from 650 acres in 1991 to 3,100 acres in 2018. 

Grassland birds are among the fastest declining species in North America. The Missouri Department of Conservation has found regenerative ranching to be an important strategy for protecting their habitat.

The Pueblo of Santa Ana Department of Natural Resources overcame a mere 8.5 inches of rain to increase grass cover by 108 percent. “The improved wildlife habitat supports not only the pronghorn, turkey, Rocky Mountain elk, mountain lion, mule deer, black bear, and bird species like Southwestern willow flycatchers and yellow-billed cuckoos, but also the approximately 900 tribal residents and three livestock grazing groups,” reports HolisticManagement.org.

On a former bombing range, public land managers at the Colorado State Land Board (CSLB) are collaborating with Lowry Ranch. Their year-round adaptive planned grazing funds Colorado’s public schools while promoting wildlife and increasing the health of the grasslands. After years of over-grazing, CSLB initially removed cattle from the property in the hopes of affecting ecological recovery but recovery was slow and in some cases, ecosystems were getting worse. Now, utilizing holistic management, revenues, forage quality and quantity, and water cycling have all increased.  

On Bureau of Land Management land ravaged by Chevron’s oil wells and pipelines, Goat Green uses 1,500 goats for land restoration. The goats, enclosed in 1-acre paddocks with portable electric fencing that can be moved up to 20 times per day, grazed nearly a million acres in Wyoming and Colorado over a 10-year period.

The lush green grass of Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area is thanks to regenerative ranching. The tiger salamander is one of the species protected by the grassland stewardship. 

Regenerative grazing restored prairie chicken habitat in Buena Vista Wildlife Area. “The first year I saw one prairie chicken all season. The next year I saw three or four. Then last year I saw whole flocks of them,” said grazier Bill Kolodziej. 

As regenerative as grazing can be when done right, unregulated grazing can be a disaster.

The most recent data on the health of federal rangelands reveal extensive damage from excessive commercial livestock grazing, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER):

Bureau of Land Management’s Standards for Rangeland Health prescribe the minimum quality of water, vegetation and soils, as well as the ability to support wildlife, required by the agency for permitting livestock grazing.  The most recent (2018) rangeland health report on BLM grazing allotments across 150 million acres in 13 Western states shows:

•Of total acres assessed, 42 percent (40 million acres) fail to meet BLM Standards for Rangeland Health;

•The largest portion (70 percent) of range health failure is due to livestock overgrazing in allotments covering nearly 28 million acres; and

•These figures are underestimates because nearly 40 percent of federal rangelands (59 million acres) have never been assessed.

“By its own yardstick, BLM is a poor steward of our federal rangeland,” stated PEER Advocacy Director Kristen Stade.

Regenerative agriculture advocates say, it’s not the cow, it’s the how, but “how” often depends on “who.”

Who is the best steward of the land? Among ranchers, it is those who breed and raise their cattle from birth to slaughter exclusively on grass. Their livelihoods are utterly dependent on the land, so they’re unlikely to squander that resource, especially if they work for themselves and see their ranching business as something valuable to be passed to future generations. This kind of rancher depends on one thing: the ability to process and sell their beef themselves. That can’t happen if they can’t access a local USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.

For too many ranchers, they have no other option than to raise cattle to be slaughtered by the big-four meat packers,Tyson Foods, JBS SA, Cargill and National Beef/Marfrig, which control more than 80 percent of our nation’s beef processing.

These ranchers may still believe in regenerative ranching, but every economic incentive pushes them in the opposite direction, and when their cattle end up in feedlots fed on irrigated, pesticide-drenched GMO crops raised on land carved out of prairie, any environmental benefit of their grassland management is canceled out.

That’s one of the problems that’s visible in RegenerativeRanching.org’s profile of Flying Diamond, a family-owned and operated ranch in Colorado that runs cattle on public lands in addition to a ranch they own. As Colorado Biz Magazine notes:

Although the cattle are grass-fed and organic, that remains a niche market, good for only 10 percent of the cattle, Scott Johnson says. The rest are shipped when they are about 500 pounds to feedlots to be fattened on corn.

That statement is only partially true, as most grass-fed and organic beef eaten in the U.S. is imported (even though it may be labeled “Product of the USA” due to a loophole that allows imported beef that’s packaged here to bear the label).

The Department of the Interior’s goal should be for all animals grazed on federal lands to be grass-fed from birth to slaughter. To accomplish that goal, it would need to support efforts to establish the rancher-owned or public meatpacking plants needed to process the meat locally. 

6. #LandBack

The #LandBack movement has another good answer to the question, Who is the best steward of the land? It’s the people who have managed the land successfully for millenia. Their demand is simple; give the land that was stolen back to Indigenous nations:

Many see Laguna Pueblo Rep. Deb Haaland’s nomination to be the next secretary of the Department of the Interior as a paradigm shift where Indigenous demands for mass land return are no longer aspirational, but possible. Organizations like NDN Collective have their sights for #LandBack set on the more than 500 million acres of public lands that fall under DOI’s oversight.

That’s from a January 19 op-ed by The Red Nation cofounder Melanie K. Yazzie. She quotes Haaland, who said: 

I think it’s a time in our world―not just in our country, but our entire world―to listen to Indigenous people when it comes to climate change, when it comes to our environment.

Research backs this up. Putting indigenous groups in control of their lands is one of the most effective ways to protect natural resources and benefit the climate, as the Los Angeles Times reported in, “They’ve managed the forest forever. It’s why they’re key to the climate change fight.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change even says that empowering indigenous peoples is necessary to meet international climate goals.

This understanding needs to be integrated into U.S. policy. As Tyler J. Lark writes in the journal Land Use Policy: 

Across all levels of administration, policy makers should look toward tribal governments and Indigenous communities as partners in conservation and leaders in the stewardship of natural lands. Despite centuries of tumultuous federal policy, sovereign tribal nations have maintained millions of acres of grasslands as intact and ecologically diverse habitat, including roughly 10% of the unplowed grasslands in the Northern Great Plains. The knowledge and values that anchor many Native American cultures, like a shared responsibility to care for the land and an obligation to do right by the next generation, are central to grassland conservation. Further supporting and incorporating these principles within grassland policies and initiatives as well as expanding collaborations with tribal citizens and organizations represent important opportunities to cooperatively improve prairie protection.

7. #BuffaloTreaty

"From time immemorial the buffalo has created a relationship with the natural environment resulting in an eco-balance with other animals and the plant life on the land. The buffalo, one can say, is a great environmentalist.”

Those are the words of Dr. Leroy Little Bear in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on behalf of the signatories of the Buffalo Treaty, which states, in part:

It is our collective intention to recognize BUFFALO as a wild free-ranging animal and as an important part of the ecological system; to provide a safe space and environment across our historic homelands, on both sides of the United States and the Canadian border, so together WE can have our brother, the BUFFALO, lead us in nurturing our land, plants and other animals to once again realize THE BUFFALO WAYS for our future generations.

The Indigenous nations who have signed the Buffalo Treaty face some of the same challenges as regenerative ranchers. They point to the Biden-Harris Administration’s Plan for Tribal Nations that addresses many of these challenges, including by:

Investing in the infrastructure needed for food production and processing in Indian Country. Tribes do not have sufficient capital to invest in food production and processing infrastructure, locking them out of tremendous economic opportunities as well as the ability to better provide for local nutritional needs. Biden will invest in the infrastructure needed for food processing, packaging, and storage.

These seven campaigns are just a sampling of the demands of social justice activists for the Department of the Interior under the leadership of Secretary Deb Haaland. We’ll keep you updated as these campaigns progress and alert you to opportunities to take action.

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