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USDA Finally Recognizing That Soil Can Sequester Carbon

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What a difference twenty years make.

On April 23rd, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a major voluntary, incentive-based effort to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, expanding renewable energy production, and increasing carbon sequestration in partnership with various agricultural producers across the nation. Specifically, this effort aims to achieve a net reduction of 2% of greenhouse emissions by 2025, or the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road, according to the press release.

While this goal is not particularly ambitious, frankly, it does represent a startling change from the type of conservation priorities on federally owned lands that I encountered when I co-founded the Quivira Coalition nearly twenty years ago. It’s an important indication not only how serious climate change has become as a policy issue, but also a testament to how far soil carbon has risen as a climate change mitigation strategy. If you had told me as recently as 2010, when I began researching a book on soil carbon, that the Secretary of Agriculture would be supporting publicly the implementation of practices that sequestered carbon in soils, I would not have believed you.

But here’s what the press release said: “USDA intends to pursue partnerships and leverage resources to conserve and enhance greenhouse gas sinks, reduce emissions, increase renewable energy and build resilience in agricultural and forest systems.”

Here are some of the USDA’s Building Blocks for Climate Action announced at the April press conference:

    Soil Health: Improve soil resilience and increase productivity by promoting conservation tillage and no-till systems, planting cover crops, planting perennial forages, managing organic inputs and compost application, and alleviating compaction. For example, the effort aims to increase the use of no-till systems to cover more than 100 million acres by 2025.

    Grazing and Pasture Lands: Support rotational grazing management on an additional 4 million acres, avoiding soil carbon loss through improved management of forage, soils and grazing livestock.

    Stewardship of Federal Forests: Reforest areas damaged by wildfire, insects, or disease, and restore forests to increase their resilience to those disturbances. This includes plans to reforest an additional 5,000 acres each year.

    Urban Forests: Encourage tree planting in urban areas to reduce energy costs, storm water runoff, and urban heat island effects while increasing carbon sequestration, curb appeal, and property values.

Twenty years ago, goals like these would have made all of us fall out of our saddles. Words like adaptation, mitigation, sequestration and even resilience were not on anyone’s agenda, much less the words climate change. At the time, we worked mainly on improving land health – the ecological processes that sustain life in rangelands and riparian areas. Mostly, we focused on living things above the ground, such as plants, animals and people. The microbial subsurface universe was terra incognita for many of us. And carbon? Wasn’t that just some element on a Periodic Chart?

How the times have changed.