Saving America’s forestlands one community forest at a time

Forests are shrinking and disappearing across the United States.

Wildfires and real estate development have taken their toll. Aggressive harvesting by businesses interested in quick profits is also to blame.

The recent loss of forestland actually represents a reversal of a much longer trend, in which forests cleared for farmland during the colonial era slowly regenerated over many decades. But the pendulum is now swinging the other way. According to a 2017 study by Harvard University, New England alone is losing 65 acres of forest every day.

Over the past two decades, we’ve pioneered a movement to save our forestlands. Our “community forest” model is centered on local ownership, with a town or a nonprofit buying a forest and managing it for conservation, public access, and economic benefits.

Betsy Cook, the Maine state program director at The Trust for Public Land, talks with us about the community forest model and why it holds promise to protect this vital resource.

Q: When people think of forests, they probably imagine a state or federal forest or maybe one owned by a timber company. So what do we mean by “community forest”?

A: Community forests are forests managed by the community for the community. Four pillars define our approach to community forests. First, the community participates in the management decisions around the land. The second is that benefits flow to community. That could mean proceeds from sustainable timber harvesting or less tangible benefits from tourism and the outdoor-recreation economy. The third piece is community ownership—actually having the land owned by the community, which which can be a town, county, nonprofit, or other community entity. It’s a form of ownership that makes sure the community is really involved in the stewardship of the land. The last piece is permanent protection. This will ensure that the forest is conserved and that benefits continue to flow to the community for generations to come.

[Read more: Community forest in Maine expands, ensuring access for generations to come]

Q: How did the community forest model come about?

Exploring the Bethel Community Forest in Bethel, Maine. Photo credit: Jerry and Marcy Monkman

A: The concept of a community forest has been around for centuries or even thousands of years. So, we are building on an idea that is engrained in many cultures. But the modern Trust for Public Land–led movement took off about two decades ago with a group called the Community Forest Collaborative; The Trust for Public Land was a core member. The collaborative helped develop resources for towns to create community forests, laid out best practices, and established a federal funding program. The U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program supports local communities that want to create community forests. Our advocacy led to the establishment of that program in 2014.

Q: What kind of progress have you seen in the past 20 years?

A: The first community forest we helped establish was in Randolph, New Hampshire, in 2001. Since then, we have helped to directly support the creation of more than 30 community forests across the country, covering at least 30,000 acres. The size of each forest ranges widely, from a few hundred acres to 13,000 acres. New England is our most active region, and a large part of that has to do with the strong system of town governance. That matches really well with the community forest model. Most communities have a town meeting every year, and often the community forest is voted on at the annual meeting. You get 300 people in these old town halls and everyone gets to see each other. Residents raise a green placard for Yes and red for No. It’s a great example of civic engagement and community participation. There are also community forests we’ve worked on in the Pacific Northwest, so the model has taken hold there as well. And there’s a pocket of activity in the Midwest, in places such as Wisconsin and Minnesota.

[Explore our work: A new community-owned forest keeps outdoor adventure in the lesson plan]

Q: One of the potential economic benefits to the town stems from sustainable forestry. What does that look like, and is it good for the forest?

A woman mountain biking on a trail in autumn on Millstone Hill in Barre, Vermont. Photo credit: Jerry and Marcy Monkman

A: Yes, it absolutely is. The planning for a community forest includes optimizing for wildlife and habitat, recreation, and sustainable forest management. Often there are habitats you’re trying to improve and cutting some trees will benefit a bird or mammal species. When done well, sustainable forest management is beneficial for ecology and wildlife, while also creating revenue for the town. With community forests especially, the forest management plan is written to a high standard. Any cutting of trees is done with the utmost care and concern for the health of the forest. Typically, we are purchasing from industrial forest owners motivated by a quick financial return. That kind of management leads to a heavier timber harvesting. By contrast, community forests are for the long run. In some cases, the town might harvest only what is needed to cover the lost property tax revenue from the previous owner. Other towns might lease a small patch of the forest to a maple syrup producer, which taps the trees.

Q: How does a community go about creating a community forest?

A: Sometimes, the impetus is a piece of land that suddenly comes on the market. It might be a forest that community members were allowed to use and love, and they want it to be protected. Or a community will come to us and say, ‘We don’t have a parcel in mind, but we want a community forest because we love the model and want the benefits.’ In that case, The Trust for Public Land does some mapping and finds a piece of land that is a good fit. If we partner with a town government, we have a process we work through. After identifying forestland for the community to acquire, we negotiate with the landowner to secure the property. Then we raise money through public and private funding sources. But before the land is acquired, there is a robust community planning process and a management plan is developed. Finally, we acquire the land and convey, or transfer, the forest to the town.

[Read more: How community forests chart a path to prosperity and connection]

Q: How do residents use their community forests?

Runners make their way through the Williston Community Forest in Vermont. Photo credit: ©Brian Mohr/ Ember Photography

A: Usually, a governance committee is established to implement the management plan. Some towns host trail races through their forests and organize art festivals. A town in Vermont had a trick-or-treating event in the community forest on Halloween. Another town, in New Hampshire, created new glades for backcountry skiers and also blazed an educational trail with signage about wildflowers and animals. Some towns or nonprofits allow local residents to harvest wood from the forest to heat their homes. These places really come to life with the energy of the community. They also are all about meeting a community’s specific goals and needs.

Q: Besides the obvious conservation and economic benefits, are there other ways a community forest helps local towns and residents?

A: Yes, certainly. Community forests guarantee public access for recreation, which can lead to improvements in both mental and physical health. Studies show that exposure to nature reduces stress and alleviates depression. The forests are also an educational asset, with schools using them for outdoor learning. Then there is the social benefit—the community-building aspect. Community forests are created through a very public process. The local community comes together with a shared goal and makes collaborative decisions. Research shows that community-building creates opportunities for people to become more civically engaged and connected to their neighborhoods. Finally, community forests—like all forests—mitigate climate change since trees absorb and store carbon dioxide. New England is projected to lose 1.2 million acres of forest, along with 19 percent of its carbon-storage capacity, by 2060. A changing climate and deforestation are threatening some of the most biodiverse regions of the United States. Protection of our forested landscapes is one of the best strategies we have to combat climate change.

This article was originally written for The Trust for Public Land’s blog.

Sharing is Caring: How a New Approach to Forest Management is Paying Dividends

Aaron Kimple, a leading proponent of shared stewardship, paddling the Animas River in Colorado. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Aaron Kimple

As a river guide on the Rio Grande in Big Bend Texas in the 1990s, Aaron Kimple’s senses were always on overload as he paddled through the remote landscape among migratory birds, past fields of wildflowers and millions of buzzing insects. One of those senses, however, was fear. His anxiety was constantly triggered during those heady days on the rapids. “We would boat that river, and we always knew that one of the big constraints was the fact that the Rio Grande didn’t flow consistently. And we weren’t guaranteed water,” he says.

Kimple eventually migrated upriver into the Pagosa Springs region of Southwest Colorado, plying the San Juan River, the Colorado River and sometimes returning to the Rio Grande. He and his wife, Kathy, fell in love with the mountains, rivers, snow and skiing, and moved to Durango in 2000. In Colorado, he found his calling.

It was the beginning of a career defined by connections — between land, water and people — and a stark realization about what needs to be done to protect them. Kimple is now the director of the Mountain Studies Institute’s forest health program, where he oversees watershed and forest health initiatives and facilitates community stakeholder groups.

That facilitation is the crux of his life’s mission. His “second job” is coordinator of the Two Watersheds, Three Rivers, Two States (2-3-2) Cohesive Strategy Partnership, a mouthful of a title that belies a simple premise: by working across boundaries, at large scale and with multiple stakeholders, land managers can achieve much more than they could by focusing on individual projects with limited boundaries, size and partners.

“It’s just an intriguing endeavor,” Kimple says of the origins of the 2-3-2. “We were really beginning this idea that we can bring money from the state side and the federal side, incorporate local and foundational investments, and instead of patchworking our work across the landscape, we can really consolidate it and have a true impact.”

This led to working across state lines with New Mexico, on water issues primarily, and on wildfires that burned across borders, including one that jumped the Continental Divide and heavily impacted the Rio Grande watershed.

“When we started recognizing those connections, we said, ‘How do we come together to think about this?’” Kimple adds. “Rather than competing, how can we work together to leverage our efforts and truly have that landscape-scale impact?”

That concept is known as shared stewardship, and it’s revolutionizing wildfire management, forest and watershed protection, drought control, and the ongoing battle with disease and pest outbreaks across the United States. Instead of focusing on disconnected, individual projects working with limited partners or agencies, shared stewardship actively encourages organizations to join forces and work across state, county or jurisdictional lines.

“Any one group, agency or landowner is not able to fix our forest health problems,” says Brian Kittler, senior director of forest restoration at American Forests. “Turning to each other, building trust and building projects together, and then finding ways to co-plan, develop, fund and implement bigger projects at a larger scale together for a greater impact — that, to me, is what shared stewardship is about.”

Working together has become increasingly important, given the growing scope of problems devastating large swaths of forest.

Kittler, for example, points to the Western U.S. as a place where a combination of stressors and disturbance patterns across a much larger scale are pushing ecosystems to a tipping point. Widespread pest outbreaks and long-term drought — both linked to climate change — are creating significant tree die-offs, he says.

“And then a large wildfire comes through and burns at very high severity. There’s essentially no live cone-bearing trees left because of the beetle outbreak and the drought that killed the trees, so you have large, large areas in some of these landscapes that aren’t going to be naturally regenerating.”

All of these stressors, when combined with a legacy of fire suppression and uncoordinated forest management, have led to critical conditions in many forests and watersheds.

Something Old, Something New

Shared stewardship is a relatively new term. A 2018 vision and policy statement by former U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Vicki Christiansen helped brand the term and bring it to a much wider audience. But the idea and practices behind it have been around for decades and practiced in many parts of the world.

In the grasslands of southern Nepal and northern India, the Terai Arc Landscape links 16 protected areas into a contiguous habitat for tigers, rhinos and elephants. Community forest user groups are empowered to help man- age forest corridors between the protected areas while also benefiting from tourism income and livelihood improvement projects.

In the U.S., the USFS has long worked with tribes, states, communities and collaborative groups on reforestation and restoration. New policies, evolving science and strategic shifts toward more robust partnerships with communities and stakeholders have helped push shared stewardship to the forefront.

One of the most important policies is the Good Neighbor Authority, which since 2001 has increasingly allowed the USFS and Bureau of Land Management to work on land management projects with states, counties and Indian tribes, including those that cross boundaries. Equally important are stewardship contracting and agreement authorities, which open the door to a much wider range of local and rural project partners, such as nonprofits, community based organizations, local governments and rural contractors.

Following Christiansen’s 2018 statement and policy release, the USFS began a major push to establish formal Shared Stewardship Agreements and put them into action. The Agency has now signed agreements with 47 states, the District of Columbia and three territories. Some agreements are with individual states while others are with collective entities, such as the Western Governors’ Association and the states of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

The agreements are specific to each state, conditions on the ground and the threats and priorities they face. However, they all focus on a collaborative approach to land management that addresses challenges and opportunities that cross boundaries. Partners share decisions and goal setting, and active management by non-federal partners is encouraged to maximize the scale and impact of the work.

In a May 2019 speech in Silverdale, Wash., Christiansen summarized the reason for the USFS’s commitment to shared stewardship. “The scale of our work has to match the scale of the risks and the problems we face,” she said.

Jacqueline Buchanan is keenly aware of that scale. As the USFS deputy regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region, she notes that “land management challenges like wildfires, insects and drought recognize no boundaries; they impact all jurisdictions.” Buchanan works closely with the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative, a collaboration between the USFS, the National Wild Turkey Federation and more than 40 natural resource leaders from across Colorado. In its first year, the initiative worked with more than 125 partners to improve forest conditions on over 24,000 acres of public and private lands in Southwest Colorado.

Not Just a Western Issue

Patrick and Katie Banks opened Foolhardy Hill campground thanks to an entrepreneurial challenge grant from the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. They worked with a startup accelerator called Lever to develop their pitch — an example of the kind of public/private partnerships that thrive because of shared stewardship. Photo Credit: Eric Korenman

In the Eastern U.S., wildfires may be less of a risk, but top of mind are pest outbreaks from invasive moths and hemlock woody adelgid, along with dis- ease outbreaks and climate change impacts. In the rural, heavily forested northwest corner of Massachusetts, the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership is working to create natural resource-based economic development opportunities aligned with the state’s shared stewardship agreement. The Partnership is driven by the residents of Western Franklin and Northern Berkshire Counties, and centered on a shared desire to conserve the region’s forests and rural way of life, while improving the region’s financial sustainability.

This region is among Massachusetts’ most economically distressed, with low wages, population decline and financial instability. However, it has high potential for tourism, sustainable forestry and other development opportunities, says Kurt Gaertner, assistant secretary for environmental policy in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). “Part of the reason why we have a shared stewardship agreement with the USFS, why 17 of the 21 communities in the region have now voted to accept the partnership, is they realize the potential benefits of working together on this,” he says.

That’s big in a region that has a degree of skepticism toward government, Gaertner adds. And the vision of the Mohawk Partnership is common to many Eastern U.S. regions facing land conservation, rural economy and forest health challenges. Shared stewardship agreements follow a different model than the Western U.S., since this area has no national forest and very little federal land. For this reason, there is a much greater focus on relationships, investments and technical expertise from other parts of the USFS besides the National Forest System.

Two beneficiaries of the partnership are Patrick and Katie Banks, who worked with a startup accelerator called Lever to win a challenge grant from EEA in order to open a much needed off-the-grid campground, Foolhardy Hill. Whitewater rafting and mountain biking are big here, and there aren’t enough hotels to serve them. The project is built on old logging roads to limit its forest footprint and designed with sustainability in mind for the outdoor community. Elsewhere in the region, conservation easements helped by the Mohawk Partnership allow landowners to protect their forests but also benefit financially from them via tax breaks.

Good Neighbors

New Mexico State Forester Laura McCarthy at an overlook above the Rio Chama River, a critically important watershed in New Mexico. In the background is smoke from a managed natural wildfire that is helping reduce forest fuels close to the river. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Laura McCarthy

Like Aaron Kimple, Laura McCarthy is fixated on water. She has no choice. That’s because, as the state forester for New Mexico, she sees the impact of decreasing water flows. And she is alarmed.

“We just can’t do it by ourselves. Nobody can. And I think in some ways, New Mexico is out front. And that’s because we have no money. I call us a state that does things using duct tape and bubble gum,” McCarthy says.

McCarthy supervises 78 people, half of them focused on fire full time. The other half focus on forest land management. She sees the 2-3-2 as particularly important for New Mexico because of water. The water relationship between Colorado and New Mexico is complex, governed by the Rio Grande Compact, an interstate water agreement that regulates how water is allocated between the two states and Texas. But this compact is seriously outdated, created in a time that did not anticipate today’s overwhelming thirst for a limited water supply, as well as climate-driven drought. The three states are currently in litigation before the Supreme Court, arguing over the Rio Grande Compact.

“The way [the water compacts] are structured is kind of counter to any kind of collaboration or cross-boundary work,” McCarthy says. “What’s been really interesting and helpful about the 2-3-2 in the larger stewardship effort, is that it’s like a whole different arena for talking about cross-boundary work that transcends these historical issues and problems with water management.”

Kimple agrees. “One of the amazing things that we’ve found is how strong a barrier that state line can appear to be. All of our policies, all of our regulations, all of our practices, say that we need to be working within our state boundaries. But our watersheds, our fire sheds, none of those respect those boundaries that we draw.”

He describes working with McCarthy as fantastic and stresses the importance of key partners such as the Forest Stewards Guild and The Nature Conservancy, which helped develop the Rio Grande Water Fund, a public-private collaborative that invests in forest restoration projects to ensure pure, clean water in the Rio Grande Watershed.

McCarthy paints a daunting picture of the future, describing a recent conversation with the deputy regional forester about priorities for the year. “We feel like we’re in kind of a losing battle in terms of climate change. And yet, what we hear as we talk to others is that we’re far ahead when it comes to shared stewardship and our planning and what we’ve already accomplished.”

Is she hopeful? “I think what makes me hopeful is this attitude that I think is shared by many, many New Mexicans, and by pretty much uniformly everybody who’s involved in shared stewardship. The attitude is — well, it may be grim, and the odds are probably against us, but we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”

A Post-Pandemic Reunion

This part of Jackson Mountain in Colorado is managed by a private company under a contract with USFS that reduces the fire risk in exchange for the right to sell the timber. Photo Credit: Michael Remke Photography

On an early morning in late June, 33 people crammed into trucks, vans and SUVs in Pagosa Springs, Colo., and began the slow climb up Jackson Mountain. They were part of a study tour organized by the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership, a participant in the 2-3-2 Cohesive Strategy Partnership.

Kimple was there, along with USFS staff, state and local forest leaders, mountain biking advocates, conservation leaders, volunteers, a homeowner’s association and an impact investment expert from Washington, D.C.

As they set off up the mountain, spirits were high for a couple of reasons. First, due to COVID-19, this was the first time many of the participants had seen each other in a year and a half. And secondly, they were witnessing the first steady rainfall in months, offering relief from a brutal, years-long drought that has raised the wildfire risk to alarming levels.

One of those joining was Pagosa Springs resident Austin Rempel, who is American Forests’ senior manager of forest restoration. Rempel notes that 60 to 70% of the traffic in town this summer was from Texas — part of the “Zoom Boom” of people moving to, and often working from, more remote locations. “It’s a place where subdivisions are rapidly expanding into the forest, right alongside USFS land,” Rempel says. “At every stop (during the study tour) we talked about the recreation pressure that the forest is seeing. The number of people in the forest is way higher than it’s ever been.”

The first stop was an active logging site run by The Forest Health Company under a stewardship contract with the USFS that allows a private entity to come in and log. The area is overgrown and at high risk for fire, notes Rempel. “We were standing in a spot that would have been an extremely dangerous place to fight fire, because it was completely overgrown — it would have been one of those uncontrollable blazes near the town.”

The arrangement relieves the USFS of the burden and cost of reducing the fuel load and disposing of excess biomass, while the company benefits from selling the timber it recovers.

At the next stops, they heard from a venture capitalist about bringing innovative finance tools to forest management and looked at how best to manage the explosive growth of mountain biking in the area. They also heard from USFS staff about new opportunities for recreation and resource use, and learned from birdwatchers about the impact of forest management on bird species.

Rempel says this type of event would be much harder without the convening power of a collaborative like 2-3-2 and organizing entities, such as Mountain Studies Institute and San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership. “This is a shining example of the kind of local and regional collaboration that I think they’re trying to enshrine with shared stewardship,” Rempel says. “It’s essentially a diverse group helping the USFS do more, and better work — be it highlighting things that aren’t working; bringing resources like volunteers, outside funding and special expertise from birders, scientists and mountain bike planning teams; or even just constructive engagement and supportive voices.”

The Long View

A thunderstorm looms over Jackson Mountain in Colorado. This area is an important part of the 2-3-2 Cohesive Strategy Partnership that balances multiple interests and stakeholders to sustainably manage the landscape. Photo Credit: Michael Remke Photography

So, what is the long-term outlook for shared stewardship? Two people who have been looking at that question are Courtney Schultz and Chad Kooistra of the Public Lands Policy Group at Colorado State University. Their ongoing five-year study examines the effectiveness of the USFS’s 2018 Shared Stewardship Strategy during its initial implementation. After talking to over 120 people involved in shared stewardship at all levels last year, they found a high level of optimism about the strategy. Those interviewed agreed on the need for partnerships and for work on cross-boundary landscapes to address wild- fires and forest/watershed health.

But they also shared concern about the human and financial resources needed for shared stewardship. Those interviewed wanted to know how to learn from other states and other collaboratives, what works and doesn’t in terms of building relationships. There were questions about how different laws impact cross-boundary work, and how to mix and match funding sources and work with the forest products industry to leverage resources.

“A lot of people talked about shared stewardship as like a state of mind, or an ethos,” Kooistra says. “It was kind of like framing what everybody was already thinking and saying, and giving people something to unite around and just at the very least, start to have that conversation.”

As for Aaron Kimple and his long, strange trip from the Rio Grande to Colorado? He’s excited about the prospects for the 2-3-2. The partnership of 24 organizations and government agencies has helped secure over $5 million in project funding along with new Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Funding from the USFS that will likely bring in around $3 to 4 million per year. They have worked with partners to treat over 10,000 acres through prescribed fire and build wider acceptance of its importance to forest ecology and wildfire reduction. They have also created new networks for timber suppliers and elevated local alliances.

He’s also looking at the future and his hopes for his 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. “We get out on the landscape and play with our kids, and they get out on the rivers, they hike and camp in the forest, they love all these resources. And to me, what I hope for them is to carry a love of this place, a love of what it offers.”

Lee Poston serves as a communications advisor and writes from University Park, Md.

This article was originally written for the American Forests Magazine.

Farmers Taking the Lead for a Healthier Future

This story is republished from The Nature Conservancy in Idaho’s website.

In the face of a changing climate, more farmers are joining a growing movement to build healthier soil and more resilient water supplies using regenerative agriculture. By shifting to practices that restore nature instead of deplete it, farmers can improve yields and profits, meet increasing consumer demand and support generations of farmers to come.

In the following profiles, you will meet Idaho farmers and TNC partners who are embracing soil health practices to create a better future for their families, communities and nature.

Brad Johnson

A Lifelong Passion for Soil Health

Brad Johnson Agricultural Strategy Manager, Photo Credit: TNC/Neil Crescenti

Brad Johnson, The Nature Conservancy’s agriculture strategy manager, grew up farming the same land in Tensed, ID that his father and grandfather had farmed since the 1930s. For generations, his family grew wheat, barley, peas, lentils and blue grass seed using conventional farming methods, including tillage. The tillage caused heavy erosion where soil washed out in ditches or piled up on surrounding highways.

But when Brad was 12 years old, he had an “ah-ha” moment that would change his view of farming. His father began using a no-till drill and for the first time, the erosion was gone. “We saw results that very first year,” Brad says. “Every time we no-tilled, the erosion stopped. And every time we tilled again, the erosion came back.”

Witnessing these results firsthand sparked in Brad a lifelong passion for soil health. When he worked as a ranch hand implementing no-till practices in Salmon, ID, he started learning about other regenerative techniques, like integrating livestock and crop rotation and diversity. “I began to see that soil health was a system of regenerative agriculture principles, with each practice being an essential cog in the wheel,” he says.

Brad joined TNC in 2019, where he now manages a demonstration farm and works directly with Idaho farmers to provide them with resources, equipment and consultation to implement regenerative agriculture practices on their own farms. And while Brad has seen a growing interest in soil health over the years, he still feels concern every time he sees a “mini-Dust Bowl” of eroded topsoil alongside fields. “Healthy soil takes a long time to build back once it’s lost. We can do substantial repair in 5 years or less if we start now.”

For Brad, the many rewards of regenerative agriculture outweigh the risks. “We get healthier food when we work with nature instead of against it,” he says. “When we use regenerative practices that mimic nature, we can increase farm income, improve the quality of life for producers and have healthier communities. We can be part of the solution to climate change and help create cleaner, more abundant water supplies.”

As a third generation farmer and soil health advocate from a young age, Brad is excited by the opportunities for agriculture and conservation to work hand-in-hand. “Supporting Idaho agriculture and soil health is my passion,” he says. “Farmers are inherently stewards of the land because it’s the basis of their livelihoods, and conservation is the key to protecting the land farmers make their living from.”

Bob Howard

Leaving the Land Better for the Next Generation

Bob Howard, Bob has partnered with TNC’s agriculture program, Photo Credit: TNC/Neil Crescenti

Hammett-based rancher Bob Howard does some of his best thinking in his “four-wheeled think tank,” driving along fields and pastures to check on his cattle. A longtime rancher, co-founder with the Wilsey family of Desert Mountain Grass-Fed Beef—a cooperative of ranches and farms that use regenerative farming practices—and grandfather to 12 grandkids, Bob is eager to think outside the box and learn new practices that build soil health. His reason? “I’m always thinking about my grandkids, what kind of future they’ll have,” says Bob.

Bob’s willingness to experiment is what led him to partner with a local farmer on regenerative agriculture practices in Grand View. United by a shared interest in soil health, and with TNC providing consultation support, they teamed up to create a regenerative system of farming and ranching by planting 75 acres of corn into living Timothy hay. “We’re trying new things, and we’re doing it better all the time,” says Bob.

As the Timothy grows as a cover crop, the living roots help store water, absorb carbon and promote biodiversity, resulting in a healthier landscape and watershed. After the corn is harvested, Bob’s herd of 700 cattle rotationally graze the field to keep the grass in a juvenile state, ensuring the ground stays covered and maximizing the below-ground soil health benefits. The manure provides a natural fertilizer that further enhances the soil with nutrients and microbes, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.

The partnership provides more than just practical benefits for both farmer and rancher. Bob sees regenerative agriculture practices, including sustainable grazing, as one of the best ways to restore the health of the land—and the planet. “We’re just on the edge of what we can do—and the scary thing is what will happen if we don’t change,” says Bob.

For Bob, the learning curve of regenerative agriculture is an investment in a better future. “My hope is that 50 years from now, we will have healthy land to make a living from while feeding people locally, removing carbon from the atmosphere and restoring our land,” he says. Through his cooperative Desert Mountain Grass-Fed Beef, Bob is working to scale regenerative ranching across the West by bringing together ranching families who care about soil health and land stewardship. “These practices are good for the land, which benefits the whole of society. But for me, it all comes back to my grandkids,” says Bob. “You’ve got to leave it better, no matter how long it takes.”

Interested in learning about how regenerative agriculture could benefit your farm? Contact Brad Johnson, TNC’s agriculture strategy manager.

For Solar Energy to Succeed, it Needs to Co-Exist with Agriculture

Solar energy is a necessary tool in the fight against climate change. Experts agree that sourcing more energy from cleaner sources, such as solar panels, will help mitigate some of climate change’s future impacts. For America’s farmers and ranchers, this means limiting the regular occurrence of catastrophic weather events—such as floods, droughts, and intense heat waves—that threaten land and livelihood, as well as slowing less obvious climactic shifts that affect crops and livestock. A new study in Nature Food shows that if we don’t stem climate change and its associated effects, we’ll see significant impacts to food production, and thus food security, much sooner than previously predicted. 

Yet without a thoughtful approach to the physical deployment of solar energy, American agriculture could still suffer. The U.S. Department of Energy projects that 10.3 million acres of solar will be needed to decarbonize the nation’s electrical grid by mid-century, with 90 percent of the utility-scale solar capacity likely to be installed in rural communities. And given that solar developers often prefer flat, open, well-drained landscapes near existing electrical infrastructure for their arrays, some of America’s most productive, versatile, and climate-resilient farmland in these communities could be at risk. When combined with threats from sprawl and low-density development—which are highlighted in AFT’s Farms Under Threat report—the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural uses is a real concern. 

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that 10.3 million acres of solar will be needed to decarbonize the nation’s electrical grid by mid-century, with 90 percent of the utility-scale solar capacity likely to be installed in rural communities.

AFT recognizes the potential tension between deploying massive ground-mounted solar energy infrastructure and conserving our nation’s most productive farmland. To navigate this challenge, AFT is developing a “Smart Solar Siting” approach that seeks a dynamic and innovative middle ground.

With this thoughtful strategy:

  1. Solar development is directed to more marginal and less productive farmland, if sited on farmland at all
  2. Farmers are empowered and informed to make decisions that support long-term farm viability
  3. Regenerative approaches are incorporated into siting policy and industry practices, especially on the best farmland. 

Although our involvement in this space is relatively new, we’re already recognized as thought-leaders and experts in the field, both regionally and nationally. Just last week, Samantha Levy—AFT’s Climate Policy Manager—was quoted in a New York Times article about solar energy, sharing a vision for thoughtful solar development. 

Beyond our work on siting traditional solar arrays, AFT is also helping lead the way in advancing agrivoltaics, or dual-use solar. At its core, agrivoltaics enables agricultural and energy production on the same piece of land. By raising solar panels higher off the ground and spacing them further apart than in traditional arrays, agrivoltaic systems allow more sunlight to reach the ground. Farmers can then grow certain crops or raise livestock under the panels, as well as maneuver tractors and other equipment. Different from simple co-location, agrivoltaic systems are designed to enable farming activity throughout the life of the solar facility in a manner that is consistent with the productive capacity of the land. To be sure, these systems are more expensive to install than traditional arrays, but where incentives and other mechanisms are present to drive this approach, a win-win situation can emerge for clean energy, rural communities, and agriculture. 

In addition to efficiently producing clean energy, agrivoltaics can offer important economic opportunities for farmers through the combination of solar lease payments and continued agricultural production.

AFT is at the forefront of efforts to study and evaluate the efficacy of this approach—and for good reason. Recently, AFT’s Brooks Lamb co-authored a report on agrivoltaics, published by the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale. Lamb and his co-author, Bill Pedersen, explored the many benefits of this system. In addition to efficiently producing clean energy, agrivoltaics can offer important economic opportunities for farmers through the combination of solar lease payments and continued agricultural production. This consistent, reliable, diversified income could be a saving grace for many farmers, especially small and mid-sized farmers who often struggle with cash flow. Additional benefits—for communities, for wildlife, for farmland conservation, and even for increased agricultural production of certain crops, grasses, and livestock—are possible, too. Looking forward, the report also shares advice for local communities who want to encourage agrivoltaics adoption and suggests further studies that could propel this practice.

Interest in this innovative system—which has roots in some of the same dual-use philosophies as agroforestry—is also growing outside of AFT. Across the country, clean energy associations, farm advocates, solar developers, and researchers are partnering with farmers and communities to explore applications for dual use and novel agrivoltaic systems. The Associated Press recently dedicated an entire article to agrivoltaics, and this piece was picked up by both local papers and national media. To further understand the burgeoning interest in this system, just type “agrivoltaics” into your favorite online search engine. In a second or less, you’ll see a bevy of recent results. 

AFT strongly supports and is committed to urgent actions to address climate change. This work complements AFT’s programs that increase the adoption of regenerative agriculture, support women in farming, advance equity, bolster rural economies and agricultural viability, and enhance farmland protection. 

Through smart solar siting, applied research, and policy innovation in support of agrivoltaics, American Farmland Trust is meeting the challenges—and opportunities—of clean energy production and farmland conservation head-on. Our work seeks to serve people, places, and the planet, securing a bright and productive future for farming and the world.

Ethan Winter serves as the Northeast Solar Specialist for American Farmland Trust.

This article was originally written for the American Farmland Trust website.

With No Time to Lose, We Must Keep Score

Photo Credit: Eben Dente/American Forests

I am writing this article at a pivotal moment for America. The country is emerging from a global pandemic that has magnified health inequities, especially in terms of income and race. And climate change is moving faster than expected. During one week in June, for example, there were killer heat waves in the cool Pacific Northwest and flooding in the Great Lakes region.

These elevated stakes help explain why American Forests has made a commitment to keeping score — which we hope will lead to more people taking action to advance social equity and slow climate change, in part through the power of trees.

This started with the launch of our Tree Equity Score in June. This tool, the first of its kind, gives a neighborhood-by-neighborhood and municipal-level assessment of tree cover in every urban area across America. It overlays data that shows where the lack of trees most strongly puts people at risk from extreme heat, air pollution and other climate- fueled threats.

Collectively, the scores tell several compelling stories. For instance, on average, the lowest income neighborhoods have 41% less tree cover than high-income neighborhoods, and neighborhoods with a majority of residents of color have 33% less tree cover than majority white neighborhoods. This has life or death consequences, given that neighborhoods with little to no tree cover can be 10 degrees hotter than the city average during the day, and even more at night. In these same places, there is a higher percentage of people with elevated risk factors, such as heat-related illnesses and deaths because of lack of air conditioning.

That’s where Tree Equity Score comes in. By naming and framing this dangerous inequity with data and putting it online for all to see and explore, we have brought unprecedented attention to the importance of trees in advancing social equity. This includes a major feature in the New York Times, co-authored by our own Ian Leahy, vice president of urban forestry.

But this tool does much more than just identify the problem. It is as easy to use as a smart phone, making it simple for anyone, from city leaders to city residents, to calculate how many trees are needed for a city to achieve Tree Equity in every neighborhood. They also can see the economic and environmental benefits that would be generated, such as the tons of air pollution removed annually and number of jobs supported.

As evidence that Tree Equity Score can catalyze meaningful change, the Phoenix City Council voted in April to achieve Tree Equity in every one of the city’s neighborhoods by 2030. Other cities are following suit. And Congressional leaders, such as U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and U.S. Representative Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), are using it to make the case for unprecedented federal investment in urban trees and forests.

This data-driven approach is not limited to our work in cities. The Reforestation Hub, which we developed in partnership with The Nature Conservancy in January, doesn’t generate scores. But it does use cutting-edge scientific analysis of all U.S. land to identify where more trees could be added, from burn scars on national forests to streamside tree buffers on farms. It identifies a total opportunity of 133 million acres, enough land to plant more than 60 billion trees.

This has huge implications for climate change. That many additional trees would increase annual carbon capture in U.S. forests by more than 40%, equivalent to removing the emissions from 72 million cars.

Like Tree Equity Score, the Reforestation Hub is a free and easy-to-use tool meant to catalyze action. It is searchable county-by-county, enabling everyone to explore how our reforestation opportunities overlap with different land ownerships and conservation purposes, such as wildlife habitat and water protection. It also provides a calculation of the additional carbon capture that would be achieved if a given area were reforested. At American Forests, we use it often to advocate for reforestation legislation and make decisions about where to do our reforestation projects.

I encourage you to jump online and check out these powerful new tools. I hope that you will be inspired by our use of data to measurably challenge America and our own organization to meet this moment.

To learn more about Tree Equity Score, visit, and to learn more about the Reforestation Hub, visit

Jad Daley is the President and Chief Executive Officer at American Forests.

This article was originally written for the American Forests website.

New Research Highlights the Carbon Losses to U.S. Forests Caused by Pests and Pathogens and How We Can Reduce These Threats

Diverse forests are more beautiful, and more resilient. Photo Credit: Leigh Greenwood

Forested landscapes across the U.S. have always included insects, diseases, fungus, and other native pests as part of their ecologies. These native pests are just one of many types of natural disturbances that are part of the dynamic balance that makes up each unique type of healthy forest. Historically, these disturbances created opportunities for each type of forest to reach its peak biodiversity and resilience.  Thanks to regional and ecological variation, each forest type supports biodiversity in a variety of different ways. In some forests, the age, species, and variety of the trees are crucial drivers of biodiversity, while in others, patches of other ecosystems, like grasslands, come and go over time. Healthy forests are often made of slowly shifting mosaics of habitats, all supporting their own communities of plants and wildlife.

Invasive pests don’t function as a healthy disturbance in the same way as native pests that co-evolved with the forest. Moreover, in some places, the natural ups and downs that have allowed forests and native pests to thrive in a balance over time and space has been disrupted.

Forest pests that come from overseas or from far away ecosystems way across the continent are termed invasive species if they cause serious damage to the trees they infest or infect. Because they did not evolve in tandem with the trees in their invaded range, they can be extraordinarily damaging or even deadly to the trees they attack. In the 1900’s, invasive forest pests like the chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease practically eradicated American chestnuts and American elms from our landscapes, and the more contemporary threat of the emerald ash borer has wiped out more than 100 million ash trees in just about 20 years.

Invasive shot hole borers are killing California trees Photo Credit B. Nobua-Behrmann/UCCE San Diego

Other large disruptive forces affecting our forests that have grown over the last 200 years – including changes in land use, fire suppression policies, unsustainable logging practices, and ecological shifts driven by climate change – have led to less resilient systems for native forest pests as well. For example, insects that prefer trees of a specific age may attack vast stands of similarly-aged trees that grew in the aftermath of a catastrophic wildfire. As a result, these trees are vulnerable to far higher densities of attacking insects than those in more varied landscapes experiencing a multi-year pattern of smaller, less severe, fires. These disruptions have had significant impacts on U.S. forests – including to their ability to sequester carbon.

To better understand the magnitude of the impact pests have had on carbon sequestration in our forests, a multi-disciplinary group of scientists collaborated to produce a new study, “Insect and Disease Disturbances Correlate With Reduced Carbon Sequestration in Forests of the Contiguous United States.” Our research found that forests damaged by insects sequestered 69% less carbon, and those damaged by disease sequestered 28% less carbon, when compared to forests not impacted by one of these severe disturbances. Put another way- the study found that the damage currently being caused by insects and diseases across the lower 48 states is reducing the carbon sequestration potential of America’s forests by roughly 50 million tons of carbon dioxide each year – a lost opportunity to annually sequester the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted each year by more than 10 million cars.

It’s important to know that our study indicates the majority of US forests continue to sequester more carbon than they release. On a landscape scale, forest insects and diseases have not, on average, converted forests from carbon sinks that remove and store carbon to carbon sources that increase the amount of carbon into the atmosphere. But it is very clear that forests impacted by recent and severe insect and disease disturbance have a greatly reduced capacity to sequester carbon. Fortunately, this is a problem we can do something about.

In my role as The Nature Conservancy’s Forest Health Program Director, it’s my job to figure out how we can work with our partners to reduce the impacts on non-native forest insects and diseases across North America. This includes prevention, early detection of new threats, and management of pests already present, as well as long-term programs like pest-resistant tree breeding and biological control organisms. With the information provided by this study, The Nature Conservancy and its many partners can better advocate for the research, science-driven policies, and impactful action needed to contain this threat.

International shipping is a major pathway for forest pest arrival. Photo Credit: Leigh Greenwood

To address the long-term shifts in forests that have enabled native forest pests to reach unnaturally high levels of damage, locally specific management strategies can be deployed to bring forests back into better function and balance. For instance, practices such as ecological thinning and prescribed fire can increase the resilience of historically fire-dependent forests by promoting biodiversity and variations in tree age and spacing. By supporting the overall resilience of these forests to the natural disturbances they face, their carbon sequestration potential can be maintained over time. The stability of that carbon storage is vital to global efforts to address climate change. While some fluctuations in carbon storage are normal and necessary, we must work together to avoid catastrophic disturbances that can significantly damage our forests.

For those pests that have not yet arrived in North America, preventative strategies are crucial to ensure we don’t face faster and more severe tree loss in the future. The global community needs to strengthen shared policies that prevent new non-native forest pests from accidentally traveling along the international supply chain. Improving and enforcing the existing treatment standards for solid wood packaging materials such as pallets and crates can play a key role in preventing new pests from sneaking into U.S. forests.

Within the U.S., federal policies governing the importation of nursery and cut plant stock (such as cut flowers, and tree saplings) could be refined and better enforced, thereby more effectively preventing invasive species that travel on live plant materials. Together, a stronger preventative approach will allow us to maintain our healthy forests without additional pests- and the yet-unknown threats that they may pose.

North American ash trees often turn brilliant colors in the fall. Photo Credit Leigh Greenwood

When invasive forest pests have become more established in the U.S., it becomes very important to create programs that mitigate those losses, whether through “slow the spread” programs (such as the Don’t Move Firewood campaign), seed banking, tree breeding, biological control research, or a wide variety of other interdisciplinary approaches. Controlling the movement and damage of invasive forest pests can reduce losses for years – or even decades – protecting precious biodiversity and carbon storage in forests across the country. With rapidly advancing science in the field of conservation genetics, the potential for new solutions to be brought to scale to help contain these established pests is very exciting. But without diverse populations of the trees we want to protect, the long-term research and implementation of conservation programs based on new technologies might falter. 

Maintaining forest carbon sequestration rates in the face of insect- and disease-based disturbances also provides powerful co-benefits including cleaner air and water, improved wildlife habitat, reduced risks to people living in fire-adapted forest landscapes, and stronger local and rural economies. This research shows that a very wide variety of actions we can take to protect forests from insect and disease disturbances- whether internationally, regionally, or locally- can result in healthier trees that will ultimately support a healthier climate.

Leigh Greenwood is the Forest Health Program Director at The Nature Conservancy.

3 Ways Federal Investment in Trees and Forests Can Support Economic Growth

This article includes excerpts from a longer article published by World Resources Institute. Read the original article here

Photo Credit: Kent Mason/The Nature Conservancy

To reach the United States’ target of reducing net emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030, the federal government and non-federal actors will need to increase the ability of natural and working lands to sequester and store carbon. A recent economy-wide analysis finds that reaching these climate goals will require the United States to enable its lands and forests, or its land carbon sink, to remove at least 913 Mt CO2e annually by 2030, which represents a 13% increase in yearly sequestration over 2019 levels. This increase in sequestration would be equal to the emissions from over 20 million cars every year.

To achieve this, the nation must restore trees to the landscape, increase the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices and protect landscapes that already store carbon. Federal investment and action from all levels of society can allow the United States to achieve the full potential of these pathways, creating jobs and other economic benefits in the process.

Seizing the United States’ Most Promising Natural Climate Solutions

While action is needed across all land sectors, research shows that three tree-based pathways hold the greatest opportunity for enhancing natural carbon removal in the near-term while supporting jobs and economic vitality. WRI analysis shows that these pathways could offer an attractive return on investment: they require a total federal investment of $126.6 billion over 20 years and would support approximately 3.9 million job-years (or 199,000 jobs each year for 20 years). Put another way, 31.4 jobs would be supported for every million dollars of federal investment. Over 20 years, this investment would also generate $226.8 billion in value added to local economies, including $164.4 billion in employee compensation and $12.2 billion in state, federal and local taxes.

Table 1: Economic Impact of Natural Climate Mitigation Pathways

1. Reforesting and Restocking Trees

Trees are a carbon-removing technology that is ready for deployment today. Although building the infrastructure to plant healthy forests at the necessary scale will require considerable investment and work, there are already professionals working to plant and manage trees and forests every day. Federal investment in reforestation and forest restocking could help to expand employment in these sectors, particularly in rural areas, where 67% of job creation potential exists.

Across federal, state, local and private lands, there is an opportunity to reforest historically forested land that has been cleared, disrupted or burned and has lost the ability to sequester carbon. There is also an opportunity to restock, or increase the density of, existing forests in the eastern and midwestern United States where trees have been lost due to disease or disruption, and where increased forested density would not increase fire risk.

Non-federal lands, which include state, local and private lands, hold the greatest potential for carbon removal and job creation. In these lands, 185.4 million acres are eligible for reforestation and restocking. This could remove 156 MtCO2e per year by 2030, and up to 312 MtCO2e per year in 2040 and beyond. Reforestation and restocking on non-federal land could also support 68,100 jobs across multiple sectors annually.

Federal lands offer an additional 18 million acres suitable for reforestation and restocking. Collectively, these lands could sequester an additional 17 MtCO2e per year by 2030 and up to 35 MtCO2e per year in 2040 and beyond. Investment in reforestation and restocking on federal land could support 11,700 jobs annually.

Across both federal and non-federal lands, an annual federal investment of $3 billion per year for 20 years could support 79,800 jobs annually, or 26.8 jobs per one million dollars of investment. Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would see the highest total levels of job creation from reforestation and restocking across all land ownership types.

2. Agroforestry

Agroforestry, or the practice of incorporating trees into agricultural systems, could help expand trees and their climate benefits. This would also benefit farmers and ranchers, as agroforestry can improve soil, crop and animal health, and provide added revenue from forest products and timber. Agroforestry practices with notable climate benefits include silvopasture, or integrating trees into animal agriculture; alley cropping, or interspersing row crops with rows of trees; and planting windbreaks, or strategically placed groups of shrubs and trees that prevent soil erosion and protect crops and livestock. There are approximately 110.9 million acres of U.S. cropland and pastureland that may be eligible for agroforestry and could sequester 156 MMT CO2e per year.

Establishing and maintaining agroforestry systems can be labor-intensive and require specialized expertise, which can further support jobs. However, agroforestry systems can be expensive to establish, which can pose a barrier for farmers. Federal investment can help landowners establish agroforestry systems and support jobs in the process. An annual federal investment of $1.8 billion in agroforestry could support 49,500 jobs annually, or 27.4 jobs per million dollars invested, and provide other economic benefits. Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Texas would see the highest total levels of job creation from expansion of agroforestry.

3. Wildfire Risk Mitigation

Many forests in the United States, particularly in Western states, are at high risk for severe fire due to widespread tree death from drought, disease and historical fire suppression. Severe fires threaten forest-adjacent communities and permanently damage trees and ecosystems, which can turn forests into a source of emissions. Wildfires also produce pollutants that can increase the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular health problems in people who inhale smoke.

Techniques to reduce severe wildfire risk include removing biomass, strategically thinning out overly dense forests and conducting controlled, low-intensity burns to remove fuels that could feed severe blazes. These kinds of treatments — known as fuel load treatments — do not prevent wildfire from occurring, but they lower the risk of massive fires. Prescribed burning alone could reduce wildfire carbon emissions in the western United States by 18–25% and could increase long-term forest carbon storage by 18 MtCO2 per year through avoided tree mortality.

The increasing frequency of catastrophic wildfires across the United States highlights the importance of ambitious and immediate investment to increase ecosystem health and reduce the risk of severe wildfire. There are over 86.7 million acres of forest in the nation that could be eligible for fuel load treatments. Federal investment could help mitigate the risk of wildfire in these forests and would directly employ prescribed burn professionals and forestry professionals. Fuel load treatment also generates biomass and timber that can have downstream uses that generate employment.

Accounting for both fuel load treatment jobs and jobs supporting wood and biomass processing, a yearly federal investment of $1.5 billion in fuel load reduction could support 69,600 jobs, or 45.2 jobs per million dollars invested. The states with most potential to support jobs related to wildfire risk mitigation are California, New Mexico, Wyoming, Oregon and Idaho.

An Opportunity for Society-Wide Action

While federal action is essential to enhance and protect the land carbon sink, reaching the nation’s climate goals will require states, local governments, the private sector and civil society to push forward their own initiatives to reforest and restock forests and to mitigate wildfire risk. For example:

  • States can create or expand programs that incentivize climate-friendly land management and restock and reforest state-owned lands, like states participating in the US Climate Alliance’s Natural and Working Lands Challenge are doing. States can also work with the federal government to further improve greenhouse gas inventories. States with fire danger can also increase budgets for thinning and prescribed burning.
  • Cities and local governments can expand urban forestry efforts to plant trees in parks and open space. For example, Washington, D.C. aims to have 40% of the city covered by a healthy tree canopy by 2032.They can also help community members living in wilderness-urban interface areas to reduce flammable material near structures and build fire-adapted communities.
  • Businesses can ensure that the agricultural and timber products in their supply chain are sourced from farms and forests that use climate-friendly mitigation practices and increase investments in land-based climate mitigation strategies.
  • Tribal communities, schools and faith-based groups can plant trees and enhance land management practices to sequester more carbon and mitigate wildfire risk.

Note: Where not otherwise specified, economic impact, acreage potential and carbon removal potential were derived as part of analysis for WRI’s working paper The Economic Benefits of The New Climate Economy in Rural America. Please refer to this paper’s appendices for information on methodology.

Haley Leslie-Bole, is a Research Analyst with WRI’s U.S. Climate Initiative, where she works on landscape-scale solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation in the U.S. 

Conserving a Way of Life: John Reed

Opportunities like conservation easements let landowners like Reed take good care of his cattle while maintaining the fencing system that protects the land from overgrazing. © Dudley Edmondson

When The Nature Conservancy helped John Reed buy more land for his purebred Angus cattle operation, it fulfilled one of the rancher’s long-time dreams. 

A North Dakota native who now makes his home in the Brooten area of Minnesota, John earned his master’s degree in animal science. He runs the business with his son Jake, who has a doctorate in ruminant nutrition. 

John started out by acquiring land and raising cattle. He wanted to grow his herd and business so Jake could join him, but he confronted an obstacle that ranchers often face: cows need a lot of space. It’s difficult to find good pastureland for sale. 

“A lot of land has been plowed under. A lot of land went to corn that never should have been planted,” he says.  

Even when land is available, it’s often beyond the budget of even an established rancher. A cattle operation can’t always produce enough revenue to recover the cost of the land. Ranchers can rent land, but renting has its drawbacks too. Rental agreements are subject to renewal every few years, so a renter might lose the land if the landowner decides to lease to someone else. It can be difficult to build a herd without the certainty that you’ll have enough land to maintain it.

Nature’s Solutions to Ranching Challenges 

 Cattle require lots of land for proper grazing. On its own, a cow operation can’t always produce enough revenue to offset the cost of purchasing the land. © Dudley Edmondson

John was renting ranchland about 60 miles from his home and ranch. He was stuck: he wanted to expand the business so that it was large enough for Jake to run cattle too, but he didn’t feel comfortable renting more land and what land is available for sale is expensive. 

In time, a nearby property came up for sale—valuable property with native grassland and a creek. It was reasonably priced, but it was still too expensive for a cattle-only operation. But John knew that this land could be the perfect addition to his ranch, and he found a solution: a conservation easement. 

Conservation easements are legal agreements that landowners enter into with public entities or land trusts. They prohibit certain land uses, such as development, while allowing the land to be used for agricultural or other purposes. The income from selling an easement on their land allows farmers, ranchers, and other landowners to keep the land and maintain their property rights. For John, having pastureland for his herd nearby saved him time and money, and it reduced his environmental footprint because he no longer had to travel a long way to reach his property. 

With help from The Nature Conservancy, he was able to acquire the new property in part by placing a conservation easement on the land, which is now administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The easement for which he was paid a portion of the value of the land, ensures that the property will remain a working grassland. The Reeds’ land, which is used for cattle grazing, has been added to the Northern Tallgrass Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. 

Conserving and Building a Family Legacy 

A lot changed for John because of the easement. “Knowing it’s there and part of the ranch, knowing we can use it forever without worrying about renting—it allows us to expand.” 

John understands that overgrazing can promote erosion, which damages the land and water. His land has loamy sand and shallow topsoil, so it can be susceptible to wind erosion if it is not managed correctly. However, the right amount of grazing can keep the land healthy. It prevents plants from becoming root bound, and cows’ presence on the land works the soil in helpful ways. John also understands the value of native prairie plants, including when they should be grazed and when they need time to recover. 

John Reed, Angus cattle rancher in Minnesota. © Dudley Edmondson

To give their land the opportunity to rest and recover, the Reeds maintain a complex fencing system that protects the land from overgrazing, keeps the creek bed from being damaged by cattle, and keeps runoff out of the creek. Over the years, John has been able to add 50 head of cattle to his business. He’s also added fencing and water lines. 

When John acquired the new property, a number of invasive plant species with poor value for wildlife were growing on it, including cedar, alfalfa, and brome. Native grasses provide better nutrition for cattle and are more tolerant of droughts. By restoring the land to native species, the Reeds can keep their feed costs down. In addition, the land stores more carbon and has more value for wildlife.  

“The land is beautiful,” John says. “There’s beauty in native grassland, and in the summer it comes alive with wildflowers including goldenrod and lady slippers. Wildlife is abundant too, especially grassland birds.” For him and his family, a conservation easement was the key to maintaining his successful livelihood and preserving this piece of grassland forever. Minnesota benefits too—grasslands protect water quality and keep carbon in the ground. 

Visit the Trees. Water. Soil. website for more stories about nature and climate solutions for Minnesota.

Land, Climate and Corazon

Photo Credit: Shana Edberg/Hispanic Access Foundation

Have you felt that life seems to make more sense when you’re out in nature? In the concrete and the polluted air of built-up neighborhoods, we feel a turmoil and pull from our obligations that melts away under the shade of trees and the clean air of the mountainside. Natural areas are a respite from our everyday lives, and increased usage of our national parks and public lands and waters during the pandemic has confirmed how badly we need it.

But nature is more than a respite for the mind, body and soul in times of stress. It is a respite from the dangers of the climate crisis, a carbon sink, and a source of clean air, water, and soil that we rely on for our basic needs. It is also a provider of local jobs and revenue and a boon to children’s education.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to access and unlock these benefits. Nationally, communities of color are three times more likely to live somewhere that’s “nature deprived.” A nature-deprived neighborhood is one that is facing a greater rate of destruction of close-to-home natural areas and green spaces than average, be it from urban sprawl, gray infrastructure, or oil and gas development. With communities of color also more likely to be over-burdened by sources of pollution, this is a double whammy of environmental injustice.

Protecting natural areas and restoring degraded areas that are close to urban areas and communities of color is a way to help mitigate this injustice. One such example of a beautiful protected area is the San Gabriel Mountains, at the northern edge of the Los Angeles Basin, where I grew up. Los Angeles County is a large urbanized area encompassing multiple cities and millions of residents, many of whom are underserved and live in nature-deprived neighborhoods. 

Photo Credit: Shana Edberg/Hispanic Access Foundation

More than 15 million people live within 90 minutes of the San Gabriel Mountains, and the mountains provide 70 percent of Los Angeles’ green space – alleviating the Nature Gap. The mountains also provide a third of LA County’s drinking water. President Obama designated the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in 2014, protecting LA’s water quality, improving air quality, and providing better access to outdoor recreation for millions of Angelenos while protecting the area’s ecosystems and wildlife. 

The Angeles National Forest, which encompasses the Monument, is also a key player in the Earth’s climate system. The range’s trees and chaparral absorb carbon dioxide from the air and together store 11.6 Million Metric Tons of carbon, equivalent to the emissions from 2.5 million cars for a year.

Hispanic Access Foundation works with community leaders and policymakers throughout California and the US to bring the benefits of nature to Latino communities. From the absorption of pollutants to resilience to extreme heat, droughts, and storms to the physical and mental health benefits of being outdoors, our communities need access to nature more than ever in an increasingly chaotic and warming world. 

Decision-makers in Congress, the Biden administration, and the State of California are currently considering policy that would protect more nature in California. One such example is the PUBLIC Lands Act, introduced by Senators Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein, which would protect and increase access to more than one million acres of public lands and over 500 miles of rivers in California, including the San Gabriel Mountains. Another policy example is Governor Newsom’s Executive Order to protect 30% of California’s lands, water, and ocean by 2030 (known as 30×30), a goal that is also reflected nationally in the Biden Administration’s America the Beautiful initiative. 

In addition, there are several areas on land and sea that have been nominated for protected area designations or that could have their protections reinstated following Trump-era orders to weaken and shrink them. These areas include the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, important for preserving indigenous heritage off the California coast; the Western Riverside Wildlife Refuge, bringing nature access to California’s Inland Empire; Caster Range National Monument, important to Latino heritage and access to nature in El Paso, TX; the Chesapeake National Recreation Area, boosting access to nature for Latinos and communities of color surrounding the Chesapeake Bay; the restoration of Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monuments; among many others.

These nature protection and restoration policies must be implemented equitably, centering the needs and voices of communities of color, in order to guarantee a safe, inclusive, pollution-free outdoors for all that addresses environmental justice, meets community needs, and confronts the urgency of the climate crisis we face.

Watch this video to learn more about the importance of protecting public lands, such as California’s San Gabriel Mountains for conservation.

Shanna Edberg is the Director of Conservation Programs at Hispanic Access Foundation.