What can ecological science tell us about opportunities for carbon sequestration on arid rangelands in the United States?

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Booker, Kayje, Huntsinger, Lynn, Bartolome, James W., Sayre, Nathan F., and Stewart, William
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Scientific interest in carbon sequestration on rangelands is largely driven by their extent, while the interest of ranchers in the United States centers on opportunities to enhance revenue streams. Rangelands cover approximately 30% of the earth's ice-free land surface and hold an equivalent amount of the world's terrestrial carbon. Rangelands are grasslands, shrublands, and savannas and cover 312 million hectares in the United States. On the arid and semi-arid sites typical of rangelands annual fluxes are small and unpredictable over time and space, varying primarily with precipitation, but also with soils and vegetation. There is broad scientific consensus that non-equilibrium ecological models better explain the dynamics of such rangelands than equilibrium models, yet current and proposed carbon sequestration policies and associated grazing management recommendations in the United States often do not incorporate this developing scientific understanding of rangeland dynamics. Carbon uptake on arid and semi-arid rangelands is most often controlled by abiotic factors not easily changed by management of grazing or vegetation. Additionality may be impossible to achieve consistently through management on rangelands near the more xeric end of a rangeland climatic gradient. This point is illustrated by a preliminary examination of efforts to develop voluntary cap and trade markets for carbon credits in the United States, and options including payment for ecosystem services or avoided conversion, and carbon taxation. A preliminary analysis focusing on cap and trade and payment for avoided conversion or ecosystem services illustrates the misalignment between policies targeting vegetation management for enhanced carbon uptake and non-equilibrium carbon dynamics on arid United States rangelands. It is possible that current proposed carbon policy as exemplified by carbon credit exchange or offsets will result in a net increase in emissions, as well as investment in failed management. Rather than focusing on annual fluxes, policy and management initiatives should seek long-term protection of rangelands and rangeland soils to conserve carbon, and a broader range of environmental and social benefits.


Booker, K., L. Huntsinger, J. W. Bartolome, N. F. Sayre, and W. Stewart. 2013. What can ecological science tell us about opportunities for carbon sequestration on arid rangelands in the United States? Global Environmental Change 23:240–251.

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