WIDE OPEN SPACE: Preserving the Disappearing West by Lara Birkes

Lara's bison pic.jpg

Nothing is more synonymous with the West, and specifically big sky country, than wide-open space. The vast breadth encompassed is truly unique - from rolling fields to extensive mountain ranges and never ending horizons.

In addition to the beauty and peace that comes from these expanses, the openness plays a crucial role in balancing the life around it. Clean air and water draw from the natural elements, wildlife emerges and native ecosystems flourish. It’s easy to take these qualities for granted . . . until they vanish. And then they’re virtually irreplaceable.

It’s estimated that the American West loses a football field’s worth of natural area to human development every 2.5 minutes. This means destroying forests, wetlands, grasslands and deserts in the wake.

Wide open space cannot be taken for granted. With ever-competing interest for land, we must be creative and proactive in thinking about its preservation. Fortunately, new ways to value the UNdeveloped are emerging.

That’s why I am so enthusiastic about an initiative launched by the Montana-based non-profit Western Sustainability Exchange (WSE). Recognizing the crucial role ranchers play stewarding land, and by extension open space in the West, WSE is developing mechanisms to compensate ranchers for regenerative land management practices.

The approach fosters healthy soils, grasslands, and cattle - all while pulling carbon from the atmosphere. Because demand is growing for carbon markets to offset greenhouse gas emissions, it’s possible to place an economic value on removing carbon from the air we breathe.

In the long run market demand will support these efforts with increasing intensity, paying ranchers per ton of carbon sequestered - a win-win for rural economies and the value chain of community and nature that is supported by healthy soils. As an added benefit, nutrient rich soils require less fertilizer and pesticides! ‘Can Dirt Save The Earth’ describes the full scope of this opportunity.

Another distinguishing quality of WSE’s work is that it draws upon local relationships and expertise while tackling broad societal issues, quite literally, from the ground-up. We need more models like this, crafting mutually beneficial solutions for communities and the environment alike.

An ideal scenario scales up to include a broader ‘ecosystem services’ model: a system for assessing the benefits of nature and placing a financial value on them. This could include such examples as paying to maintain elk and sage grouse habitats, watershed protection, wildlife corridors, and biological improvements. A huge subject, so more on this in a future post . . .

For now, Montana is uniquely positioned to lead and scale solutions to reverse the trends of a disappearing West, all while tackling global problems with local economic benefits. Promoting healthy soils through carbon sequestration and ranchland partnerships stands to be just the beginning.