October 3rd, 2013
Climate change is impacting ecosystems worldwide and land conservation is important throughout the spectrum. Many people don’t realize grasslands are the dominant cover type, comprising more than 40 percent of the Earth’s surface, according to Whendee Silver, professor of environmental science at UC Berkeley. But grasslands and prairies are comparatively under-represented in land conservation.
“Grasslands have the potential, when they’re healthy, to store a lot of carbon, and so they have the potential to help remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it in a place that’s pretty safe for pretty long periods of time,” Silver said.
Plants native to grasslands produce a lot of biomass below ground that turns into carbon over time. Many of these lands are maintained in ways that releases the carbon into the atmosphere, rather than storing it.
Pete Geddes, managing director of the American Prairie Reserve, is working to preserve wide-open spaces in one of the last four places in the world with native grasslands. With the goal of restoring biodiversity, he cooperates with ranchers to reduce tilling and prepare for the reintroduction of apex predators.
“You have this cascading effect when you remove top predators from the ecosystem,” said Geddes, who hopes to acquire enough land to reintroduce wolves to The Great Plains.
Kristine Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia, established Conservacion Patagonica to conserve grasslands, wetlands, rivers and mountains in Chile and Argentina. The future Patagonia National Park will cover more than 700,000 acres of no-conflict zone and part of its restoration includes reintroduction of the jaguar.
“I think we’re working in the only place in the world where the province is actually anxious for the jaguar to come back,” Tompkins said.
Regarding the impact of the developing world on wild lands, the speakers discussed how individual carbon footprints amass on a global scale. “The time has come for people to shift their mentality and their habits,” to utilizing less and realizing they’re having an impact on the environment, Silver said.
“We need to rethink what we actually need to eat and what we have gotten used to,” said Silver, noting that our dominant source of protein comes from the grazers on grasslands. “People just need to become more aware and think about their habits.”
Tompkins discussed how it’s difficult for people to talk about population levels.
“There are limits to everything and it’s across the board,” she said. “I believe at this point, the only thing that will really shift human behavior is a crisis.”
“Our generation and the ones short to follow have to come to terms with the fact that there are other ways of managing human societies, because this one is not sustainable."
Some areas have been made into national parks for their geologic or scenic beauty, a “rock and ice wilderness,” such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. But it’s not the same for grasslands, Geddes said. Rather than pushing for national park status, he is working to establish public-private partnerships for large-scale land conservation.
“We’re talking about 3.5 million acres of native prairie and we just don’t see the federal government or the state government taking that over anytime soon,” Geddes said. “We’re very ambitious and doing this through private philanthropy allows us to move really quickly.”
But it depends on the area in which you’re working, according to Tompkins.
In Chile and Argentina, Conservacion Patagonica is working to institutionalize land on a national level.
The speakers talked about how they try to reduce their personal carbon footprints, a process that is “tough, make no bones about it,” according to Tompkins.
“I think we’re caught up in a system that it’s not very easy to back off of your basic consumption levels,” she said.
Although the world’s carbon emissions and climate change may look dire at times, the speakers were optimistic about the future and hopeful about generational and cultural changes.
“To be honest, I’ve learned a lot from my 13-year-old son who doesn’t have the same consumption patterns – having grown up in Berkeley – that I grew up with in southern California,” Silver said.
“I think it’s going to be an all-hands-on-deck response to these issues,” Tompkins said.
- Danielle Torrent
Photos by: Ed Ritger
Commonwealth Club of California
October 3, 2013