The May family didn’t know how long they could continue raising cattle on their 16,480-acre ranch in southeastern Colorado. Now, a carbon offset program makes it economically possible for them to preserve the ranch for generations—while keeping thousands of tons of carbon stored in the soil instead of being released into the atmosphere.
The May Ranch contains one of the last large tracts of prairie in the area. “This is native grass the way God made it,” said Dallas May, the family patriarch. Prairie grasses, with roots penetrating up to 20 feet into the soil, store a LOT of carbon. A 2018 study projected that grasslands will actually store more carbon than forests as climate change increases the occurrence of droughts and wildfires. The ranch also includes ponds and other wetlands and 7 miles of the Big Sandy Creek, all of which provide habitat for wildlife, including migratory waterfowl.
Economically, converting prairie to cropland has become more profitable than keeping it as grassland for cattle. “Conservation works philosophically but not necessarily economically for a working ranch,” May said. Crop fields now touch the ranch on all sides. The family has received several offers to sell so the land can be plowed or converted to other uses.
May reached out to conservation organizations for help. The Conservation Fund and Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust facilitated the creation of a conservation easement that protects 14,546 acres of native grassland in perpetuity. The Nature Conservancy identified the land as a priority area for wildlife habitat. The waterfowl conservation organization Ducks Unlimited partnered with The Pinhead Institute, an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, to compensate the Mays for the financial consequences of avoiding the conversion to cropland.
To help finance that compensation, Ducks Unlimited is selling carbon offsets. Cloverly has bought some of those offsets for calendar year 2018, when Ducks Unlimited calculates that preserving the grassland prevented 9,512 metric tons (10,485 US tons) of carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere. Those emission reductions have been verified under strict protocols—for example, the offset calculations are based only on the 13,319 acres with soils deemed especially suitable for feed crops—and the project is listed with the Climate Action Reserve carbon registry.
“I have 3 children and 2 grandchildren with hopefully more on the way, and we all live on or near the ranch,” May said. “My goal for them is to have the same experiences I have had on the ranch. I want to leave that for them.” Thanks to many groups and individuals who care about climate change and conservation, he can.