From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):
At the intersection of bluegrass & carbon ranching in Colorado
TELLURIDE, Colo. – If both lie within Colorado, eight hours apart by car, Telluride and Lamar would seem to have little in common.
From Lamar, it’s 35 minutes to Kansas, too far away to see even the faint outline of the Rocky Mountains. It was on the Santa Fe Trail and has lots of interesting history. But today it’s a just-getting-by farming town where the politics run red. In the last presidential election, 70 percent of voters in Prowers County voted for Trump, 24 percent for Clinton.
It’s almost exactly opposite in Telluride and San Miguel County: 24 percent voted for Trump and 69 percent for Clinton. The setting is different, of course. Telluride is a place that can cause jaws to literally drop if people arrive for the first time when a rainbow is arching at the end of the box-end canyon on a summer evening. Oprah sprang $14 million for a house a couple years ago. Other billionaires fly on private jets in and out of the airport on a nearby mesa. Those less well-heeled arrive by car for the nearly non-stop festivals that run through the summer.
Now, these two physically and demographically disparate places in Colorado have become connected financially through a carbon offset program.
That relationship came into sharper focus in June as 15,000 people gathered at the 45th annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Most of the “festivarians” come from Colorado, particularly Denver and other Front Range cities, but 20 to 25 percent fly to Colorado. Every state is represented and about 10 foreign countries. This sort of thing can be tracked both in post-surveys but also in on-line registrations.
Festival organizer Planet Bluegrass has long been conscious of the festival’s role in generating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Steve Szymaski, who has been with Planet Bluegrass since 1988 and is vice president, says the company began making efforts to offset the carbon emissions its causes in 2003. “It’s really a philosophy of wanting to understand that that everything has impacts, and that there are ways to encourage renewable energy.”
Planet Bluegrass has invested in both renewable energy certificates and carbon offsets, two parallel but different financial devices.
In the early years, Planet Bluegrass purchased renewable energy certificates for wind, solar and hydro. Most of the money went to wind farms, including one in Minnesota. For three years the money went to a methane-reduction project at a dairy in the Central Valley of California. For two years, money went to a methane-capture project at landfill in Colorado’s Larimer County.
Planet Bluegrass has expanded its accountability over the years. Electricity—produced mostly by burning coal and natural gas—represents just 1 percent of electrical use associated with the festival. lodging represents another small component. Travel—trucking equipment, by performers, even shuttles during the festival—represents the lion’s share. Largest of all is travel by the attendees, 87 percent of the festival’s carbon footprint. The festival last year generated an estimated 2,100 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
This year, the bluegrass festival took a new tac. Keeping the dollars local or at least semi-local was important. Telluride’s Pinhead Climate Institute offered an appealing opportunity in a package deal.
The Town of Telluride is also participating for five years, offsetting operations of the in-town bus shuttle, called the Galloping Goose. Mountainfilm last year participated, and a program involving jet travel from the mesa-top Telluride Regional airport, highest in the county to offer commercial service, is also being assembled.
Shepherding the program is Adam Chambers, one of the three co-founders of the climate offshoot of the Pinhead Institute. He has worked extensively in carbon offset programs elsewhere in the country, from the Carolinas to California. “If I were to characterize myself as anything, it would be as a carbon accountant,” he says.
The Pinhead’s carbon offset work got launched through a $50,000 grant from the Telluride Foundation’s program designed to foster innovation. To get the grant, the idea had to get strong community support. It did. Telluride has vowed to become a carbon-neutral community. The sign at the entrance to town says so.
Why not just avoid carbon in energy use? Not likely any time soon, at Telluride or other mountain resort towns. Chambers says that residents of Telluride, Mountain Village and San Miguel County altogether have double the national carbon footprint. This estimate may skew conservative, as it makes no attempt to take responsibility for how its visitors get there or get home except as it may involve sale of fossil fuels locally. The mesa-top airport sells 500,000 gallons of aviation fuel annually. Most guests arrive at other airports outside the county.
There’s only so much switching out of lightbulbs possible. Electricity for Telluride still comes primarily from coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, so even if the town had electric buses they would have a carbon footprint. Jets burn gas—and lots of it. This energy transition is far from complete.
Along the Santa Fe Trail
That’s where the 14,500-acre May ranch near Lamar comes into the picture. Its native sod has never been turned by a plow. That’s a rarity on the Great Plains.
The ranch lies near the Arkansas River. Traders on the Santa Fe Trail wheeled their carts along the river in the 1830s and 1840s, stopping at Bent’s Fort. In late 1864, just a few years after the founding of Denver 200 miles to the northwest, Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians had taken shelter along Sand Creek, at a site north of today’s ranch. The promises were broken when soldiers under the command of John Chivington, the hero of a Civil War battle in New Mexico, whooped down with guns blazing at dawn. Today, the Sand Creek Massacre is observed by Native Americans and Anglos both each year the day after Thanksgiving.
Greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes and smoke stacks have occupied much of the attention of the environmental movement. They’re not everything, though. The Environmental Protection Agency in April said that 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from farms and deforestation.
Most of the attention usually goes to logging of rainforests in Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere. But the plowing of the Great Plains, the world’s most productive farm region, also ranks high—and, some say, higher.
The great plow-up continues. The World Wildlife Fund, in an October 2017 report called “Plowprint,” estimated 2.5 million acres of grassland on the Great Plains of the United States and Canada had been plowed the prior year. The organization worries about the grasslands being an “absolutely underappreciated ecosystem,” in the words of Martha Kauffman, of the non-profit office in Bozeman, Mont.
Native grasslands sequester carbon as they grow grass. That’s the key to this new connection between Telluride and the May Ranch. Plowing releases carbon into the atmosphere. That makes keeping the land unplowed worth something in the fledgling market of carbon offsets.
Owners of the ranch, the May family, are being paid essentially to stay the course, to do nothing different.
That’s a tricky concept to absorb, kind of like negative numbers. This is how Chambers explains the concept:
“You are saying to farmer Dallas May, ‘You have a stock of carbon in your carbon bank account, and you are agreeing to keep that carbon forever in your bank account without pursuing other crop options that would allow you to deplete that carbon stock. You are not a regulated entity, so you can emit to the atmosphere without any negative repercussions. So, nice work on being a carbon shepherd. You are forgoing plowing the soil to grow soybeans or some other crop. But this carbon farming might be more predictable than commodity prices.”
Spare the plow?
How the ranch came to spare the plow for so long is not clear. What is clear, according to the testimony of Ducks Unlimited, a key partner in preserving its unbroken character, is that there have been threats from every direction. A large diary operation was interested in plowing the native vegetation to plant feed crops with center-pivot irrigation. Next to the ranch, on other property, 2,400 acres of prairie were plowed up in just one month several years ago.
This statistic comes from Billy Gascoigne, an economist and environmental markets specialist for Ducks Unlimited. Based in Fort Collins, Colo., he previously worked in the Prairie Potholes region in the Dakotas. That’s where Ducks Unlimited negotiated the first large carbon transaction in 2015.
Now, the same principles and protocols for determining value have been applied to the 14,500-acre ranch in Colorado.
Using protocol established by the American Carbon Registry, Ducks Unlimited determined that plowing the native grasses to grow corn or wheat would release around 8,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year for the next 50 years. Conserving these grasslands equates to removing the annual emissions of 50,000 cars, according to the calculations of the registry.
The ranch is “literally surrounded on all four sides by cropland and had many offers to plow up the grasslands,” says Gascoigne. “We worked with our partners in the land trust community to get ahead of the plow and make sure that carbon stays in the belowground soil.”
The owner of the ranch, the May family, had been on the property for 30 years and only recently had purchased it. Dallas May, the patriarch of the ranch family, wanted to find a way to preserve the ranch, and hence begin reaching out to conservation organizations to explore options that would not damage the wildlife habitat and would allow continued livestock grazing to occur.
May had come to appreciate the value of the property as wildlife habitat. The Audubon Society has designated the ranch as an area of significance for birds as well as an essential corridor link between two populations of lesser prairie chickens. It also has ducks.
Carbon offsets have become more common. They represent the act of reducing, avoiding, destroying or sequestering the equivalent of a ton of greenhouse gas in one place to “offset” an emission taking place somewhere else, as GreenBiz explained in 2009.
The market remains a voluntary one in Colorado and most places. The Disney Corporation, Shell, Chevrolet and others have used the device to offset emissions.
Another major multi-national corporation will soon announce another offset project involving land in eastern Colorado, says Chambers.
This is a voluntary market. Only California has a price on carbon emissions among U.S. states. As relates to prairie ecosystems, there are two protocols for establishing the value of the offset. But because the market for offsets remain small, values are still being determined.
Planet Bluegrass’s Szymanski says his company paid $30,000 this year to offset the impacts of the festival in Telluride. Other years, he says, he has paid as little as $10,000. “This is a small drop in the bucket compared to what Fortune 500 companies can do,” he says. “But we were there at the start.”
The Pinhead Institute wanted to keep it “local,” and Colorado fits within that definition. Other places, closer to Telluride, could in theory work. But getting small plots of land, such as conservation easements on hillsides that might otherwise be carved up into estates, is impossible to do. “The numbers just aren’t large enough to pull it off,” says Gascoigne.
Planet Bluegrass was happy to keep the money local, too. “We feel it was important to get behind this because it was new and they were hungry,” says Szymanski.
The most important point, says Gascoigne, is you don’t have to go preserve a rain forest on another continent to do good work. He believes he is doing very consequential work just eight hours from Telluride.