Science for a Blue Planet

Featuring cutting-edge work, discoveries, and challenges of our scientists, our partners, and the larger conservation science community.

Major Grant Launches New Project to Advance Soil Stewardship on Working Lands

Working lands, like farms and ranches, are often seen as a climate change contributor. However, farms and ranches also have great potential to be a part of the climate solution. Soil carbon sequestration is an important key to unlocking that potential, and rebuilding soil carbon on working lands will also help to achieve many other benefits for people and wildlife. For example, as part of soil organic matter, soil carbon helps to promote soil fertility and water infiltration and retention, and in doing so supports crop and forage productivity. But to rebuild soil carbon for both climate change mitigation and soil health purposes, farmers, ranchers, and policy-makers need to know what management practices they can rely on—and they need ways to track how carbon is responding.

Point Blue scientists and collaborators on the project will be assessing how carbon responds to commonly recommended rangeland management practices. This includes restoration of riparian areas, like the one pictured here at Tolay Regional Park, Petaluma, California, which has been actively restored by Point Blue Conservation Science’s Students and Teachers Restoring a Watershed (STRAW) program. The white squares are plants installed by volunteers, including coast live oak, buckeye, coffeeberry, California rose and more. Photo Credit: Isaiah Thalmayer.

A new 3-year grant from The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research will allow Point Blue Conservation Science, in partnership with Colorado State University and Mad Agriculture, to help address current needs related to managing soil carbon on California’s rangelands by engaging ranchers and other partners statewide. Dr. Chelsea Carey, Point Blue’s Working Lands Research Director and principal investigator of the project, explains the project team will do this by looking to the future and to the past.  

“With programs like the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Healthy Soils Program picking up steam, we have an opportunity to help plan for the future by giving ranchers and technical service providers blueprints to monitor how carbon changes in response to their actions on the ground,” Carey says.

These blueprints will be developed through working groups as part of this funded project, and will allow those participating in the Healthy Soils Program, Carbon Farm Plans, or climate-smart stewardship more broadly to collect comparable datasets and contribute them to a collaborative platform. “Our hope is that over time, this will help to create an unprecedented understanding of the impact of planting practices, grazing management, and soil amendments on rangeland soil carbon in California and beyond,” Carey explains.  

In the meantime, looking to the past by conducting a statewide retrospective study will allow Point Blue’s scientists and collaborators to assess how riparian restoration, silvopasture, and range seeding interact with climate and other important contextual variables to influence soil carbon over time. 

“For years, ranchers have restored their riparian areas, planted oak trees, or seeded their pastures with perennial grasses—effectively implementing what we now think of as healthy soils practices,” says Carey. “This grant offers an opportunity to understand how each management practice influences soil carbon by leveraging all of this hard work that has already been done.” According to Carey, the team will be asking questions like: how much carbon is sequestered with these practices, and how fast does this occur? Is the carbon likely to stay in the soil long enough to make a difference for climate change mitigation? And what are the associated benefits to soil fertility and forage production? 

Results will be used to evaluate models that do, or have the potential to, underpin planning tools—such as COMET-Planner—which are used by farmers and ranchers statewide to estimate how much carbon will be sequestered by their management. 

“We see a lot of opportunity with the current momentum in California around natural and working lands stewardship,” says Carey, “and we’re excited to support these efforts by engaging our network of partners including ranchers, other scientists, and agency staff to conduct science and support ecological monitoring that’s both relevant and impactful.”  

This work is supported by a $616,178 Seeding Solutions grant from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) with match funding provided by Point Blue Conservation Science,  Mad Agriculture, and Colorado State University for a $1,281,584 total investment in the project.