Carbon Conversations

by John on July 3, 2010

Carbon Conversations.  Somewhat Logically @ John Hulls 2009

For over a year I’ve been talking with John Wick about global warming, agricultural practices and carbon sequestration—he and his wife Peggy Rathmann, on behalf of the Rathmann Family Foundation, provide seed funding for some very innovative science and technology here in West Marin, including the agricultural component of a project in which I’m involved. The carbon project can be traced back to when John and Peggy were studying ways to operate their Nicasio ranch using the best sustainable agricultural practices. At first they thought of removing all the fences and returning the land to as natural a state as possible, but that couldn’t be done without providing something to graze the fields and provide an ecological balance. “We pulled up all our old fences and even looked at the possibility of reintroducing elk,” said John.

At the same time, concern about global warming from carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuel was increasing, not only in the scientific community but with private citizens nationwide. John was studying agricultural practices to improve his farm’s soil ecology and was especially intrigued with subsoiling as practiced in Australia, mostly for soil building and runoff retention. He thought it might allow increased sequestration (storing) of carbon in the soil.  The more he learned about global warming, the more he focused on what he could do, not only to cut carbon emissions but to take what he felt was a necessary next step: see how carbon dioxide (CO2)  could be taken from the atmosphere. “All we can do with controlling emissions from automobiles and other human sources is reduce the rate of carbon increase. We want to take it out of the air, store it in the soil in a beneficial form and actually lower atmospheric carbon levels.

“We can do that mechanically and pump it someplace—expensive, risky and problematical—or use agricultural management practices to store the carbon in the soil. Putting the carbon in the right place has many other benefits, including the potential to increase soil and pasture quality, which increases yield.”  John and I discussed these lofty goals after he had given me literature on the subject, including the sale and valuation of carbon offsets. Clearly there was enthusiasm for the subject, but it looked as though many carbon-offset programs were not well considered and lacked the scientific rigor to be useful management tools. Our discussions led to a group meeting at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, where John was introduced to Dr. Whendee Silver, a leading researcher specializing in ecosystem ecology and biogeochemical cycling in the plant-soil-atmosphere interfaces. After the meeting, John and Peggy funded the research to have Whendee work with Jeff Creque and other Marin range-management specialists to establish a baseline carbon measurement on 26 farm sites in West Marin, work that is still in progress.

What has John learned from his journey on the cutting edge of climate-change research? “In many ways it was painful. When we first came to Nicasio, we removed all the cattle from the ranch, thus naively displacing a major element of the ecosystem. It took a lot to recover, and I felt I needed to become more discerning about environmental projects.  I tend to be optimistic and enthusiastic. Working with scientists means dealing with natural skeptics whose studied pace often runs contrary to popular wishes. The best, like Whendee, keep their enthusiasm and derive great joy from finding out how things really work. I’m starting to appreciate the beauty in the whole life cycle of carbon through the rangelands, as well as the discipline necessary to ensure that we understand enough to avoid leaping off in a wrong direction.”

The Marin Carbon Project was presented to the Marin Resource Conservation District in Point Reyes last week, followed by a meeting of the partners in the West Marin agricultural community who will take the project forward. “We’re just past the first step, and the results are encouraging. We’ve convinced the California Air Resources Board to include rangeland carbon sequestration as a potential strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emission. Whendee made a poster presentation to the American Geophysical Union that generated much interest at their San Francisco convention last December. Supporting this science is exciting and rewarding. After all, each of us is part of the carbon cycle, like it or not. The more we learn, the more we can be responsible members of the local and global carbon communities”

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