USDA -- Modern Solutions for Environmental Challenges

This 6-minute video looks at some of the ways USDA is helping farmers, ranchers and forest landowners mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Date: June 05 2013

Author: usda
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Avoided Grassland Conversion Carbon Project


Project Timeline: Aug 2011 - Dec 2013

With the help of a FY2011 Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG), project partners developed the Avoided Conversion of Grasslands and Shrublands (ACoGS) methodology over the course of two years.  The ACoGS methodology was formally adopted by the American Carbon Registry (ACR) in the fall of 2013.  The methodology is based on avoided emissions from proactively protecting grasslands and shrublands under extensive threat to row-crop cultivation.  Rangelands can retain significant carbon pools, of which around 90% is found in the upper 30 cm of the soil column (Schuman et al 2001).  When ground-breaking cultivation activities occur, a significant portion of the carbon reserves become unsteady and are released into the atmosphere.  The methodology outlines strict procedures for determining conversion risk and science-based measurement of associated carbon savings at the individual parcel level.

Actual project activities were led by Ducks Unlimited, spanning over 11,000 at-risk grassland acres owned by 28 different private landowners across six counties in the Missouri Coteau of North Dakota.  Most grassland acres enrolled in the carbon project were (and continue to be) actively grazed, as is allowed under the ACoGS methodology.  The grassland acres, which also encompass well over 1,000 wetland acres, were secured with a long-term conservation contract to guard against any future ground-breaking activity.

The DayCent carbon simulation model was parameterized specifically for the region’s weather, soils, and cropping practices.  The model was run for every soil type on each participant field, producing estimated avoided emissions.  The ACoGS methodology has a 5 year crediting period, allowing for claimed offsets from 2010-2014 (project activities halting the conversion threats were initiated in 2008-2009).  In total, nearly 40,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalents were modeled, verified, and registered with the ACR in October of 2014.  These first-of-kind credits were ultimately purchased by Bonneville Environmental Foundation on behalf of Chevrolet.  The automaker in turn retired every credit acquired through the sale.

Project Summary

The project developed tools to verify offsets derived from avoided grassland conversion projects in the Northern Great Plains resulting in an American Carbon Registry Approved methodology.  Additionally, the project partners assisted producers through the validation and verification process to develop registered carbon credits.

Successes & Challenges

The development of the ACoGS methodology by Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, The Climate Trust, Environmental Defense Fund and Terra Global Capital was an extensive process that required contributions from experts in a diverse range of disciplines, and was the first of its kind.  Its development and formal adoption is a major step forward in allowing the agriculture sector (in this case, livestock producers) to voluntarily engage in emerging carbon markets.

The verified ACoGS credits developed by Ducks Unlimited were also the first of their kind.  The expressed market demand for these unique credits, and resulting sale to Chevrolet, are positive indications for these emerging market opportunities growing in the future.

Most carbon quantification protocols go through a series of versions, improving on the previous one.  The ACoGS methodology will likely require additional work to improve regional applicability, ease quantification efforts at various scales, and ultimately reduce transaction costs for project developers.  Balancing scientific integrity and transaction costs is a challenging nexus, but will be fundamental to the success of ACoGS projects in the future.


The Avoided Conversion of Grasslands and Shurblands to Crop Production methodology is approved by the American Carbon Registry and available for the public to use.  All claimed offsets and associated documentation is registered with the American Carbon Registry.

Ducks Unlimited subsequently applied this methodology to conservation projects on around 11,000 acres, which resulted in avoiding the emission of 39,383 metric tons of CO2 from the first phase of project activities.  

Next Steps

A second phase of the program is currently being evaluated.


This partnership sought to develop an innovative, market-based solution to achieving greenhouse gas reductions on working landscapes. The result was an industry-approved methodology grounded in science and a successful pilot project in North Dakota that generated a considerable amount of certified offset credits.
Billy Gascoigne, Ducks Unlimited

Working with local producers and achieving multiple benefits has, and continues to be, a major goal of Ducks Unlimited. Voluntary projects such as these provide additional options for landowners to consider and compensate them for their stewardship. This is an innovative public-private partnership that brought together private landowners, conservation, USDA, and industry leaders.
Billy Gascoigne, Ducks Unlimited

This partnership and resulting sale highlights there is value in the ecosystem services produced off of working landscapes. Market-based solutions such as these new carbon protocols can provide the necessary framework for buyers and sellers to engage.
Billy Gascoigne, Ducks Unlimited


  • USDA and partners complete first-of-its-kind sale of carbon credits from working ranch grasslands, 11/17/14 - USDA
  • The press event and its major highlights were picked up by nearly 500 media outlets and garnered over 50 million unique views.  Major national outlets that picked up the event and transaction included ABC news, Associated Press, FOX Business, The National Geographic, The Hill, Progressive Farmer, Progressive Cattleman, High Country News, and the U.S. News & World Report.

Project Partners

  • Peter Weisberg
    The Climate Trust

    65 SW Yamhill Street
    Suite 400
    Portland, OR 97204

    [email protected]
  • Dr. Joe Fargione
    The Nature Conservancy

    1101 West River Parkway, Suite 200
    Minneapolis, MN 55415

    [email protected]
  • Billy Gascoigne
    Ducks Unlimited

    2525 River Rd.
    Bismarck, ND 58503

    [email protected]

  • Environmental Defense Fund

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