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Development of Protocols and Accounting Methods for Carbon Sequestration on US Rangelands

Rangeland GHG CIG

Project Timeline: October 2010 - November 2014

Rangeland ecosystems hold tremendous promise for soil carbon sequestration due to their large areal extent and the sensitivity of their soil carbon pools to land management. The ranching industry and its members are beginning to examine options for voluntary reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and carbon sequestration. There is a clear need to utilize ecosystem science and computer models to explore the economic opportunities and risks for ranchers.  Project partners developed high-standard accounting protocols that will enable rangeland owners to access carbon markets.

Rangeland carbon accounting protocols will provide ranchers with an opportunity to access emerging carbon markets (e.g. the California and potential federal compliance systems as well as voluntary markets) and other environmental markets for improved management on their lands. Rangeland carbon accounting protocols will also provide state and national governments with an opportunity to direct public payments towards measurable improvements in resource management that benefit both rangeland owners, the climate and other areas of the environment.

This project built on current scientific efforts to quantify carbon storage in rangelands in different parts of the western United States. Using and adding to the science resulting from these efforts, the project explored the usefulness of existing, extensively used and tested models for C sequestration, GHG emissions, biomass accumulation, and plant production for developing high standard accounting methodologies.

The project had two main objectives. The first was to develop and gain external validation of a set of rangeland carbon protocols for three general project types: (i) avoided conversion of native rangelands and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands to croplands; (ii) restoration of croplands to grasslands; and (iii) conservation management of active rangelands with regard to grazing. This included testing the accounting methods for carbon sequestered and greenhouse gases emitted in five pilot areas that would undertake the three aforementioned project types. Pilots took place in Carey, Idaho; Briggsdale, Colorado; Woodward, Oklahoma; Loveland, Colorado; Nicasio in Marin County and at the Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center in Yuba County, California. In addition, for each project type, the CIG project team aimed to test the protocol feasibility, analyze the economic costs and benefits, and describe any associated environmental co-benefits. The second objective was to disseminate our findings, which was accomplished through the publication of journal articles and presentation of findings at rangeland meetings and conferences.

Two protocols, Avoided Converstion of Grasslands and Shrublands to Crop Production and Compost Additions to Grazed Grasslands, were accepted by the American Carbon Registry (ACR) and are available online.

Project Summary

This project found real solutions for ranchers, and laid a foundation for direct public payments to rangeland owners from measurable improvements in resource management to rangeland owners. CIG partners identified realistic management practices and created carbon offset protocols that encourage carbon sequestration and emissions reduction on rangelands, while producing real co-benefits, such as increased water retention and forage productivity. As a result of the work in this CIG, ranchers can implement the practices included in the protocols to enhance the quality of their rangeland ecosystem.

Successes & Challenges


  • Building collaborative partnerships with other CIG projects (e.g. development of the Avoided Conversion of Grasslands to Cropland pilot projects in the Prairie Pothole region with Ducks Unlimited) and outside partners (e.g. Marin Carbon Project)
  • Collecting  good data to help fill in information gaps which make the DayCent model more robust
  • Identifying significant co-benefits for greenhouse gas mitigation projects on rangelands


  • Finding the right timing to develop protocols while still collecting/refining data
  • Conducting a cost/benefit analysis for very new practices (e.g. purchasing and applying compost)


This project produced two scientifically validated carbon accounting protocols for use within the voluntary market: (i) a quantification methodology to account for carbon sequestered in grassland soils prevented from conversion to cropland, and (ii) a quantification methodology to account for additional carbon sequestered in grasslands after a single application of compost to the land. While the team investigated grazing management as a third potential practice to increase soil carbon and reduce emissions, we concluded that further research would be necessary before EDF and our partners could determine whether to recommend a general grazing management protocol for these purposes.

Next Steps

Project partners will continue to engage with interested ranchers to expand pilots of these practices. To reduce the cost barriers for rancher participation, project partners have identified the need to calibrate and validate the DayCent model across an even broader set of ecosystems.


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