Gimme a Break! IRS Tax Loophole Can Reward Excessive Water Use in Drought-stricken West

By Abrahm Lustgarten (Reprinted with permission from ProPublica)

ProPublica’s reporting on the water crisis in the American West has highlighted any number of confounding contradictions worsening the problem: Farmers are encouraged to waste water so as to protect their legal rights to its dwindling supply in the years ahead; Las Vegas sought to impose restrictions on water use while placing no checks on its explosive population growth; the federal government has encouraged farmers to improve efficiency in watering crops, but continues to subsidize the growing of thirsty crops such as cotton in desert states like Arizona.

Today, we offer another installment in the contradictions amid a crisis.

In parts of the western U.S., wracked by historic drought, you can get a tax break for using an abundance of water.

That’s a typo, right? A joke?

Ah, no. But we understand your bafflement. The Colorado River has been trickling, its largest reservoirs less than half full. As recently as 2014 parts of Texas literally almost dried up. The National Academy of Sciences predicts the Southwest may be on the cusp of its worst dry spell in 1,000 years. Scientists are warning that the backup plan — groundwater aquifers from California to Nebraska — are all being sucked dry.

But, yes, the tax break exists — in parts of eight High Plains states.

Here’s how it works: Farmers — or anyone who uses water in a business — can ask the Internal Revenue Service for a tax write-off for what’s called a “depleted asset.” In certain places, water counts as an asset, just like oil, or minerals like copper. The more water gets used, the more cash credit farmers can claim against their income tax. And that’s just what almost 3,000 Texas landowners in just one water district appear to have done last year — a year in which nearly half of Texas was in a state of “severe” or “extreme” drought.”

Yikes. How much can they write off?

A bunch it seems, especially if you’re a big farm and own a lot of land. We talked to an accountant in Levelland, Texas. He had a client who wrote off $10,000. “Whenever you buy land, you’re getting the dirt … and of course you are getting the water,” said Sham Myatt, the accountant. And the idea is that that water is part of what you paid for in the land deal. If the aquifer was 50 feet deep at the time of the land sale, and it drops 10 feet in a dry year, then the farmer can deduct one-fifth of the value, and so on, until all the water is gone.

That’s not going to do much to conserve water, is it?

No. It’s not. In fact it’s an incentive to do the exact opposite. A farmer who tries to use less water because of the drought, say, by switching to really efficient irrigation techniques, could actually make less money. His water might last longer, but producing his crop would get a lot more expensive.

We called Nicholas Brozovic, an associate professor of agricultural economics and director of policy at the University of Nebraska’s Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute. He’d actually never heard of the water deduction; it’s that obscure. But he laid out some textbook economics: If you’re overusing your water, then you are depreciating it, he said. And if the government pays for that, they are subsidizing that depreciation. “The more you deplete your groundwater, the higher your tax exemption and that must create an incentive not to conserve,” he said.

Hasn’t the federal government spent billions subsidizing conservation and the protection of the West’s groundwater, in part by building dams and encouraging people to use the water in rivers instead? Why would they forfeit federal tax dollars to do the opposite?

We called the IRS, and they initially shared our doubts. Not because they cared much about groundwater (it’s a tax agency!) but because they said they were pretty sure no such deduction was legal. They pointed us to section 613 of the tax code, and it couldn’t be more explicit: For the purposes of deducting the depreciating value of minerals, the definition “does not include soil, sod, dirt, turf, water, or mosses.” Ok, who would ever have thought of deducting mosses or sod? But anyway. That left us really confused.

Right, there were, after all, those farmers in Texas who seemed to have benefited from what the IRS said was not possible.

We encouraged the IRS to check again. They did. And then they found the provision they thought didn’t exist — right there in the text for Revenue Rule 65–296. An IRS spokesperson laid out for us the specifics: “Taxpayers are entitled to a cost depletion deduction for the exhaustion of their capital investment in the ground water extracted and disposed of by them in their business of irrigation farming specifically from the Ogallala Formation.”

Seems like some follow-up questions were in order.

For sure. We asked for clarification. The IRS said it would try to explain. Most importantly, they wanted to say it wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounded. The deduction is only available for one small part of the country — an area that includes parts of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado. And it should only apply if people are using water from a source that is running dry anyway.

But wait, what? You get a break when you use resources that are already in danger of vanishing?

Yes, that’s why it is what’s called a depleted asset. It’s of less and less value with every day. Your car is worth less the moment you drive it off the lot. Or, more similarly, oil companies track the falling value of their reserves the more they pump out from underground. In fact, energy companies have been taking oil depletion breaks for decades. Texas landowners would say their property is getting less valuable the less water there is to use on it.

Okay, okay, but water isn’t oil. It’s not a commodity. Access to it is a basic right. Yes? Please say that’s right.

Wrong. Ouch. I know, it hurts. But ProPublica last year wrote about all the ways water is coveted and controlled — and then often wasted — by just a few powerful groups. In most of the West, only some people and businesses have rights to it, depending on who showed up to claim it first. One big trend is that water is increasingly being bought and sold — including by hedge funds and big Wall Street investors, and the less water there is, the more the price is going up.

That’s a little scary. Let’s get back to depleted assets. So when did this tax break start?

About 50 years ago. A farmer in the Texas panhandle — along with his local water district — successfully sued the IRS, arguing that the roughly 200 million gallons he drew from his groundwater each year was no different than the depletion of the state’s other great natural resource, oil. He won, and the IRS was obliged to create rule 65–296 — the special allowance for tax credits that the IRS almost forgot about.

Again, it was supposed to be limited — just to a slice of Texas and eastern New Mexico. The court even went so far as to warn that the case shouldn’t become a precedent for groundwater tax claims elsewhere, saying the conditions in that area of the country were unique. But it didn’t take long for the rule to be expanded, albeit just a little bit. By the mid 1980’s any landowner overlying the sprawling Ogallala aquifer — a giant underground vault of precious but dwindling water — was eligible to file for the deductions, not just in North Texas and New Mexico.

That still doesn’t sound like much of a big deal … why does it matter?

Well, the Ogallala, which spans from central Texas north to Nebraska and South Dakota is the nation’s largest groundwater reserve and is one of the most important, and (famously) threatened water supplies in the country. Its heavy overuse and plummeting water levels rang alarms among policymakers more than half a century ago. So this is no insignificant place to be even indirectly encouraging overuse. Texas’ High Plains are one of the most intensely irrigated and productive farming regions in the country. Hundreds of thousands of acres of cotton and corn, among other staple commodities, are grown there using this Ogallala water.

So, do we know what’s happening to the Ogallala where all this farming is taking place?

We looked at recent water level changes in just one district — the one with thousands of tax credit claims — and found a disturbing trend. Underground water levels in the 16 counties of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District have dropped nearly 10 feet over the last 10 years. Some parts of Castro County saw water levels drop more than five feet over the course of 2015 alone. The federal government estimates nearly 100 cubic miles of water have been withdrawn from the Ogallala in that part of Texas. That doesn’t automatically mean the tax credits are responsible — water levels are dropping in most places thanks to overuse and it would take a lot more research to link up the cause and effect. But it certainly isn’t a portrait of sustainability.

Aquifers are at risk across Arizona, California and other states as well, right? At least people can’t claim tax breaks there?

Not yet. But that could change, as water supplies worsen and word of the tax break circulates more widely. Almost no one we spoke with had heard of it — not water lawyers in Arizona or groundwater conservation scientists in California. Armed with the knowledge, there’s a pretty good chance farmers and businesses across the West could seek tax relief.

Because there is precedent?

Exactly.

What does the IRS say to that?

They say it’s very unlikely, mostly because they think the conditions in the Ogallala are rare, and that the agency’s policy is to reject water allowance claims anywhere outside of the places covered in the original lawsuit. But if more landowners, in more places, were to file suits challenging the IRS to allow them to deduct for their water, or if they were to petition the IRS directly, the agency says it would undertake a review to consider it on a case by case basis. Landowners would have to present extensive scientific evidence that showed their situation was more or less the same as in North Texas.

Is the IRS equipped to make such judgments?

Fair question. John Leshy, professor emeritus at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and a former solicitor for the U.S. Department of Interior, isn’t persuaded. “The IRS has really created a can of worms for itself,” he said. “It doesn’t have any hydrological expertise.”

Hmmm. Not ideal. But what’s the bottom line? Are these tax breaks going to make any real difference in how quickly we use up the water supply?

It’s hard to tell, partly because no one appears to have examined that question. We asked the IRS for data on the number of claims and it hasn’t responded. Folks in Texas dismiss the suggestion that the tax benefits are incentivizing water use as ludicrous. Myatt, the accountant, points out that only about one-third of the deducted value translates to cash in hand, and says for many smaller farmers that amounts to just a few hundred dollars. Jason Coleman, manager of the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District, says his members are as concerned about conserving their water for the future as anyone. “Its already a declining resource,” he said. “I just can’t imagine someone saying I’m going to depreciate our resource any more because of a tax claim.”

But the academic consensus is that incentives encourage use, even overuse. And if the effect of depletion allowances on oil production are any guide — Leshy says they have spurred overproduction and led to artificially cheap, subsidized fuel prices — any significant expansion of the groundwater tax credit to other states could have lasting impacts on the way groundwater is used across the country.

So is anyone trying to do anything about this?

Not really, which is why people like Brent Blackwelder, president emeritus of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which has long been involved in rooting out tax policy disincentives to conservation, are fuming. “It’s a pretty major outrage that we would so stupidly reward the over extraction and non-sustainable use of groundwater,” he told me. Blackwelder helped push to purge the tax code of perverse anti-conservation incentives like this one way back in the Reagan administration, with the 1986 Tax Reform Act. They were largely successful, weeding out several other odd loopholes. But the groundwater depletion allowance persisted. And since then, apparently, it’s been forgotten about by all but the farmers who rely on it.


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How America Rising Ties the GOP Establishment to the Stalkers Harassing Bill McKibben and Tom Steyer

[Read more]


Hooked! The Unyielding Grip of Fossil Fuels on Global Life

By Michael Klare

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com

Here’s the good news: wind power, solar power, and other renewable forms of energy are expanding far more quickly than anyone expected, ensuring that these systems will provide an ever-increasing share of our future energy supply.  According to the most recent projections from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy, global consumption of wind, solar, hydropower, and other renewables will double between now and 2040, jumping from 64 to 131 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs).

And here’s the bad news: the consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas is also growing, making it likely that, whatever the advances of renewable energy, fossil fuels will continue to dominate the global landscape for decades to come, accelerating the pace of global warming and ensuring the intensification of climate-change catastrophes.

The rapid growth of renewable energy has given us much to cheer about.  Not so long ago, energy analysts were reporting that wind and solar systems were too costly to compete with oil, coal, and natural gas in the global marketplace.  Renewables would, it was then assumed, require pricey subsidies that might not always be available.  That was then and this is now.  Today, remarkably enough, wind and solar are already competitive with fossil fuels for many uses and in many markets.

If that wasn’t predicted, however, neither was this: despite such advances, the allure of fossil fuels hasn’t dissipated.  Individuals, governments, whole societies continue to opt for such fuels even when they gain no significant economic advantage from that choice and risk causing severe planetary harm.  Clearly, something irrational is at play.  Think of it as the fossil-fuel equivalent of an addictive inclination writ large.

The contradictory and troubling nature of the energy landscape is on clear display in the 2016 edition of the International Energy Outlook, the annual assessment of global trends released by the EIA this May.  The good news about renewables gets prominent attention in the report, which includes projections of global energy use through 2040.  “Renewables are the world’s fastest-growing energy source over the projection period,” it concludes.  Wind and solar are expected to demonstrate particular vigor in the years to come, their growth outpacing every other form of energy.  But because renewables start from such a small base — representing just 12% of all energy used in 2012 — they will continue to be overshadowed in the decades ahead, explosive growth or not.  In 2040, according to the report’s projections, fossil fuels will still have a grip on a staggering 78% of the world energy market, and — if you don’t mind getting thoroughly depressed — oil, coal, and natural gas will each still command larger shares of the market than all renewables combined.

Keep in mind that total energy consumption is expected to be much greater in 2040 than at present.  At that time, humanity will be using an estimated 815 quadrillion BTUs (compared to approximately 600 quadrillion today).  In other words, though fossil fuels will lose some of their market share to renewables, they will still experience striking growth in absolute terms.  Oil consumption, for example, is expected to increase by 34% from 90 million to 121 million barrels per day by 2040.  Despite all the negative publicity it’s been getting lately, coal, too, should experience substantial growth, rising from 153 to 180 quadrillion BTUs in “delivered energy” over this period.  And natural gas will be the fossil-fuel champ, with global demand for it jumping by 70%.  Put it all together and the consumption of fossil fuels is projected to increase by 177 quadrillion BTUs, or 38%, over the period the report surveys.

Anyone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of climate science has to shudder at such projections.  After all, emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels account for approximately three-quarters of the greenhouse gases humans are putting into the atmosphere.  An increase in their consumption of such magnitude will have a corresponding impact on the greenhouse effect that is accelerating the rise in global temperatures.

At the United Nations Climate Summit in Paris last December, delegates from more than 190 countries adopted a plan aimed at preventing global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial level.  This target was chosen because most scientists believe that any warming beyond that will result in catastrophic and irreversible climate effects, including the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps (and a resulting sea-level rise of 10-20 feet).  Under the Paris Agreement, the participating nations signed onto a plan to take immediate steps to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and then move to actual reductions.  Although the agreement doesn’t specify what measures should be taken to satisfy this requirement — each country is obliged to devise its own “intended nationally determined contributions” to the overall goal — the only practical approach for most countries would be to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

As the 2016 EIA report makes eye-poppingly clear, however, the endorsers of the Paris Agreement aren’t on track to reduce their consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas.  In fact, greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise by an estimated 34% between 2012 and 2040 (from 32.3 billion to 43.2 billion metric tons).  That net increase of 10.9 billion metric tons is equal to the total carbon emissions of the United States, Canada, and Europe in 2012.  If such projections prove accurate, global temperatures will rise, possibly significantly above that 2 degree mark, with the destructive effects of climate change we are already witnessing today — the fires, heat waves, floods, droughts, storms, and sea level rise — only intensifying.

Exploring the Roots of Addiction

How to explain the world’s tenacious reliance on fossil fuels, despite all that we know about their role in global warming and those lofty promises made in Paris?

To some degree, it is undoubtedly the product of built-in momentum: our existing urban, industrial, and transportation infrastructure was largely constructed around fossil fuel-powered energy systems, and it will take a long time to replace or reconfigure them for a post-carbon future.  Most of our electricity, for example, is provided by coal- and gas-fired power plants that will continue to operate for years to come.  Even with the rapid growth of renewables, coal and natural gas are projected to supply 56% of the fuel for the world’s electrical power generation in 2040 (a drop of only 5% from today).  Likewise, the overwhelming majority of cars and trucks on the road are now fueled by gasoline and diesel.  Even if the number of new ones running on electricity were to spike, it would still be many years before oil-powered vehicles lost their commanding position.  As history tells us, transitions from one form of energy to another take time.

Then there’s the problem — and what a problem it is! — of vested interests.  Energy is the largest and most lucrative business in the world, and the giant fossil fuel companies have long enjoyed a privileged and highly profitable status.  Oil corporations like Chevron and ExxonMobil, along with their state-owned counterparts like Gazprom of Russia and Saudi Aramco, are consistently ranked among the world’s most valuable enterprises.  These companies — and the governments they’re associated with — are not inclined to surrender the massive profits they generate year after year for the future wellbeing of the planet.

As a result, it’s a guarantee that they will employ any means at their disposal (including well-established, well-funded ties to friendly politicians and political parties) to slow the transition to renewables.  In the United States, for example, the politicians of coal-producing states are now at work on plans to block the Obama administration’s “clean power” drive, which might indeed lead to a sharp reduction in coal consumption.  Similarly, Exxon has recruited friendly Republican officials to impede the efforts of some state attorney generals to investigate that company’s past suppression of information on the links between fossil fuel use and climate change.  And that’s just to scratch the surface of corporate efforts to mislead the public that have included the funding of the Heartland Institute and other climate-change-denying think tanks.

Of course, nowhere is the determination to sustain fossil fuels fiercer than in the “petro-states” that rely on their production for government revenues, provide energy subsidies to their citizens, and sometimes sell their products at below-market rates to encourage their use.  According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2014 fossil fuel subsidies of various sorts added up to a staggering $493 billion worldwide — far more than those for the development of renewable forms of energy.  The G-20 group of leading industrial powers agreed in 2009 to phase out such subsidies, but a meeting of G-20 energy ministers in Beijing in June failed to adopt a timeline to complete the phase-out process, suggesting that little progress will be made when the heads of state of those countries meet in Hangzhou, China, this September.

None of this should surprise anyone, given the global economy’s institutionalized dependence on fossil fuels and the amounts of money at stake.  What it doesn’t explain, however, is the projected growth in global fossil fuel consumption.  A gradual decline, accelerating over time, would be consistent with a broad-scale but slow transition from carbon-based fuels to renewables.  That the opposite seems to be happening, that their use is actually expanding in most parts of the world, suggests that another factor is in play: addiction.

We all know that smoking tobacco, snorting cocaine, or consuming too much alcohol is bad for us, but many of us persist in doing so anyway, finding the resulting thrill, the relief, or the dulling of the pain of everyday life simply too great to resist.  In the same way, much of the world now seems to find it easier to fill up the car with the usual tankful of gasoline or flip the switch and receive electricity from coal or natural gas than to begin to shake our addiction to fossil fuels.  As in everyday life, so at a global level, the power of addiction seems regularly to trump the obvious desirability of embarking on another, far healthier path.

On a Fossil Fuel Bridge to Nowhere

Without acknowledging any of this, the 2016 EIA report indicates just how widespread and prevalent our fossil-fuel addiction remains.  In explaining the rising demand for oil, for example, it notes that “in the transportation sector, liquid fuels [predominantly petroleum] continue to provide most of the energy consumed.”  Even though “advances in nonliquids-based [electrical] transportation technologies are anticipated,” they will not prove sufficient “to offset the rising demand for transportation services worldwide,” and so the demand for gasoline and diesel will continue to grow.

Most of the increase in demand for petroleum-based fuels is expected tooccur in the developing world, where hundreds of millions of people are entering the middle class, buying their first gas-powered cars, and about to be hooked on an energy way of life that should be, but isn’t, dying.  Oil use is expected to grow in China by 57% between 2012 and 2040, and at a faster rate (131%!) in India.  Even in the United States, however, a growing preference for sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks continues to mean higher petroleum use.  In 2016, according to Edmunds.com, a car shopping and research site, nearly 75% of the people who traded in a hybrid or electric car to a dealer replaced it with an all-gas car, typically a larger vehicle like an SUV or a pickup.

The rising demand for coal follows a depressingly similar pattern.  Although it remains a major source of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change, many developing nations, especially in Asia, continue to favor it when adding electricity capacity because of its low cost and familiar technology.  Although the demand for coal in China — long the leading consumer of that fuel — is slowing, that country is still expected to increase its usage by 12% by 2035.  The big story here, however, is India: according to the EIA, its coal consumption will grow by 62% in the years surveyed, eventually making it, not the United States, the world’s second largest consumer.  Most of that extra coal will go for electricity generation, once again to satisfy an “expanding middle class using more electricity-consuming appliances.”

And then there’s the mammoth expected increase in the demand for natural gas.  According to the latest EIA projections, its consumption will rise faster than any fuel except renewables.  Given the small base from which renewables start, however, gas will experience the biggest absolute increase of any fuel, 87 quadrillion BTUs between 2012 and 2040.  (In contrast, renewables are expected to grow by 68 quadrillion and oil by 62 quadrillion BTUs during this period.)

At present, natural gas appears to enjoy an enormous advantage in the global energy marketplace.  “In the power sector, natural gas is an attractive choice for new generating plants given its moderate capital cost and attractive pricing in many regions as well as the relatively high fuel efficiency and moderate capital cost of gas-fired plants,” the EIA notes.  It is also said to benefit from its “clean” reputation (compared to coal) in generating electricity.  “As more governments begin implementing national or regional plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, natural gas may displace consumption of the more carbon-intensive coal and liquid fuels.”

Unfortunately, despite that reputation, natural gas remains a carbon-based fossil fuel, and its expanded consumption will result in a significant increase in global greenhouse gas emissions.  In fact, the EIA claims that it will generate a larger increase in such emissions over the next quarter-century than either coal or oil — a disturbing note for those who contend that natural gas provides a “bridge” to a green energy future.

Seeking Treatment

If you were to read through the EIA’s latest report as I did, you, too, might end up depressed by humanity’s addictive need for its daily fossil fuel hit.  While the EIA’s analysts add the usual caveats, including the possibility that a more sweeping than expected follow-up climate agreement or strict enforcement of the one adopted last December could alter their projections, they detect no signs of the beginning of a determined move away from the reliance on fossil fuels.

If, indeed, addiction is a big part of the problem, any strategies undertaken to address climate change must incorporate a treatment component.  Simply saying that global warming is bad for the planet, and that prudence and morality oblige us to prevent the worst climate-related disasters, will no more suffice than would telling addicts that tobacco and hard drugs are bad for them.  Success in any global drive to avert climate catastrophe will involve tackling addictive behavior at its roots and promoting lasting changes in lifestyle.  To do that, it will be necessary to learn from the anti-drug and anti-tobacco communities about best practices, and apply them to fossil fuels.

Consider, for example, the case of anti-smoking efforts.  It was the medical community that first took up the struggle against tobacco and began by banning smoking in hospitals and other medical facilities.  This effort was later extended to public facilities — schools, government buildings, airports, and so on — until vast areas of the public sphere became smoke-free.  Anti-smoking activists also campaigned to have warning labels displayed in tobacco advertising and cigarette packaging.

Such approaches helped reduce tobacco consumption around the world and can be adapted to the anti-carbon struggle.  College campuses and town centers could, for instance, be declared car-free — a strategy already embraced by London’s newly elected mayor, Sadiq Khan.  Express lanes on major streets and highways can be reserved for hybrids, electric cars, and other alternative vehicles.  Gas station pumps and oil advertising can be made to incorporate warning signs saying something like, “Notice: consumption of this product increases your exposure to asthma, heat waves, sea level rise, and other threats to public health.”  Once such an approach began to be seriously considered, there would undoubtedly be a host of other ideas for how to begin to put limits on our fossil fuel addiction.

Such measures would have to be complemented by major moves to combat the excessive influence of the fossil fuel companies and energy states when it comes to setting both local and global policy.  In the U.S., for instance, severely restricting the scope of private donations in campaign financing, as Senator Bernie Sanders advocated in his presidential campaign, would be a way to start down this path.  Another would step up legal efforts to hold giant energy companies like ExxonMobil accountable for malfeasance in suppressing information about the links between fossil fuel combustion and global warming, just as, decades ago, anti-smoking activists tried to expose tobacco company criminality in suppressing information on the links between smoking and cancer.

Without similar efforts of every sort on a global level, one thing seems certain: the future projected by the EIA will indeed come to pass and human suffering of a previously unimaginable sort will be the order of the day.


 

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of  The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @mklare1.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Michael T. Klare


Sacramento’s CBS13 News Live Interviews Grass Valley Opponent of Brewery Proposal

By Don Pelton

As I understand it, Sacramento’s CBS13 News Live Reporter Kelly Ryan this morning had “mixed results” when attempting to find someone in the City of Grass Valley willing to be interviewed  about the Whispering Pines Brewery proposal.

Here, however, is the CBS13 brief report (snipped from their 10pm broadcast) that includes an interview with Dan Ketcham of CARD (Citizens Advocating Responsible Development), the local citizens’ group that initiated a lawsuit over the issue:


The #1 Factor Experts Say Accounts for High Number of Mass Shootings in U.S.

Welcome to the world of environmental criminology.

By Patricia Pearson / Reprinted from AlterNet

June 21, 2016

GunsCanadians are reputed to be polite. But that isn’t a very compelling argument for why the lone wolves there are less inclined to engage in the kind of mass shooting that occurred in Orlando. All three pathologies that appeared to be in play at the horrific Pulse nightclub massacre—homophobia, psychological instability and adherence to a cult-like “Ism” that could act as a justifying frame in the killer’s mind—exist for some of Canada’s citizens as well. Two of those factors resulted in rifle bullets whizzing around the halls of the Canadian Parliament in October 2014.

The shooter, Michael-Zahef Bibeau, had an illegally acquired Winchester Model 94, a deer-hunting rifle that enabled him to fire off all of seven rounds before he had to halt in his tracks and fumble to reload. He was handily tackled at that point by security. Just hold that thought.

Canadians have had their fair share of “mass stabbings,” which virtually by definition don’t turn out to be particularly massive. Knives don’t kill people, people kill people, but people kill people on a markedly diminished scale with knives, and that’s hard not to notice for those of us who live outside the U.S.

To acquire and carry a gun in Canada, you need to go through a mind-boggling number of tests and procedures, the results of which are then vetted by police. Each one of these steps surely acts as a cool-down procedure on a mentally unstable mind.

Explosively enraged at the world? First attend your “gun safety class” on a Saturday, next available slot in two months, in the town 20 miles from your house. Then study for, write and pass the safety test that enables you to apply—to the police—for a license. That will entail extensive background checking on their part, after which you may or may not be freed to research where you can go to purchase your weapon and finally unleash your hateful rage.

A commonly repeated argument in the U.S. is that men of murderous intent will just go ahead and buy their guns on the black market. Perhaps, but in Canada apparently there aren’t many assault rifles lying around. The black market, after all, isn’t just down the street beside the corner store. It’s more akin to a word-of-mouth social network. Think loosely assembled gangs passing around Glocks as opposed to isolated, fantasizing aggressors with no real-world criminal ties, like Adam Lanza in Sandy Hook.

The internet is a grand marketplace for pathologies but not that helpful when things have to be delivered by UPS. So if the guns aren’t legally on offer, or indeed, in Lanza’s case, in the house, then the black market will tend to act as a baffle.

Canada’s largest gun massacre took place in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down. It was directed at female engineering students in Montreal, slaying 14. The date, December 6, has become a national day of mourning and activism for violence against women. In other words, mass shootings in your neighbor to the north are sufficiently rare that we all still focus on that particular event 27 years ago, in an annual memorial event. (The Montreal Massacre also led to an overhaul of gun laws.)

What, then, has enabled so many mentally unstable Americans to inflict so much carnage that America can sometimes feel as chaotic and unsafe as the marketplaces of Baghdad? If florid gun availability isn’t your go-to answer, consider the answer a different way. There is a subfield within criminological theory called “environmental criminology.” The ideas kicked around in this field are that people don’t commit crimes due to intrinsic factors like poverty or instability unless they are swimming in an environment of criminal possibility. Readily available, high-velocity weapons, for instance, would be a feature of that environment.

One of the frames for this discussion in criminology is “routine activities theory,” first proposed by Marcus Felson and Lawrence Cohen. According to this theory, a woman is more likely, for example, to be sexually assaulted in an urban area near a transit route than in an empty farmhouse far from help, because the farmhouse is simply not on her attacker’s routine pathway.

The criminologist Kim Rossmo of Texas State University in Austin has developed an investigative approach he calls geographic profiling, in which you can map the routine activities of unidentified violent offenders and determine where to look for them based on where they committed their crime. Why? Because the perpetrator will have traversed his daily life routes multiple times, like an animal circling its territory, before summoning the nerve to attack. Multiple times he will travel past the same bus stop where he began taking note of a potential victim, while on the way home from his job.

In light of these ideas, one might imagine what fermentation takes place in an unstable mind passing several times a month past a gun display. Guns like the AR-15 are, or have been until recently, on sale at Walmart, Target, Costco, and every other shop you’d routinely pass by as an American living in a state like Florida. What if, over time, an inchoate idea becomes fixed, or a plan becomes psychologically plausible because the opportunity repeatedly presents itself?

It’s like a nightmare funhouse version of the children’s story, The Little Engine That Could. The notion that those guns are easily available to you, and can be used to commit mass murder, is then, arguably, reinforced each time a mass murder makes headlines.

ISIL and Al Qaeda are undeniably goading anyone who will listen to take up arms against the West. But in North America at least, they aren’t the ones supplying the arms. Without ready access to guns, radicalized Canadians have done their best: one used a car to run over a Canadian Armed Forces Officer in Quebec two years ago. Others have been arrested for scheming to blow up a train.

Yet, from our standpoint as witnesses to the roiling tragedies of American gun violence, Omar Mateen actually has more in common with Adam Lanza of Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, in spite of their ostensibly different sources of inspiration. Senator MaCain may wish to blame Orlando on Obama’s foreign policy, but on what does he blame Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech and Georgia? The reality is that all of these shooters were swimming in the same violent sea.


Canadian journalist Patricia Pearson’s most recent book is Opening Heaven’s Door.


Local Citizens’ Group Takes Legal Action Against City of Grass Valley

By Don Pelton

Attorney Michael W. Graf, representing local citizens’ group, Citizens Advocating Responsible Development (CARD), yesterday filed a petition in Nevada County Superior Court challenging the City of Grass Valley’s “actions on May 10, 2016 and May 24, 2016 approving Text Amendments of the Whispering Pines Specific Plan SP-1A Corporate Business Park designation.” Graf, in his notice to the City, added that “petitioner’s actions will include claims under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).”

The complete “Petition for Writ of Mandate” plus associated documents filed yesterday (including Graf’s notice to the City) can be read in their entirety here.

As I reported on May 11th (see “Grass Valley City Council Ignores CEQA Guidelines in Last Night’s Whispering Pines Decision“), the “Grass valley City Council last night voted 3 (Jason Fouyer, Howard Levine, Ben Aguilar) to 2 (Jan Arbuckle, Lisa Swarthout) to adopt an ordinance that includes (1) amendments to the Whispering Pines Business Park Specific Plan and (2) the adoption of a Negative Declaration as ‘the appropriate level of environmental review’ of these amendments.”

Now that the City is facing legal action over this issue, it has scheduled a closed meeting next Tuesday the 14th (prior to the regular City Council meeting) in order to discuss the matter, although there are no items concerning Whispering Pines in the regular open agenda for Tuesday. The following notice describing the reason for the closed meeting appears in the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting:

closed_meetingThe “copy available for public inspection in Clerk’s Office” (referred to above) is most likely the same Petition and associated documents that I’ve made available here.

Attorney Michael Graf’s filing is a model of clarity, and leaves little doubt that — in approving the zoning changes — both Planning staff and the three Council members who approved the zoning changes failed to adequately consider CEQA’s requirements in the broadest sense (as they apply to potential environmental impacts) and in the narrowest details (the City’s failure to recirculate the revised Negative Declaration for further public comment).

The formal Petition for Writ of Mandate concludes with this request:

petition_prayer

 


Sixty local women needed for Community Health Impacts of Mining Exposure (CHIME 2) Study

Press ReleaseSierra_Streams

Sierra Streams Institute
431 Uren Street, Suite C
Nevada City, ca 95959
530-265-6090

Sixty local women needed for Community Health Impacts of Mining Exposure (CHIME 2) Study

Nevada City-based non-profit Sierra Streams Institute is partnering with the Cancer Prevention Institute of California to launch an important new study on the health consequences of living in a mining-impacted community.

Sierra Streams Institute is currently seeking women over the age of 18 years, with a history of breast cancer and currently living in western Nevada County to participate in this exciting research project.  Participants will be asked to provide a urine sample, toenail clippings, and complete a brief questionnaire.  They are also planning a subsequent study involving in-home environmental sampling and are waiting for final approval of the study protocols.

This study, funded by state tobacco taxes through the California Breast Cancer Research Program, will focus on the amount of cadmium and arsenic in the bodies of women with and without breast cancer residing in historical Gold Country.

These two metals are of interest because they are found at high levels throughout Gold Country, are known carcinogens and may play a role in developing breast cancer.  The three most populous counties in Gold Country, including Nevada County, have breast cancer rates that rank in the top ten counties in California.

To volunteer for the CHIME (Community Health Impacts of Mining Exposure) study or to learn more about this ground-breaking study, please visit Sierra Streams Institute website at:  http://www.sierrastreamsinstitute.org/CHIME.html, or contact Joanne Hild joanne@sierrastreams.org or Katy Janes katy@sierrastreams.org at phone (530) 265-6090 x200 or x202. Given our small community, all personal information and research data will be collected by Cancer Prevention Institute of California in order to protect your privacy.  No personal information will be shared with Sierra Streams Institute staff or anyone else.

Cancer_Prevention_Institute


Privatizing America’s Public Land

How the Raid on Malheur Screened a Future Raid on Real Estate

By William deBuys
Reprinted with permission from Tomdispatch.com

It goes without saying that in a democracy everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. The trouble starts when people think they are also entitled to their own facts.

Away out West, on the hundreds of millions of acres of public lands that most Americans take for granted (if they are aware of them at all), the trouble is deep, widespread, and won’t soon go away. Last winter’s armed take-over and 41-day occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon is a case in point. It was carried out by people who, if they hadn’t been white and dressed as cowboys, might have been called “terrorists” and treated as such. Their interpretation of the history of western lands and of the judicial basis for federal land ownership — or at least that of their leaders, since they weren’t exactly a band of intellectuals — was only loosely linked to reality.

At least some of them took inspiration from the notion that Jesus Christ wrote the Constitution (which would be news to the Deists, like James Madison, who were its actual authors) and that it prohibits federal ownership of any land excepting administrative sites within the United States — a contention that more than two centuries of American jurisprudence has emphatically repudiated.

The troubling thing is that similar delusions infect pockets of unrest throughout the West, lending a kind of twisted legitimacy to efforts at both the state and national level to transfer western public lands to states and counties. To be sure, not all the proponents of this liquidation of America’s national patrimony subscribe to wing-nut doctrines; sometimes they just use them.

Greed can suffice to motivate those who lust for the real estate bonanzas and resource giveaways that would result if states gained title to, say, the 264 million acres presently controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). General combativeness and hostility toward government also play their roles, and the usual right-wing mega-donors, including the Koch brothers, pump money into a bewildering array of agitator groups to help keep the fires of resentment burning.

The louder the drum chant of crazy “facts” gets, the more the Alice-in-Wonderland logic behind them threatens to seize the popular narrative about America’s public lands — how they came to be and what they represent.  This, in turn, prepares the way for the betrayal of one of the nation’s deepest traditions and for the loss of yet more of its natural heritage. Conversely, those who value American public lands have been laggard in articulating an updated vision for those open spaces appropriate to the twenty-first century and capable of expressing what the unsettled “fruited plains” and “purple mountain majesties” of the West still mean for our national experience and our capacity to meet the challenges of the future.

The Malice at Malheur

The leaders of the Malheur occupation, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, are the sons of Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher and public lands scofflaw who gained notoriety two years ago following a standoff with federal law enforcement officers. Back in the 1990s, the elder Bundy had stopped paying grazing fees, claiming that the federal government had no authority to regulate the public lands where his cattle fed. In 2014, with Bundy $1.1 million in arrears and his grazing permits transferred to the local county government, the Bureau of Land Management moved to round up and confiscate his 400 head of cattle.

Via social media, Bundy appealed to militia and “patriot” groups for support, and hundreds of armed resisters rallied to his ranch 90 miles north of Las Vegas. When the ensuing showdown threatened to become a bloodbath like the Waco siege of 1993, the authorities withdrew.

The government’s retreat and its failure to arrest members of the Bundy family or their allies for acts of armed resistance set the stage for the Malheur takeover, but the roots of the incident go back to the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s and the Wise Use Movement that succeeded it. The Sagebrush Rebellion was triggered by a national inventory of public lands to identify areas appropriate for designation as “wilderness” (under the National Wilderness Preservation System).  Its advocates also protested the enforcement of government protections for archaeological sites and endangered species. Wise Use groups echoed those complaints and essentially argued against anything the environmental movement was for, urging the amped-up exploitation of natural resources on western lands.

Ammon Bundy put his own rogue-Mormon spin on that message by claiming divine inspiration and sanction for his actions. Ostensibly, the Malheur occupation was intended to show support for nearby ranchers Dwight and Stephen Hammond, who faced jail terms for setting illegal range fires (and who immediately distanced themselves from the occupation). But Bundy didn’t stop there. He called on “patriots all over the country” to join his cause and help “free up” federal land for ranching, mining, and logging, pointedly adding, “We need you to bring your guns.”

Malheur was an odd place for white guys to make a stand in favor of “returning” federal land to its “rightful owners” — that is, themselves. The refuge was established in 1908 when Teddy Roosevelt declared a modest area of public domain to be a wildlife refuge. If anyone then occupied the land, it was members of the Burns Paiute tribe, not white settlers. In the 1930s, the refuge expanded when the government bought the bankrupt remnants of a former cattle baron’s empire. At the time, Malheur was its own mini-Dust Bowl. The purchase, which enlarged protection for once-fabulous wetlands supporting thousands of migrating birds, was essentially a bailout.

The people who joined the Bundys in the Malheur occupation were a strange lot. Few had any relationship to ranching or actual cows, aside from sitting down to eat a hamburger. Some were ex-military; others claimed to be (but weren’t). Quite a few had links to Tea Party groups or to “patriot” organizations including the Oath Keepers, theThree Percenters, and an assortment of other militia outfits. One described himself as “an old hippie from San Francisco,” jazzed by the excitement of the occupation and uncaring about its purposes. He also happened to be a convicted murderer (second degree) — of his father.

Straight thinking was not a requirement for admission to the occupiers’ cause. The fellow who photogenically rode his horse around the refuge while displaying a large American flag, for example, turned out to be acutely concerned lest the federal government divest itself of public lands. He feared the loss of access to cherished places where he liked to ride his horse. Because of that, he joined an armed effort aimed at forcing the government to do exactly what he didn’t want. Go figure.

Following the shooting death of LaVoy Finicum, the Malheur occupier who committed suicide-by-cop at a roadblock on January 26th, the occupation unraveled. At last count, the Bundy brothers and 24 others had been arrested and charged with a laundry list of crimes, including conspiracy to prevent federal employees from carrying out their duties and destruction of public property. All but one or two of them are still in jail.

Nor did the feds stop there. They finally nabbed Cliven Bundy at an airport after he attended a memorial service for Finicum, and also charged 18 others in connection with the 2014 Nevada standoff. Some of the 18 were already in custody for their involvement at Malheur. Bundy’s illegal cattle, which the government unsuccessfully tried to confiscate in 2014, remain at large.

More Mad Cowboy Disease in Utah

Despite the government’s thorough, if belated, crackdown, the hostility toward public lands on display at Malheur has hardly been contained. Such resentments are of a piece with the anger suffusing the presidential campaigns, although paradoxically enough Donald Trump has spoken out in favor of retaining federal lands. (Ted Cruz, by contrast, campaigned against Trump in Nevada by promising to “fight day and night to return full control of Nevada’s lands to its rightful owners, its citizens.”)

The darkest side of this “movement” is undoubtedly its well-documented association with armed militia groups and their persistent threat of violence. Gunmen from the Oath Keepers, for instance, obstructed federal officials from shutting down mines violating environmental regulations in both Oregon and Montana.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the current, rapid growth of militia groups is unprecedented and appears to have been spurred by the 2014 standoff at the Bundy ranch. Notices for “meet-ups” among “patriots” to show support for the incarcerated Bundys and the “martyred” Finicum are abundant on social media.

A similar virus has infected several western state legislatures, including those of Montana, Oregon, Wyoming, and Nevada. Representative Michele Fiore, who hovered at the fringes of the Malheur occupation, for instance, introduced a bill in the Nevada legislature to transfer federal lands there to state control, irrespective of federal wishes. Considered patently unconstitutional, it was quickly dismissed. A Nevada senate resolution calling on Washington D.C. to initiate action to transfer those lands received more serious consideration.

The game is being played more cagily in Utah. There, lawmakers approved legislation in March that authorized and partly funded the state’s attorney general to sue the federal government for title to approximately 30 million acres of Utah public lands. The suit would pursue strategies advanced via a study produced by a New Orleans law firm outlining “legitimate legal theories” that, it contended, might lead to the wholesale transfer of lands to the state.

The expected cost of the litigation has been estimated at $14 million and Utah has sought allies among other western states. So far, they’ve found no takers willing to join the suit, possibly because other attorneys general have concluded that the legal theories behind it are rubbish.

Utah has also exported its anti-federalism to Capitol Hill. One of its congressmen, Rob Bishop, currently chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and sympathetically held hearings in February on several bills, introduced by representatives from Alaska, Idaho, and Utah, that would place federal lands under state control. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska and chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has promoted similar bills in the Senate.

Hanging on to “the Solace of Open Spaces”

Lost among the headlines, sound bites, and posturing is any serious discussion of America’s public lands and their purposes. Ammon Bundy was completely correct, early in the occupation of Malheur, when he said, “This refuge is rightfully owned by the people.” His problem was that his definition of “people” only included people like him. The Burns Paiute tribe, whose ancestral homeland includes Malheur and whose sacred sites are protected by federal law, certainly did not figure into his plans. The thousands of annual visitors to Malheur, who appreciate its 320 bird species and other wildlife, and the millions more who support the National Wildlife Refuge System, also seem not to be the “people” Bundy had in mind. The same might be said for anyone attracted to the idea of intact natural landscapes and functioning ecosystems.

The greatest vulnerability of America’s public lands is that the millions of their rightful owners scarcely know they exist. Ask the average New Yorker what the Bureau of Land Management is, and the odds are that you’ll get a confused stare. Even many people in the West, who live close to those public lands, have trouble differentiating the National Parks from the National Forests, though those two classes of land are administered for substantially different purposes by two different government departments, Interior and Agriculture. Yet most people agree that the wild open spaces of the nation’s grandest landscapes constitute a collective treasure.

In essence, they are our national commons, our shared resource, not just for material goods, like timber, clean water, and minerals, but for recreation and inspiration. Seventy percent of all hunters are said to use public lands, and the percentages of birders, campers, hikers, and other recreationists must be at least as high. Public lands also help buffer us against the uncertainties of the future. Only public lands, for instance, spread unbroken over great enough distances to offer the connectedness that many plants and animals will require to adapt, to the extent possible, to a warming climate. Moreover, as the struggle to wean the economy away from fossil fuels continues, only public lands, with their unified federal ownership, are susceptible to the kind of sweeping shift in national energy policy necessary to “keep it in the ground.”

For all these reasons, the future of the nation’s 640 million acres of public lands deserves a more prominent place in our national discourse. The patterns of the past, emphasizing extractive, industrial uses of those lands, have long been in decline. An alternate path focused on restoration and biodiversity conservation has instead steadily gained traction, and indeed, its priorities — which include making room for endangered species — have inspired many of the objections of the Malheur occupiers.

Two things are certain: when large acreages of public domain are transferred to the states, significant portions of them end up being sold off to private interests. That creates a new kind of inequality that, in the natural world, parallels this era’s growing economic gap between rich and poor. It is an inequality of access to big, wild lands and to the ineffable something that Wyoming writer Gretel Ehrlich called the “solace of open spaces” and Pulitzer-winning novelist Wallace Stegner termed “the native home of hope.”

Thanks to the great western commons, which the Bundys and their legislative champions would like to dismantle, all Americans still enjoy the freedom to roam on some of the most spectacular lands on the planet. That access and that connection have been part of the American experience from Plymouth Rock through the westward migration to the present day. It is part of what makes us Americans.

The Depression-era folksinger Woody Guthrie understood the issues attending the privatization of common land. He offered his opinion of them in the least sung verse of his most famous song:

“There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
Sign was painted, said: “Private Property”
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.”


William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of eight books, the most recent of which is The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures. He has written extensively on water, drought, and climate in the West, including A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest. Based in New Mexico, he has managed ranches and devised cooperative grazing programs involving both ranchers and government land managers.  

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join it on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 William deBuys


Dirt First

The March/April 2016 issue of the beautiful environmental magazine, Orion, features an article about “a revolution in the science of dirt,” which — it claims — “is transforming American agriculture.” The article is called “Dirt First” and is written by Kristin Ohlson. Like most good stories, this one has a hero, in this case Rick Haney, a USDA soil scientist.

“Our entire agriculture industry is based on chemical inputs, but soil is not a chemistry set,” Haney explains. “It’s a biological system. We’ve treated it like a chemistry set because the chemistry is easier to measure than the soil biology.”

In nature, of course, plants grow like mad without added synthetic fertilizer, thanks to a multimillion-year-old partnership with soil microorganisms. Plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and create a carbon syrup. About 60 percent of this fuels the plant’s growth, with the remaining exuded through the roots to soil microorganisms, which trade mineral nutrients they’ve liberated from rocks, sand, silt, and clay—in other words, fertilizer—for their share of the carbon bounty. Haney insists that ag scientists are remiss if they don’t pay more attention to this natural partnership.

“I’ve had scientific colleagues tell me they raised 300 bushels of corn [per acre] with an application of fertilizer, and I ask how the control plots, the ones without the fertilizer, did,” Haney says. “They tell me 220 bushels of corn. How is that not the story? How is raising 220 bushels of corn without fertilizer not the story?” If the natural processes at work in even the tired soil of a test plot can produce 220 bushels of corn, he argues, the yields of farmers consciously building soil health can be much higher.

Less than 50 percent of the synthetic fertilizer that farmers apply to most crops is actually used by plants, with much of the rest running off into drainage ditches and streams and, later, concentrating with disastrous effects in lakes and oceans. Witness the oxygen-free dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico or tap water tainted by neurotoxin-producing algae in Ohio: both phenomena are tied to fertilizer runoff. Farmers often apply fertilizer based on advice from manufacturers and university extension agents who are faithful to the agrochemical mindset, using formulas that tie X amount of desired yield to Y pounds of fertilizer applied per acre. Or they apply fertilizer based on a standard test that gauges the amount of inorganic nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus—the basic ingredients of chemical fertilizers, often referred to as NPK—in a soil sample. Or they apply what they put on the year before, or what their neighbor applied, and then maybe a little bit more, hoping for a jackpot combination of rain, sunshine, and a good market.

[…]

The standard soil test, developed some sixty years ago, focuses only on the chemical properties of soil. Haney began developing his test in the early 1990s to focus instead on the soil’s biology. Based on the vigor of the microscopic community in a farmer’s soil, his recommendations usually call for far less than what the farmer hears elsewhere. The yields of those who heed his advice often remain the same, or rise.”

Read the full article here: “Dirt First


What’s a Carbon Farmer? How California Ranchers Use Dirt to Tackle Climate Change

Scientists believe that simple land management techniques can increase the rate at which carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in soils.

By 


Stewardship Carbon Project - M Woolsey_650.jpg

For many climate change activists, the latest rallying cry has been, “Keep it in the ground,” a call to slow and stop drilling for fossil fuels. But for a new generation of land stewards, the cry is becoming, “Put it back in the ground!”

As an avid gardener and former organic farmer, I know the promise that soil holds: Every ounce supports a plethora of life. Now, evidence suggests that soil may also be a key to slowing and reversing climate change.

Evidence suggests that soil may also be a key to slowing and reversing climate change.

“I think the future is really bright,” said Loren Poncia, an energetic Northern Californian cattle rancher. Poncia’s optimism stems from the hope he sees in carbon farming, which he has implemented on his ranch. Carbon farming uses land management techniques that increase the rate at which carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in soils. Scientists, policy makers, and land stewards alike are hopeful about its potential to mitigate climate change.

Carbon is the key ingredient to all life. It is absorbed by plants from the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and, with the energy of sunlight, converted into simple sugars that build more plant matter. Some of this carbon is consumed by animals and cycled through the food chain, but much of it is held in soil as roots or decaying plant matter. Historically, soil has been a carbon sink, a place of long-term carbon storage.

But many modern land management techniques, including deforestation and frequent tilling, expose soil-bound carbon to oxygen, limiting the soil’s absorption and storage potential. In fact, carbon released from soil is estimated to contribute one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Ranchers and farmers have the power to address that issue. Pastures make up 3.3 billion hectares, or 67 percent, of the world’s farmland. Carbon farming techniques can sequester up to 50 tons of carbon per hectare over a pasture’s lifetime. This motivates some ranchers and farmers to do things a little differently.

“It’s what we think about all day, every day,” said Sallie Calhoun of Paicines Ranch on California’s central coast. “Sequestering soil carbon is essentially creating more life in the soil, since it’s all fed by photosynthesis. It essentially means more plants into every inch of soil.”

Carbon released from soil is estimated to make up to one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Calhoun’s ranch sits in fertile, rolling California pastureland about an hour’s drive east of Monterey Bay. She intensively manages her cattle’s grazing, moving them every few days across 7,000 acres. This avoids compaction, which decreases soil productivity, and also allows perennial grasses to grow back between grazing. Perennial grasses, like sorghum and bluestems, have long root systems that sequester far more carbon than their annual cousins.

By starting with a layer of compost, Calhoun has also turned her new vineyard into an effective carbon sink. Compost is potent for carbon sequestration because of how it enhances otherwise unhealthy soil, enriching it with nutrients and microbes that increase its capacity to harbor plant growth. Compost also increases water-holding capacity, which helps plants thrive even in times of drought. She plans to till the land only once, when she plants the grapes, to avoid releasing stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

Managed grazing and compost application are just a few common practices of the 35 that the Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends for carbon sequestration. All 35 methods have been proven to sequester carbon, though some are better documented than others.

Paicines Ranch_650.jpg
 Photo courtesy of Paicines Ranch.

David Lewis, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension, says the techniques Calhoun uses, as well as stream restoration, are some of the most common. Lewis has worked with theMarin Carbon Project, a collaboration of researchers, ranchers, and policy makers, to study and implement carbon farming in Marin County, California. The research has been promising: They found that one application of compost doubled the production of grass and increased carbon sequestration by up to 70 percent. Similarly, stream and river ecosystems, which harbor lots of dense, woody vegetation, can sequester up to one ton of carbon, or as much as a car emits in a year, in just a few feet along their beds.

One application of compost doubled the production of grass and increased carbon sequestration by up to 70 percent.

On his ranch, Poncia has replanted five miles of streams with native shrubs and trees, and has applied compost to all of his 800 acres of pasture. The compost-fortified grasses are more productive and have allowed him to double the number of cattle his land supports. This has had financial benefits. Ten years ago, Poncia was selling veterinary pharmaceuticals to subsidize his ranch. But, with the increase in cattle, he has been able to take up ranching full time. Plus, his ranch sequesters the same amount of carbon each year as is emitted by 81 cars.

Much of the research on carbon farming focuses on rangelands, which are open grasslands, because they make up such a large portion of ecosystems across the planet. They are also, after all, where we grow a vast majority of our food.

“Many of the skeptics of carbon farming think we should be planting forests instead,” Poncia said. “I think forests are a no-brainer, but there are millions of acres of rangelands across the globe and they are not sequestering as much carbon as they could be.”

The potential of carbon farming lies in wide-scale implementation. The Carbon Cycle Institute, which grew out of the Marin Carbon Project with the ambition of applying the research and lessons to other communities in California and nationally, is taking up that task.

“It really all comes back to this,” said Torri Estrada, pointing to a messy white board with the words SOIL CARBON scrawled in big letters. Estrada is managing director of the Carbon Cycle Institute, where he is working to attract more ranchers and farmers to carbon farming. The white board maps the intricate web of organizations and strategies the institute works with. They provide technical assistance and resources to support land stewards in making the transition.

“If the U.S. government would buy carbon credits from farmers, we would produce them.”

For interested stewards, implementation, and the costs associated with it, are different. It could be as simple as a one-time compost application or as intensive as a lifetime of managing different techniques. But for all, the process starts by first assessing a land’s sequestration potential and deciding which techniques fit a steward’s budget and goals. COMET-Farm, an online tool produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can help estimate a ranch’s carbon input and output.

The institute also works with state and national policy makers to provide economic incentives for these practices. “If the U.S. government would buy carbon credits from farmers, we would produce them,” Poncia said. These credits are one way the government could pay farmers to mitigate climate change. “Farmers overproduce everything. So, if they can fund that, we will produce them,” he said. While he is already sequestering carbon, Poncia says that he could do more, given the funding.

Estrada sees the bigger potential of carbon farming to help spur a more fundamental conversation about how we relate to the land. “We’re sitting down with ranchers and having a conversation, and carbon is just the medium for that,” he said. Through this work, Estrada has watched ranchers take a more holistic approach to their management.

On his ranch, Poncia has shifted from thinking about himself as a grass farmer growing feed for his cattle to a soil farmer with the goal of increasing the amount of life in every inch of soil.


 

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Sally Neas wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Sally is a freelance writer and community educator based in Santa Cruz, California. She has a background in permaculture, sustainable agriculture, and community development, and she covers social and environmental issues. She blogs at www.voicesfromthegreatturning.com.

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