A few years ago, the May family set off on a trailblazing path to protect their land, and the carbon it stores, by selling carbon credits on the global market.  By promising to never plow the land, the Mays store carbon and protect native wildlife. But with diminishing margins and the looming threat of fire, the road hasn’t been easy.

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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

 

I’m neck-deep in the research for this podcast season when I get an email from another journalist. She says she has a story that shook up the way she thinks about ranching in the West. Last year, she met the May family, who’s changing the narrative around cattle’s impact on grasslands and climate change—from ranching being part of the problem, to being part of the solution. 

 

I’m intrigued, so we agree to meet up at the Wyoming Public Radio Station. Birch Malotky matches her name– willowy and sweet but tough once you get to know her. She works at the University of Wyoming, writing and editing for the natural resource magazine Western Confluence. 

 

We sit down and she tells me, “You don’t hear about it much, but grasslands are one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, and one of the least protected. Their fate is largely in the hands of landowners, since the vast majority of remaining grasslands are privately owned. 

 

I remember vividly the baked hard-pan in the Red Desert that Erik Molvar showed me back in episode four, “Nothing Heals.” That was pretty clear proof of how overgrazing can degrade, not protect, grasslands. But, Birch says, that’s not the only problem grasslands face. 

 

“It turns out that the much bigger threat to grasslands is the plow,” Birch says. “Every year, grassland is converted to farmland at a blistering pace, because row crops like corn and soy make better money. Ranching keeps the land in grass. From there, it’s up to good stewardship to keep the grassland healthy.”

 

I think back to the benefits offered by regenerative practices, including the promise of sequestering carbon. 

 

Birch says carbon is the second big issue the May family is tackling: “Grassland conversion is a problem for the global climate because plowing grasslands releases literal tons of planet-warming carbon into the atmosphere. So preventing conversion of grassland into farmland, like the May ranch is doing, is a climate win.”

 

Even with all the emissions from those cow farts and burps, I ask?

 

“That might be the wildest part of the story,” Birch says. “Even with 800 cows, the May ranch still produces fewer climate-warming emissions than if they plowed it up to plant corn. Scientists have quantified that. And the family is making money off it, by selling carbon offsets that guarantee all that carbon stays in their soil.”

 

I tell Birch, let’s include the May family’s story. I want to know how they made that happen and what challenges they faced along the way. We shake on the deal. 

 

Here’s Birch…

It Started With One Cow

 

It all started with one cow.

 

“All of our cattle comes from one heifer calf in the early 1970s,” says Dallas May, head of the May family farm and ranch. 

 

When Dallas turned 13 years old, his grandfather gave him a cow of his own. Dallas’s grandfather didn’t have much to give. He ran a small herd of just 25 cattle and was always trying to make ends meet to find a place to keep his herd. So when Dallas inherited that first calf, he also inherited a dream of finding a place to call home. 

 

Dallas says he can trace his herd’s lineage through 45 generations of cattle to the heifer calf his grandfather gave him. Photo: Birch Malotky

 

In the 80’s, he found 20,000 acres in southeastern Colorado to lease. After more than three decades of leasing, he got the opportunity to purchase the land. But it wasn’t easy.  

 

Dallas says, “It took us a couple of years of trying to get financed, leveraging everything we had, to be able to get financed and buy it.”

 

Not a lot of ranchers can buy land nowadays. It’s expensive, and a working cattle ranch requires a lot of acres. That’s especially true for operations like the May ranch that don’t supplement with grazing on public lands. But in 2012, they made it happen, becoming proud—and committed—owners of one of the last patches of native grassland in the area. They were responsible for it now. 

 

“Since 2012, we started a commitment – our family’s life commitment, basically – to try to pay for this ranch,” Dallas says. “And now, along with that is our commitment to try to keep it pristine and increase its enhancements as we go.”

 

Everything that happened afterward with grassland protection and carbon sequestration came from this commitment their family made to care for the land that was going to care for them. So as soon as he closed on the property, Dallas started reaching out to conservation organizations, asking for help. He was looking for tools that could help him balance a big mortgage with a strong stewardship ethic in an industry with pretty marginal profitability. And he was looking for tools that would protect the land for a long time. 

 

At first though, help was not forthcoming. Dallas and his son, Riley, tell me the story as we drive through their ranch in late June of last year.

 

“You got to understand that when Dad started calling, we couldn’t get any traction,” Riley says. “Nobody wanted to talk to us. So we’d just continually call every association we can think of, telling them what we’ve got and what we’re trying to do and it was nine out of ten don’t even return your calls or want to talk.”

 

“Why do you think that is?” I ask.

 

“Because we’re not the mountains or streams and trees; we’re the flat arid Eastern plains,” says Dallas. 

 

“Written off as invaluable, basically,” Riley adds.

 

They tell me this as we look over Big Sandy Creek, which is lined with bulrushes and loud with the sound of songbirds. The two are eager to point out beaver dams, which they say improve wetland health and form shallow aquifers along the waterway. Sandpipers bob along its edge and Dallas tells me to keep an eye out for softshell turtles. Invaluable? I don’t think so. Dallas didn’t think so either, so he kept reaching out after that first bout of discouragement. 

 

Dallas (left) and Riley (right) May, have won conservation awards for how they manage their 15,000 acre ranch and 5,000 acre farm in Southeastern Colorado. Photo: Birch Malotky

 

“In 2015 I made another effort at it,” he says. “And by then, I guess it was just starting to be some awareness of the importance of shortgrass prairies and the diversity that we have.”

 

This time, Dallas got a hold of Alison Holloran at Audubon of the Rockies and she visited the very next morning, then got the ranch designated an Important Bird Area within a week. She also gave him a list of names and organizations that could provide them with the tools they were looking for. From there, the momentum kept rolling.

 

“That’s created a chain that’s never stopped of us working with people,” says Dallas.

 

That chain included a crucial link named Billy Gascoigne. Billy handed them a brand new tool that aligned perfectly with their goals to protect the land while preserving their way of life. That tool was a carbon credit, and it set them on a trailblazing path to be the second grassland project in America to participate in the global carbon market. 

Grassland Carbon Credits

 

“I work for Ducks Unlimited,” Billy tells me, “where I’m the Associate Director of conservation strategy. And I’ve managed DU’s grassland carbon portfolio for the last eight years.”

 

If you don’t know what he means by DU’s grassland carbon portfolio, you’re not alone. If interest in grassland conservation is relatively new, interest in the carbon stored by grasslands is even newer. But grasslands do store carbon, underground mostly, in the soil. Over the past eight years, DU has tried to protect that soil carbon from being released into the atmosphere in the form of climate-warming emissions. As part of that effort, Billy helped pioneer a tool called grassland carbon credits.

 

Billy says, “A carbon credit or a carbon offset, as you’ll often hear it referred to, is the sequestration or avoided emission of one tonne of carbon equivalent.”

 

So that’s one metric ton of carbon dioxide, or an equally warming amount of another greenhouse gas, like methane or nitrous oxide. Sequestration means taking that greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. Avoided emission means preventing that greenhouse gas from being released in the first place. 

 

“And companies and individuals alike can use them to offset their emissions from, say, transportation, or fossil fuel usage, energy production, and so on,” says Billy. 

 

The end goal is to help keep the world on track with its climate goals and avoid the worst impacts from climate change to people and the environment. Carbon offsets are just one tool in the climate mitigation toolbox. Most people say they need to be used alongside other measures – not instead of them. 

 

There are lots of types of carbon offset, and different organizations specialize in different kinds. 

 

“In our case with Ducks Unlimited,” says Billy, “we have actually worked mostly on the proactive protection of at-risk grasslands. So the avoided conversion of that below ground carbon is where we spent most of our time.”

 

“Conversion to what?” you might ask. In a lot of cases, it’s plowing up grassland to plant row crops like corn and soy.

 

“Grasslands with good quality soils that are suitable for crop production— much of the economics in the last few decades have indicated that they can be more profitable in a row crop system,” Billy says. “And we have a lot of kind of perfect pressures to do more row cropping.”

 

Last episode, we heard that the scientific jury is still out on whether changing management practices can actually increase how much carbon grasslands sequester. But the science is crystal clear on what happens to the carbon already stored in the land, if that land is plowed for row crop agriculture. It’s released into the atmosphere, to the tune of 14 million metric tons of carbon per year from 2008-2016. That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions of 13 coal fired power plants.

 

Grassland carbon credit projects avoid these emissions by preventing grassland conversion, essentially by paying landowners to never, ever plow their land. In exchange for this guarantee not to plow, landowners are paid for the carbon emissions their actions are avoiding, through the sale of carbon credits. The cool thing about these projects is that, in addition to climate mitigation, they also offer ecological and social benefits. It’s those co-benefits that brought Billy and the May family together in the first place. 

 

But there were a lot of hurdles to get there. 

 

The Possibility of Failure

 

A few years back, when Dallas started calling around trying to protect his land, he was well aware of the threat of grassland conversion. 

 

Back when they first got the opportunity to buy the property, Dallas says, “There were entities waiting in the wings to buy this ranch, and within a week after closing on it, they would have plowed it all up. The habitat would have been gone. I mean, it just would have.”

 

After all, farms already surrounded the property. But the plow wasn’t Dallas’s vision for the land. Nor did he want to maximize cow production at the expense of everything else.  He wanted the habitat, and all the wildlife that comes with it. 

 

“We’re trying to keep everything we have as pristine, untouched by man,” says Dallas. “Yeah, we’re grazing here, we’re working with everything we can, but we’re trying to do it in a natural way. See, on this ranch, even though it’s not a big ranch – it’s a small footprint, 20,000 acres – but in 40 years on this ranch, we have never shot a coyote. We have never shot a prairie dog. We’ve never killed a rattlesnake. Every animal on this ranch finds its way in a natural balance to make things work.”

 

Dallas is aware that some people think of ranching as extractive, that they say it harms, rather than supports, holistic land health. But to him, having stakes in the land means being invested in its well-being. 

 

“And honestly,” he says, “there are so many ranchers that are conservationists. They’re not consumers, they’re conservationists. I mean, our life is committed to this place. Why would we not do our ultimate best to keep it in the best shape we can keep? That doesn’t mean robbing all the resources. That means having sustainability and resiliency so that 200 years from now, this place is hopefully even better than it is today.”

 

In that spirit, they’re installing wildlife-friendly fencing. They’re restoring their wetlands and playas. They’re Audubon bird-friendly certified and are ranked at the top for Good Agricultural Practices. Still, Dallas recognizes the economic pressures that ranchers face. 

 

“The bottom line is, you have to be able to make your payments,” Dallas says. “If you can’t make your payments I don’t care what your philosophy is. You won’t be able to be out here and be doing any of it because you won’t be able to stay here.”

 

It’s that tension – between the need to make ends meet, and the desire to steward the land in a sustainable, holistic way – that recurs again and again in the Mays’ story. 

 

“I mean, you can decide to run 100 Cows instead of 800,” Dallas says, “and that sounds great. You’ll have an abundance of feed, but all of a sudden you don’t have enough income to make your payments. So your fixed costs do not change: your mortgage, land, interest, insurance, feed, everything goes to those fixed costs. And if you’re not selling enough calves to meet that demand, you’re not going to be doing it for very long. So there is a balance. It’s a happy medium for us.”

 

The May family’s motto is to conserve, not consume. Photo: Preston Hoffman, courtesy of Dallas May

 

The sense I get is that the balance is not stable. It’s a constant push and pull, at the mercy of unpredictable weather and market conditions. Right now, the Mays look like they are thriving. 

 

I tell Riley and Dallas, “I was amazed just driving down how lush everything was.”

 

“Yeah, we do look fantastic right now,” Riley agrees.

 

“We enjoy it,” says Dallas.

 

But the thick green thatching of their pastures hides the bones of a crisis just beneath the surface. 

 

“If you would have been out here a year ago at this time it wouldn’t look anything like this. We were in dire, dire straits,” Dallas says.

 

“Just so dry?” I ask.

 

“Yep,” says Dallas. 

 

If they had sold, it would have been into a flooded market at rock bottom prices, since ranchers all over the West were struggling with the same lack of rain. Drought aside, even normal markets haven’t been kind. 

 

Dallas says, “In 2012, we sold calves for $3.15. This past year, we sold the same calves, better calves, for $1.42. So how does that work?”

 

“That’s my question,” I say. 

 

“It doesn’t work,” says Riley. “Our costs have not gone down. Our costs continue to climb just like everything else.”

 

“The margins are, not only are they getting increasingly smaller, sometimes they’re non-existent; they’re negative margins,” Dallas says.

 

Driving through the ranch listening to Dallas and Riley is almost surreal. The land feels healthy. I can tell how committed the Mays are to protecting and even improving it. And yet the possibility of failure, the loss of the land, and the potential to have all their hard work reversed, seems ever to loom just over the horizon. 

 

A Lot To Protect

 

For Billy, that looming threat is part of what drew him to the May ranch as a potential candidate for a carbon credit project. When he first spoke with Dallas, Billy says, “That ranch was converted on all four sides, he literally had conversion offers in hand, and he was trying to make the financing work to protect it. And so it had all the makings of a perfect avoided conversion project where we could come in and utilize the carbon markets to try to help provide another incentive for his family to keep it in grass and keep it in ranching long-term.”

 

Protecting the May ranch also offered environmental and social wins. 

 

“And then ecologically,” says Billy, “it stands above and beyond where you could imagine. I mean, it’s got a diverse array of bird species, threatened and endangered species, antelope, deer, and a number of waterfowl that come through there. It’s got eight miles of Sand Creek that stay running all year long. So it has all the makings of being able to sustain very important rare threatened species and as well as the cultural and social aspects of a working cattle ranch and kind of a rural part of Colorado.”

 

Can you spot the burrowing owl? The Mays manage their ranch not just for cows, but for all the wildlife and plant diversity that healthy grasslands support.

 

I can attest to all the ecological benefits Billy mentioned. Early in the morning, Riley stopped the truck to take a picture of a particularly handsome swath of grass and Dallas says, “In this little area we’re sitting right here, I’d say within a 100 foot circle of us, there are 100 different species of plants.”

 

Most of them are native, according to Denver Botanical Garden surveys conducted over several years. Of the 335 species of plants found on the May ranch, 85 percent were native and 95 of those species had never been documented in the county. 

 

“We alternate our pastures so that each year we’re turning into that pasture a different time so that it has different periods of rotation and rest,” says Riley. “Versus every year the same schedule turning into that grass. It lets different types of species of grass develop and re-establish.”

 

As we talk, Riley is interrupted by a wildlife sighting off to our right:

 

“There’s a mule deer doe,” Riley says. “We have a huge – not huge – a group of about 35 that stay right here in about a two mile area, year round. The mule deer is unique to our area here. They don’t have much other habitat to be in.”

 

The ranch is not only important habitat for big game like deer and elk, but birds as well. 

 

“Right here where we’re standing is the biggest breeding colony of black rails in the state of Colorado,” says Dallas. “Right here.”

 

Just four months after I visit, the Eastern black rail is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The ranch also recently reintroduced a population of black-footed ferrets, the nation’s most endangered mammal. And, they have such a thriving swift fox population that Colorado Parks and Wildlife are trapping them to deliver to the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana. They even see these notoriously elusive critters just roaming around, a testament to their careful stewardship. 

 

“CPW (Colorado Parks and Wildlife) is going to do a swift fox monitoring program,” says Dallas.

 

Riley says, “I saw a swift fox the night before last right by the hay shed. No joke. They’re on the southeast, and I keep forgetting to tell you but I turning in there—I thought it was a cat—but he stayed in my headlights for a long time.”

 

“Really?” asks Dallas.

 

“No doubt about it.” Riley replies.

 

“There are lots of swift foxes but you never see them,” Dallas says, “because they’re nocturnal, they’re secluded, they don’t want you to see them. They’re like bobcats, they’re there but you don’t see them.” 

 

“It was 3 in the morning,” says Riley.

The May Ranch supports a number of species of conservation concern, including the elusive swift fox. Photo: Ben Snyder/USFWS, Wind River Tribal Fish & Game

 

So, yeah, there was a lot to protect on this land. The big question was how exactly to get it done. There had only ever been one carbon credit project implemented on grasslands before, in the Dakotas several years prior. Billy led the charge on that one, too. So if there was anyone prepared to make it happen on the May ranch, it was him. But still, there was no formal protocol, no certainty, barely any precedent. 

 

“When you proposed this idea,” I ask him, “how did Dallas respond?”

 

“Well,” Billy says with a laugh, “Just like with most landowners, I have to take a lot of time to try to explain this stuff. And at the end of all the explanation and kind of back and forth, and me laying out the ins and outs of a project, he saw the alignment with what he was trying to do. And from there, you start to just kind of build trust. And I think ultimately, Dallas sort of trusted me to lead this in the right direction.”

 

It took two years and a team of 25 scientists to develop a formal protocol for the project. They had to outline what lands qualify as avoided conversion and figure out how the climate benefit would be calculated. They also had to get an independent third-party to verify that everything was what they said it was. 

 

That first year, Dallas says, the verification team flew in from the Congo, where they were working on a different carbon project. 

 

“So this man and lady come in,” he recalls, “and we have a day-long meeting with them, tell them what we’re doing. They spent like the next four days, walking the ranch, taking soil samples, looking at our grazing management, looking at the wetlands, mapping everything. So they did their initial work, and they left here, went back to Africa. It took like months later before all the reports were done. The verification was done.”

 

The verification process ensures that the May ranch is actually generating as many carbon credits as they claim. 

 

“So, yeah, they know how much – by our soil types and our plant inventory – they know what we’re crediting,” says Dallas. “But what they don’t know is, how much are we emitting ourselves. So the cattle, as you know with methane, they’re emitting. There are a lot of biogenic emissions, right, that have to be deducted off of our total. But we have to do our part to limit the anthropogenic emissions, which is our fossil fuel use.”

 

All of the ranch’s emissions, including methane from cattle, count against their total carbon savings and reduce the number of credits they can sell. One of the ways they try to limit emissions is still doing everything on horseback. Maybe that explains the fact that, today, Riley’s pickup is almost out of gas and seems to be having….issues. 

 

As his car struggles to start, he explains that his car has been having electrical problems. “That,” he says, “and I guess I should have filled up fuel while we were at the truckstop.”

 

Anyway, the math works out so that each year, the ranch avoids roughly 15,000 metric tons of emissions but produces 5,000, so they can only sell the difference: about 10,000 carbon credits. 

 

That’s how they calculate the carbon savings. But they also have to guarantee that carbon stays in the ground no matter what. So, at the same time as the carbon project, the May family also had to place a conservation easement with a so-called “no sod busting clause” on their property. The easement made their decision not to plow legally binding. Forever.

 

“A two year commitment on a carbon credit program is nothing,” says Dallas.

 

“It’s worthless,” Riley adds.

 

Dallas explains, “Because in three years they decide to go in there and disc it up, any little benefit they accumulate, is gone. So it’s virtue-signaling. The only way to get some public trust around carbon credit offsets in agriculture is to have something that is permanent. And that means your commitment that for the next, say 50 years, you’re going to keep it in those practices.”

It was hard to get everything done in time, but a whole team of people and organizations helped make it happen. May ranch credits hit the market for the first time in 2017. Ducks Unlimited is responsible for selling those credits. They can sell directly to an end buyer like a major corporation, or through intermediaries. May credits have also been available to the public but they’ve sold out fast. These days, people do seem to care about grasslands.

 

By putting their land in a perpetual conservation easement with a no-sod busting clause, the Mays have guaranteed their land will never be plowed, protecting native plants, wildlife, and stores of underground carbon. Photo: Dallas May.

 

So what do Riley and Dallas think about it now, five years after they sealed the deal? 

 

Dallas says it’s all about stewardship, not money: “Since 2012, that’s when we’ve been doing all the extra things we can do. And most of them aren’t financial. I mean they really don’t make a big difference financially.”

 

It’s like selling five to ten percent more calves per year, he says. Nice, but not enough to bridge the gap between rising costs and falling revenue.

 

“But philosophically, for us, trying to conserve habitat, trying to not ever let this be destroyed?” says Dallas. “That is intrinsic. I mean, you can’t ever put a number on that. So yeah, there’s no downside to it whatsoever. If you’re serious, if you’re serious about conserving grasslands there’s no reason not to do it.”

 

Riley adds, “Anybody with the right motivation should jump on.”

 

I ask Riley, “If another rancher came to you and was like, I’ve heard about this thing, carbon credit projects, and I’ve heard you’ve done it, what would you say to them?”

 

“I would say, why are you waiting?” 

 

After The Fire

 

A happy ending. Except that climate change—the very thing that these carbon offset projects are trying to mitigate—continues to wreak havoc on ecosystems and livelihoods. In the West, it’s an extended mega-drought that’s led to water shortages and more and more wildfires.

 

This spring, after a winter without snow, a grass fire ripped through 9,000 acres of the May ranch and additional acreage in the surrounding counties. No humans died, but the Mays lost livestock and most of the ranch’s fencing burned. Worst of all, the fire threatened to undo some of decades’ worth of conservation efforts. 

 

I checked in with Billy about how this could affect the carbon project, and he told me, “Grassland carbon and soil carbon is what folks would refer to as steady carbon. You know, it’s much more resilient to changing weather patterns and natural disasters, if you will.”

 

That’s because 90 percent of the carbon in grasslands is stored underground.

 

“Those below ground carbon reserves should relatively remain intact,” says Billy. “So we’re gonna go out there and kind of monitor all that. But nonetheless, the project still remains viable from a climate mitigation standpoint.”

 

Plus, the models used for carbon credit projects have uncertainty baked in, as well as insurance against natural disasters.

 

Billy said another thing that reminded me why I’ve found this project so compelling. He said that after the fire, there was an outpouring of support for the Mays, and not just from their family and friends. There was also aid from the many environmental and conservation organizations the Mays partnered with on this and many other projects. 

 

“Hopefully it was observed by the family that there was kind of a bigger community coming together, looking and willing to provide resources and help in any other way we can,” he says.

 

We do live in unprecedented times. How the land, and its ability to sequester carbon, will respond to rising temperatures and changing weather patterns is beyond me. And no one solution is going to fix all our problems. But building community and a network of  mutual aid is a start. Doing that, while protecting resilient carbon stores and a fast-disappearing ecosystem? To me, that seems worth pursuing into the unknown, just like Dallas and his family did years ago when Billy said to them, “Hey. I’ve got an idea.”

 

Music Credits:

Bluedot

Diaphragm Dance by Artem Bemba is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA  license

Farewell by Thorn & Shout is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA license

So Stark by Matt LeGroulx is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA license 

Ugly Truth by HoliznaCCO is under CC Public Domain 

Acoustic Meditation by Jason Shaw is under licensed under a CC BY license