Putting Grasslands to Work in a New Way

How ranchers in southern Alberta are tapping into the value of their grasslands’ ecosystem services.

By Carrie Selin, EcoServices Network

Photo: Western Stock Growers' Association

It is widely known that Alberta’s grasslands provide many benefits to people such as places to live, landscapes to enjoy and pastures to raise cattle for food. But grassland ecosystems also provide benefits to society that are not as recognized, such as carbon storage and sequestration, water storage, water purification and habitat for prairie-dependant plants and animals.

For several years now, the EcoServices Network (ESN) has been striving to help landowners, governments and organizations understand the demand for and value of ecosystem services - who will pay, the costs and potential supply of ecosystem services, and the use of various tools for participation in ecosystem services markets.

“Markets for ecosystem services benefits offer a way of recognizing the value healthy ecosystems provide to society,” explains Brian Ilnicki, executive director of Land Stewardship Centre, a long-standing partner in the ESN. “Currently, many ecosystem services benefits produced by grasslands are not recognized in any marketplace.”

In southern Alberta, as demand for diverse land use expands, so do the challenges to conserve grasslands. Changes in grassland land use often come at the expense of native prairie. And despite the environmental benefits grasslands provide, existing incentives for maintaining native grasslands are limited and have variable attractiveness to ranchers. The Western Stock Growers’ Association (WSGA) recognizes these challenges and, with support from ESN, is working towards developing a viable, market-based solution that will help conserve these valuable ecosystems and provide incentives to ranchers for the land management decisions they make to sustain and regenerate them.

“We have championed the creation of a grassland conservation exchange as means to not only recognize and capture the value healthy grassland ecosystems provide to society, but to provide landowners with incentives for sound land management decisions,” says Bill Newton, a governor with the Western Stock Growers Association. “This model is good for grasslands and ranchers, but also for society because everyone benefits from the ecosystem services that healthy grasslands provide.”

The WSGA has long recognized the need for establishing a market for ecosystem services because this is their members’ livelihoods, their lifestyles, and their skin in the game. As a true grassroots organization that understands the complexity of a conservation marketplace and its implications for the rancher, it is important for WSGA to champion this exchange.

“The reality is there are significant costs associated with land ownership,” explains Bill. “Acquisition costs, ongoing costs, opportunity costs. Our land management decisions must incorporate profitability if we want to continue to be landowners and ranchers.”

Pressures to convert grasslands for real estate development or transition into higher value crop production are very real. Continuing to provide grassland ecosystem services for free is no longer a viable long-term option.

“Market returns for commodities in the absence of market returns for ecosystem service benefits inevitably drive land use decisions away from the production of ecosystem services benefits,” adds Bill. 

In its simplest form, grassland ecosystem services are produced by ranchers, verified and calculated in an index, collected in a registry and sold to buyers via an exchange. The functioning of the exchange is a bit more complex, so along with their partners, the WSGA has identified the key elements needed for an ecosystem services exchange to function.

The framework of a grasslands conservation exchange contains a viable market for the “product” that is defined by an index of ecosystem services is backed by valid science, metrics and verification processes, using a database registry to keep track of the product, and that incorporates an economic exchange to accommodate the transactions. Overall, the exchange needs to give both buyers and sellers transparency and confidence in the transactions to build long term stability for the market.

In his annual address in mid-January, ATB Financial chief economist, Todd Hirsch, referenced British economist Hazel Henderson’s idea of the economy as a four-layer cake composed of foundational layers that include the market (private sector), non-market (public sector), community and natural environment. Todd encouraged people to think about these layers and how they interact with each other in order of ‘foundation’ rather than in order of ‘importance’. Hirsch explains there is an order of foundation on which a strong economy is built. All the layers are important, but the natural environment is at the base and “without fresh air, without fresh water and resources that are in good shape, none of the rest of this is going to matter.”

In the context of what WSGA is trying to achieve with a grassland exchange, Bill concurs. “Grasslands and the ecosystem services they provide are foundational. It’s time we also start to recognize their value within the economy accordingly.”

Sustainability, economic viability and maintaining important prairie habitat is possible through a grassland conservation market. It’s a win-win-win for ranchers, the economy, the environment, and society in general.

For more information about the grasslands conservation exchange contact the Western Stock Growers’ Association