By: Dr. Richard Pritzlaff, BRN Senior Fellow & Biophilia Foundation Board Member
Carbon is constantly cycling between our atmosphere and other places like soil, oceans and rock, where it is stored for varying lengths of time. While these carbon pools have naturally fluctuated over the history of our planet, humans have been rapidly moving carbon from many of its more inert storage pools into the atmosphere.
Atmospheric carbon is a powerful greenhouse gas which means it impedes the release of solar heat back into space resulting in a warming planet. While most of this is due to the burning of fossil fuels, in our part of the world erosion caused by disturbances such as unsustainable timber harvest, over pumping of surface and groundwater, overgrazing, development, and extirpation of beaver have also released huge amounts of carbon.
Fortunately, drawing upon ancient traditional practices, a generous spirit, and a deep passion for the earth, Valer Clark the founder of Cuenca Los Ojos and inspiration for Borderlands’ efforts has been restoring degraded washes for almost forty years. The earliest of these she installed at her home, Rancho El Coronado, located in the Chiricahua Mountains.
These interventions help replicate the functions of healthy riparian ecosystems, where tree roots and vegetative debris help stabilize soil, slowing the speed and energy of water moving downstream, thereby reducing the water’s ability to transport sediments. This sedimentation reverses past erosion of waterways and captures carbon both in the soils and in the plants that then revegetate the restored riparian floodplain. Additionally, construction of these structures can be iterative and adaptive, responding to conditions as needed raising the streambed further and essentially reattaching the streambed to its former floodplain.
Soils store most of the Earth’s terrestrial carbon—far more than the terrestrial biosphere and atmosphere combined. In fact, arid soils are thought to hold the largest carbon stocks of any biome making them an important part of the global carbon cycle.
Once carbon is stored within a soil, assessing its stability over long time periods is vital to global atmospheric carbon sequestration efforts. Because of Valer Clark’s pioneering work, as well as those of BRN and others, we have several long-term restoration sites to learn from. The most detailed study of carbon sequestration in our region assessed the ability of different rock structures to capture carbon after a wildfire. The findings of this study have inspired our efforts to assess the possibility of developing financing mechanisms including developing a carbon credit market that who help increase the scale of our watershed restoration efforts.
The Biophilia Foundation, a founding partner of BRN, has brought together a working group of scientists, practitioners, finance, and third-party carbon market experts to identify best practices for developing this potential financing mechanism. Examples of market-based solutions from other places with similar environmental characteristics, including Mexico, show that there is significant opportunity to create and sell carbon credits to finance the regional scaling of riparian restoration projects in the arid lands of the American Southwest.
We are excited about the prospects of expanding our efforts and exploring multiple paths for getting carbon out of the atmosphere and back in our borderlands soils.
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