WASHINGTON -- A Gila County supervisor touted the potential benefits of "holistic" carbon sequestration to a congressional subcommittee Wednesday, saying it could help ranchers and prevent massive fires at the same time.
Supervisor Tommie Martin was one of four witnesses testifying before the House Natural Resources subcommittee on how opening public lands to livestock would reduce levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and contribute to environmental improvement in several other areas.
All plants pull carbon from the air, but supporters of the holistic plan said grasslands have the ability to move it to their roots where it is ultimately stored in the soil. Letting livestock graze on larger areas prevents overgrazing in one spot and allows the growth of grasslands in their wake.
"There really is no downside to this approach," said Steven Rich, one of the witnesses.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, welcomed the hearing, saying it represents a serious effort from the House to address climate change.
"It's a bipartisan issue that affects the entire world, and Congress cannot afford to ignore it," Grijalva said of climate change. But he raised several questions about the proposal, including its possible effect on water resources and how it might affect plants and animals on the federal lands.
Rich - president of the Rangeland Restoration Academy who said he was testifying Wednesday as a private citizen - described the process as a way to improve biodiversity in ecosystems. Research has shown that plants and soil organisms work together to capture carbon, he said, and livestock grazing improves the diversity of the soil.
This carbon capture process is a political "win-win solution," he added, because it can fight climate change and revitalize ecosystems at the same time.
W. Richard Teague, a researcher at Texas A&M University, said the grazing process gives livestock more land from which to feed, and the livestock keep a check on plant growth.
"If you don't have the grazer in there, you get the tall plants growing up, the leaves die and they self-shade," Teague said. "And it shuts down your capture of energy, and it slows down your nutrient cycling completely. Your ecosystem fails to function."
Martin's testimony described how carbon capture was working efficiently when her family first settled in Gila County on woodland that could be grazed, recounting her great-grandmother's description of the land as full of grassy hills.
"She called it a pine savannah," Martin said. "Today, it's a tree-brush thicket with little to no grass. She said there may have been 30 trees to the acre. Today, there's up to 3,000."
Streams carrying trout have disappeared, Martin said, along with birds, bears and wolves. She said the ecosystem changed because the federal government took control of the land and failed to properly manage it.
Martin asked lawmakers to consider identifying 100,000 acres across the West to demonstrate possible gains from the approach, such as revitalized land, economic gains for ranchers and a decrease in the buildup of brush contributing to wildfires.
In an interview, she said that carbon sequestration can provide more opportunities than simple emission limits, but that Congress and federal agencies must open public land so ranchers may use it.
"It's a federal problem, so there has to be a federal solution," she said.
While some committee members were concerned with livestock overgrazing public land, Martin said current policies have already forced ranchers into overgrazing because regulations require ranchers to stay in a place for up to 90 days, even though land can be overgrazed in as little as five days.
"It's not the cow," she said. "It's not the buffalo. It's the human that is directing what they do and how long they're there."