Protecting the Land that Feeds Us and Mitigates Climate Change

By Andrea Krahmer and Nellie McAdams, Oregon Agricultural Trust           

Overhead view of green pastures, hills and pond.
Agricultural lands provide opportunities for carbon sequestration and resilient food systems in the face of climate change. Photo: Oregon Agricultural Trust.

From wine grapes to cattle and hay, Oregon produces more than 220 different crop and livestock products. About one-quarter of Oregon’s land base (16 million acres) is in agricultural production, and these lands provide opportunities for carbon sequestration and resilient food systems in the face of climate change. However, these lands can also be attractive to developers, especially around urban areas. Because of the foundational nature of land to agricultural and conservation values, our statewide nonprofit organization Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) partners with farmers and ranchers to protect agricultural lands for the benefit of Oregon’s economy, communities, and landscapes.

Relative to other states, Oregon is a leader in farmland and open space protection. That’s in large part thanks to Oregon’s exemplary land use planning program, which has been preventing the fragmentation and development of agricultural lands for 50 years. By a conservative estimate, Oregon’s land use planning program reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to land conversion by 1.7 MMTCO2e per year in western Oregon alone (Cathcart et al. 2007). Similarly, American Farmland Trust’s Greener Fields report found that farmland in California generates 58-70 times fewer greenhouse gasses than developed land. On top of that, California could cut its GHG emissions to the equivalent of 1.9 million cars per year if annual farmland loss was reduced by 75% by 2050.

Irrigation equipment spraying water on a green field creating a rainbow.
Oregon’s land use planning program reduces GHG emissions due to land conversion by 1.7 MMTC02e per year in western Oregon alone. Photo: Oregon Agricultural Trust.

Farmland protection not only protects open space, it helps cities plan for denser and more interconnected urban areas, which can reduce travel and GHG emissions. Among other measures, Oregon’s 2040 plan to locate two-thirds of jobs and 40% of housing in corridors served by light rail has resulted in a decline of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) since 1996, while VMT rose nationally. “Portland is one of the few regions in the country where transit ridership is growing more rapidly than VMT, and bicycle use has also shown rapid growth” (NRC 2009).

Land use has mitigated some of the rampant sprawl and elevated GHG emissions from VMT that would have occurred without a system for smart growth. Yet the regulatory protections of land use only slow the pace of land conversion—they do not permanently protect land. In fact, according to the USDA Census, Oregon has lost about 2.25 million acres from agricultural production since the program was established in 1973.

Permanently protecting agricultural lands and the economic, environmental, and climate benefits they provide is what agricultural land trusts like Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) do. An agricultural land trust’s primary tool is a working land conservation easement, a voluntary agreement between a landowner and a land trust or body of government to permanently remove development rights on farm, ranch or forest land. After conveying an easement, the land can remain in agricultural production, and the landowner continues to own and have the right to sell the property. Landowners receive cash or tax benefits in exchange for the development rights they give up through the easement. Easement value is calculated as the difference between the property value before the easement is conveyed, and the value after development rights have been removed by an easement. Funds and tax breaks from easements can help landowners with succession or business viability, and the land becomes more affordable for the next generation.

In addition to the benefits of avoided conversion on GHG emissions, some landowners use the infusion of cash from an easement to invest in the farm or ranch’s climate change mitigation and resilience. In 2022, OAT received a grant from the Pacific Northwest Resilient Landscapes Initiative to protect a property that ranked “resilient” or “mostly resilient” on The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Land Mapping Tool. The landowner had already done a large “plug and pond” restoration on the formerly incised creek to rehydrate the wet meadows, increase water resilience and retention, and stabilize the habitat to ensure forage in times of drought.

White oaks with the sun filtering through
Only 3% of Oregon’s original White Oak habitat remains and most of this is on private working lands. Oak stores carbon in its large root system and ectomycorrhizal network. Photo: Oregon Agricultural Trust.

The landowner had also done large juniper and invasive annual grass control projects to reduce the risks of wildfire, water loss, and habitat conversion. These landowners are now considering using the funds they received to invest in other land resilience projects. Similarly, vineyard owners in the Willamette Valley wish to use an easement to fund oak savanna restoration for oak’s habitat and carbon sequestration benefits—oak primarily stores carbon in its large root system and ectomycorrhizal network (Juhl 2023).

While OAT’s mission is not directly related to climate mitigation and adaptation, permanent land protection creates the setting and financial opportunity for landowners to employ Natural Climate Solutions. For that reason, the Oregon Global Warming Commission’s Natural and Working Lands Proposal of 2021 recommended that the state invest in the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, the state’s matching grant program for working land easements as well as conservation management plans and the long-term implementation of these plans. The proposal also recommended that the state “Enhance and maintain Oregon’s statewide land use planning program, goals and commit to a no-net annual loss of natural and working lands and waters.” As with our work, though not directly targeting climate change and its impacts, these programs can contribute significantly to Oregon agriculture’s resilience to a changing climate.

Land trusts permanently protect this land base every day. OAT can work throughout Oregon, but focuses on the North Coast, mid and south Willamette Valley, mid-Columbia, and Southeast Oregon. Landowners can find the right land trust for them by contacting the Land Trust Alliance. If you‘d like to learn more about OAT’s programming or have questions about working land easements, reach out to Andrea Krahmer at andrea@oregonagtrust.org or 503-789-2467.

References:

Cathcart, J. F., Kline, J. D., Delaney, M., and Tilton, M. (2007). Carbon storage and Oregon’s land-use planning program. Journal of Forestry, 105(4), 167-172. Online Access

National Research Council (NRC). 2009. Driving and the Built Environment: The Effects of Compact Development on Motorized Travel, Energy Use, and CO2 Emissions –Special Report 298. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Online Access.

Juhl, E. (2023). Exploring the Persistence of Oregon white oak in the Willamette Valley: Oregon State University, Natural Resources. Online Access