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Saving America's Grasslands: Tate Lantz on the Central Grasslands Roadmap

 


Matt Huber
Tate Lantz Photo: Joe Dickie

By Cassidy Spencer

 

Tate Lantz grew up on a small cattle ranch near Winner, South Dakota. After high school he attended South Dakota State University, initially for engineering but eventually shifted his studies to range science. Currently, he serves as Assistant State Conservationist for field operations in Rapid City, South Dakota.


Throughout his agricultural career, Lantz has taken positions in conservation, administration and rangeland management with South Dakota farmers, educators and coordinators. Through his expansive agricultural experience, both on the ground and within policy, Lantz has seen firsthand the many moving pieces involved in making large-scale agricultural change. The Central Grasslands Roadmap aims to bring all of these disparate pieces together to enact streamlined change. Their intentions are not only to save grasslands, but the farmers and communities that are sustained by the health of grasslands, as well as the human health and culture that is dependent upon diverse, enriched grassland habitats.

 

The Central Grasslands Roadmap

The Central Grasslands Roadmap, an initiative catalyzed by the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, aims to generate partnerships across three countries— the US, Mexico, and Canada— and eight sectors— indigenous communities and first nations, private land managers, owners, and ranchers, federal agencies, provincial & state agencies, industry (agriculture and the private sector), academia (scientists, researchers, professors), non-governmental organizations, and foundations/funders.

 

Between tree and shrub encroachment, urban sprawl and conversion to agriculture, 60% of native grasslands have been lost. This totals to 360 million acres of habitat lost, and 120 million acres at high risk of loss in the near future.

 

“The number that sticks in my head is 32 million acres of grassland lost since 2012. We’re really losing 3-4 million acres of grassland every year,” said Lantz. “I work with really large ranchers in Western South Dakota-- that’s the size of 3 to 4 Black Hills National Forests, a year.”

 

Grassland bird population reflects the health of grasslands at large. The initiative began when the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies observed that total populations of grassland birds had declined more than 40% since the late 60’s.

 

“When the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies started this roadmap, they realized that they alone could not solve the problem. The problem is not going to be addressed by only focusing on grassland birds. It’s a gigantic phenomenon-- they realized that we need all these partners involved,” said Lantz. “So, if we save the dung beetle, if we save the skipper, if we save the butterfly, we’re saving the bird. That’s the need for the roadmap—to address that the grassland is a deeply diverse, multidimensional community.”

 

The roadmap seeks to unite diverse stakeholders in a common goal of grassland preservation. One sector addressed with the roadmap is the indigenous population, as 19-20% of South Dakota is indigenously inhabited. Traditionally, industrial efforts and interests are far removed from indigenous interests and perspective. The roadmap aims to bridge that gap, to streamline overall efficiency and represent all voices that are impacted by land management decisions.

 

“There’s a lot of opportunity right now with industry to help with this cause. There’s a big push for carbon sequestration, and obviously the grassland is one of the best carbon sequesters we have, while also being very low input,” explained Lantz. “That’s where industry can see the benefit. If they were buying carbon credits, why not work with a producer or an indigenous community that manages millions of acres of grasslands that are sequestering carbon every day?”

 

For 70 plus years, the NRCS has been involved in grassland inventory, national resource inventory, and ecological site description. The forest service has their own differing methods and protocols for managing and measuring land. Lantz explains that in order to make the needed grassland change, each of these disparate organizations need be represented so that data collection and agricultural effort move as efficiently as possible, factoring in all relevant interests.

 

“You know that there is no way that the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies is using NRCS protocols to do their inventories. This is an opportunity for these different entities to come together with all this information,” said Lantz. “I didn’t know about the Plowprint Report until I started working with the Roadmap, these kinds of resources and insights are hopefully what we’re bringing together with the Roadmap, so that we can paint a better picture of the issue, so we can know what we need to concentrate on, where our resources will be most effectively used, where we can get the wins, ensure the wins. Because if we’re not winning, we’re losing.”

 

While the conservation goal is 100 million acres of grassland, Lantz says that the acreage goal is more of a guideline.

 

“The technical goal is just something you put down so you have something to aim at. In truth there is no hard-and-fast end to this mission.”

 

Bolstering Local Support and Strategy

The Central Grasslands Roadmap draws attention to the direct correlation between grassland resilience and the functional financial resilience of small grassland communities. As the health of grasslands has declined, the communities on the land have become less economically viable and in places have disappeared entirely. Lantz emphasizes that the effort to enrich the grasslands is consequently also an effort to save many rural grassland communities.

 

“The producers go to the sale barn, pay taxes on their grasslands to support the schools, engage in business with the hardware store, restaurant, the barber—this is how we keep those circles in a functional homeostasis,” said Lantz. “If the people working on the grasslands are not making enough money to survive, they will sell it and leave. And who knows what the priorities are of the next person who buys it.”

 

One strategy to bolster the resilience of small grassland communities is to stack enterprises. A large effort within the roadmap is education. If producers are shown the breadth of opportunities beyond cow-calf management, including hunting enterprises, birdwatching enterprises, and local greenhouse efforts, they can safeguard their operations more thoroughly. The roadmap not only intends to save the grasslands, but to provide producers with the understanding and the tools to build sustainable industry within regenerative strategy.

 

Education is key to the Central Grasslands Roadmap.  The team behind the roadmap shares an understanding that only by effectively illustrating the gravity of the crisis will human behavior shift to prioritize grassland health. At the center of the roadmap is this: elevating the importance of what the grasslands provide to the public, and why they should care.

 

“Think of the rainforest movement. People still are directing a lot of attention there—and they should, it’s obviously an important biome as well. But they’re throwing money at a resource thousands of miles away, while they’re living in a resource that is being actively degraded and that we’re losing as fast or faster than the rainforests,” Lantz explained. “How do we get people to understand, 50 miles from you is a depleted resource that arguably is one of the major factors in the climate crisis on the continent and possibly even the world? At the end of the day, we need to elevate the urgency and relevance of grassland health to community and human health.”

 

 

The Central Grasslands Roadmap continues to gather and publish relevant resources and make efforts to preserve this vital ecosystem. The key partners of the roadmap are the NRCS, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the World Wildlife Fund, Audubon Rockies, and the American Bird Conservancy.

 

Listen to Tate Lantz’s conversation with Buz Kloot and Joe Dickie at:

Visit Central Grasslands Roadmap Website at:

 


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