How to Green a Desert (and Other Stuff)

↑ Watch How to Fight Desertification and Reverse Climate Change.

“Desertification is a fancy word for land that is turning to desert,” begins Allan Savory in this quietly powerful talk. And it’s happening to about two-thirds of the world’s grasslands, accelerating climate change and causing traditional grazing societies to descend into social chaos. Savory has devoted his life to stopping it. He now believes—and his work so far shows—that a surprising factor can protect grasslands and even reclaim degraded land that was once desert.

Savory helps us understand the problem: The magnitude of what we lost when we eliminated the truly massive herds of animals that used to thunder unencumbered from pole to pole. Here in North America, millions of buffalo were slaughtered in order to starve and impoverish first nations (and apparently it was a blast to shoot them from the comfort of a passing train’s smoking deck). On the Left Coast, we once had massive herds of elk, deer, and other grazing animals.

By restoring and holistically managing these and other herds around the world, we can stop desertification, re-green 2/3 of the land on Earth, and stop one of the biggest negative feedback loops in our environment in its tracks.

A problem well understood is a problem half solved—the other half is taking action. Savory didn’t just talk, he took action—setting up a distributed network of hubs around the world where the principles of holistic management can be taught, practiced, and perpetuated.

We have such a hub in the Pacific Northwest Center for Holistic Management. The PNCHM offers “workshops, field days, webinars, distance learning, and teleconferences on holistic management decision making, planned grazing, financial planning, biological monitoring, land planning, policy analysis and development, and many more topics relevant to ranchers, farmers, land managers, organizations, agencies, and policy makers” and they supplied the answers to the following questions.

Q: What is holistic management?

A decision-making framework that helps keep social, economic, and environmental balance. It involves planning, testing decisions, monitoring results, and re-planning as needed.

Q: To practice holistic management do I need livestock?

No. Holistic management is a way to make decisions. The process produces outcomes that are sustainable—economically, environmentally, socially, and personally. The process is universal and can be as useful to an architect as a homemaker, an organic small farm, restaurant, nation-state, or ice cream truck driver. We focus on livestock because we believe that’s the best tool to restore the planet to high levels of environmental quality.

Q: We sometimes hear that large numbers of livestock can only damage the land. Is that true?

It’s the amount of time animals are on a piece of land that is crucial, not the number of animals. Plants must have enough time to recover before animals return. If animals are penned in and left on a piece of land too long, especially while plants are actively growing, this will cause overgrazing and damage.

Q: Isn’t it better to let nature heal the land by leaving it alone?

It would seem so, and this is true in non-brittle, more humid, perennial rainfall areas (such as on the west side of the Cascade Mountains) where old vegetation breaks down quickly before the next growing season due to the moisture and the biological activity. However, in the arid, seasonal rainfall areas (about 2/3 of the world) dead plant material doesn’t decompose, it oxidizes. The result is standing, dead, grey material that may stay there for several years smothering out the center of the perennial grass plants. Unless this oxidized material is removed by herds of grazing animals or fire, the situation leads to desertification. An occasional fire will help remove this material but it also denudes the soil surface and puts a tremendous amount of carbon into the air. Holistically managed grazing, on the other hand, removes the material, fertilizes the soil, and rejuvenates the grasses leading to healthier ecosystem processes, covered ground, and increased sequestration of carbon.

Q: What is the “triple bottom line”?

The triple bottom line refers to three major components of business that contribute to its success and sustainability: social aspects and human dynamics, environmental consequences, and the financial stability of the business.

Holistic management sees the deep interconnection among all three areas. Too much focus (or not enough) in one or more of these will lead to failure. We seek to create balance and stability in all three areas and monitor them to quickly address any consequences of our management decisions that may have a negative impact on long-term sustainability.

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