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Groups band together to save native grasslands in the high plains

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Millions of acres of grassland used to spread across the high plains in this country. There's still some left, but also seas of corn and wheat growing instead. And most of that is used for livestock feed. So conservationists and big businesses are collaborating with cattle ranchers to save what's left of native grasslands. Calen Moore of the Kansas News Service explains why this is important.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

CALEN MOORE: Dozens of cows spread out across Kelly Anthony's ranch. As he drives his truck through the pasture, he blasts a siren to get the attention of the herd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN WAILING)

KELLY ANTHONY: It calls the cattle to our feed grounds down here, because in the winter - the grass loses its protein in the winter, so we have to supplement them.

MOORE: As the siren blares, the cattle come running. Anthony has been ranching this grassland in southwest Kansas for 25 years. Its land is part of the five states that make up the southern high plains - Kansas, plus Colorado, New Mexico, and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. Native grass used to cover 71 million acres of the region, but there has been lots of change over the years. For example, in Kansas, 80% of those grasslands have been lost to cropland, drought or invasive species. Ranchers like Anthony own much that remains, and he's trying to restore some of it.

ANTHONY: I really think that ranchers as a whole are the best stewards of the land because the capital requirement to be in the cattle business is so high - the biggest portion of that is land.

MOORE: Ranchers aren't the only ones concerned. The global nonprofit The Nature Conservancy and several other groups are working to save what is left of the ecosystem too with a program called the Southern High Plains Grassland Initiative. The program uses market-based incentives and enters into yearslong agreements with ranchers, offering them payments if they preserve grassland or convert crops back to grass. Sitting at a local coffee shop, project manager Matt Bain says that the overlooked grasslands are the most imperiled native ecosystem on Earth, but they provide a lot of benefits.

MATT BAIN: Things like clean air, clean water, carbon storage, recreation, you know, obviously food supply in the form of beef and other livestock primarily.

MOORE: So far, the initiative has invested $42 million across the five states to help keep those benefits intact. Slightly more than a quarter of that money has come from big beef buyers like Burger King and Cargill in partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Burger King and Cargill say they're joining with the hopes that protecting native grasses can help reduce some of the impact beef has on the environment, like water loss, soil pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that come from grain-eating cattle. Deborah Fleischer is the president of Green Impact, a consulting firm that helps businesses with green initiatives.

DEBORAH FLEISCHER: I think it's beyond philanthropy for some of these bigger companies now, and just part of their carbon reduction strategy, which probably has to look at a whole variety of how are we going to get emissions down, especially if we're expanding.

MOORE: She says when large companies invest in green projects, it is also an opportunity to improve their public image. Even so, some ranchers are skeptical of the collaboration between conservation groups and beef buyers because it limits what they can do with their land. Others, like Bob Winderlin, think the Grassland Initiative is the right approach. The longtime rancher is a participant in the program and says his land in western Kansas will potentially see less long-term impacts of drought and water loss. Winderlin says conservation is not only the key to preserving grasslands, but also the rural ranching lifestyle.

BOB WINDERLIN: I guess we're smart enough to realize that we got to conserve what we have or we end up with nothing, you know.

MOORE: In the scale of this initiative to preserve millions of acres of native grassland in the southern high plains is one of the largest conservation opportunities in the country.

For NPR News, I'm Calen Moore in Liberal, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Calen Moore