By Jennifer Boudart

Rick Bohn.jpg

Rick Bohn

DU helps ranchers conserve threatened prairie grasslands, which can generate carbon credits that can be sold to companies to help reduce their carbon footprints.


Ducks Unlimited has long understood that natural landscapes provide a host of benefits beyond healthy populations of waterfowl and other wildlife, including valuable “ecosystem services” such as clean water, flood mitigation, and carbon sequestration. Now these benefits are being increasingly recognized as “nature-based solutions” that can help alleviate environmental threats stemming from changes in climate and land use.

In recent years, a growing number of corporations have been turning to nature-based solutions to make their operations more sustainable. Many of these companies are participating in voluntary markets that allow them to reduce their carbon footprint or offset water use, for example, by investing in projects that store carbon, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and protect water supplies. In some cases, corporations purchase water or carbon offset credits generated by conservation projects delivered by third parties such as DU.

“These private markets for ecosystem services are opening new doors for us,” explains DU Senior Scientist Dr. Ellen Herbert. “We’re working with a lot of for-profit corporations that are making pledges to their investors about being more sustainable. They have a real, monetized interest in meeting those sustainability pledges.”

DU's first carbon program, which pays landowners to avoid converting grassland and releasing carbon stored in soil, was launched in 2009. Currently, DU holds carbon agreements on 75 sites covering 28,000 acres on private grasslands across North and South Dakota. An additional 13,500 acres are held in carbon agreements in Colorado.

DU has recently formed innovative partnerships with companies in the food value chain. These companies are working to reduce their carbon footprints and conserve soil and water by helping producers adopt sustainable agricultural practices. In 2022, these efforts got a major boost when the US Department of Agriculture launched its Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program, which pledges to invest $3.1 billion in grants to support the voluntary implementation of climate-smart practices on working lands. To date, DU has received more than $140 million through the program to fund on-the-ground conservation projects (see below).

The program emphasizes working with small farms and underserved producers, with funds delivered via the Natural Resources Conservation Service. For example, the USA Rice−Ducks Unlimited Rice Stewardship Partnership and the National Black Growers Council received an $80 million grant to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve water on 300,000 acres of working rice lands across Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. The project will help growers implement more efficient irrigation methods and reduce use of fertilizers and crop protectants. DU is also a grant partner on several projects being led by other stakeholders, including the National Pork Board, ADM, and Trust in Food.

Michael Peters.jpg

Michael Peters

The USA Rice−DU Rice Stewardship Partnership and the National Black Growers Council received an $80 million grant from the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program to help rice farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adopt sustainable agricultural practices.

Forests play a significant role in capturing carbon dioxide and storing carbon, both in their biomass and in surrounding soils. DU is piloting a program to restore bottomland hardwood forests on private lands in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley and adjacent landscapes by planting trees to help capture carbon and generate carbon credits. The Flyway Forests program complements work DU has been doing in the region since 1990 through Wetland Reserve Easements (formerly known as the Wetland Reserve Program). Through this new carbon program, DU pays landowners for conservation easements, which include the restoration of trees on former agricultural lands. DU and its partners cover the cost of site preparation, tree planting, and ongoing monitoring. Pachama, a carbon project developer, will aid DU in calculating carbon stored and getting carbon credits verified and released. Land and Water Corp, an agriculture and land investment firm, is helping to fund the project. Ultimately, carbon credits will be released for sale on one of several carbon registry platforms, with a portion of the proceeds going back to DU.

DU Carbon Program Specialist Lauren Alleman says landowners appreciate the extra revenue and the chance to create a conservation legacy. “We are working with an 80-year-old generational farmer who would like to put his land back in trees,” Alleman explains. “He wants his grandkids to have mature oak forest to play in—that’s a value system for him.”

DU is also actively working in the arena of water quality and efficiency and has established successful partnerships with corporations in the beverage manufacturing industry. “They use a lot of water and can only reduce water use so much because they are producing a liquid,” Herbert says. “They’re investing in things like wetland and other aquatic habitat projects to offset the water they are using in their operations.” 

One of those corporations is PepsiCo, which aims to become net water positive by 2030 by reducing total water use and replenishing more than 100 percent of the water used at PepsiCo-owned and affiliated sites in high water-risk areas. PepsiCo Beverages North America and PepsiCo Foods North America together have awarded DU more than $1.6 million, which DU is using for wetland and watershed restoration work in California, Kansas, and Texas.

In general, making small adjustments to DU’s existing conservation programs often makes them applicable for the voluntary ecosystem services market, Herbert notes. “We don’t look at it as being terribly different from our other work—there is just some extra math and tracking behind it. We have to calculate what the impact is per dollar—either carbon reduction per dollar or water volume per dollar or reduced nutrients per dollar. It’s very transactional,” she says.

In fact, there’s a lot of math and tracking involved, since some of these projects will last decades. All outcomes must be third-party verified and reported back to DU’s partners in support of their sustainability goals. Quantifying ecosystem services requires making direct measurements such as installing gauges to measure water flows; using remote sensing, such as satellites or drones; and developing computer models to make credible estimates. DU performs some of this work itself but has also developed partnerships with universities, federal agencies, consulting firms, and service providers that have special expertise in these areas.

In the end, Herbert stresses, all these efforts come back to conserving habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. “Ducks may not be the first thing we talk about in these partnerships. We’re measuring other outcomes too—it’s just a different way of describing these projects. But ultimately, everything we do supports the mission.”

Climate-Smart Commodities Grants and Conservation

Ducks Unlimited is a partner in more than $140 million in grants from the US Department of Agriculture Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program. The largest of these grants—totaling $80 million—was awarded to the USA Rice−Ducks Unlimited Rice Stewardship Partnership and the National Black Growers Council. DU has also been awarded $52 million as the lead partner in the most recent USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program project aimed at climate-smart agricultural practices, including: 

Iowa—$8 million to install in-field and edge-of-field conservation projects.

Kansas and Nebraska—$10 million to create, restore, and protect wetland and riparian barriers that will enhance fish and wildlife habitat and increase drought resilience and groundwater recharge.

South Dakota—$25 million to restore 25,000 acres of grasslands that will provide habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, sequester carbon, and reduce nutrient runoff, soil erosion, and flooding.

Wisconsin—More than $8.8 million to restore and protect 800 acres of wetlands and associated upland areas, increase carbon sequestration, improve water quality, and increase biodiversity.