Stories in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota

Our Climate Solutions

We have a brief window of time for action to make the transition to a more stable climate.

Landscape view of an oak savanna prairie with dark green oak leaves in the foreground.
Oak Savanna Landscape view of an oak savanna prairie at Glacial Lakes State Park. © Richard Hamilton Smith
Ann Mulholland, headshot.
Ann Mulholland State Director in MN, ND & SD © Nancy A. Johnson

Climate Action Starts with Each of Us

Ann Mulholland, Chapter Director


We are at a critical moment in Earth’s history. Climate change poses immediate and future risks to our communities, our economies and the health of every living being on Earth. Climate change is already a problem. Minnesota winters are warming faster than nearly anywhere else in the U.S., up more than 3° Fahrenheit from pre-industrial levels. In North Dakota, droughts have cost hundreds of millions of dollars in crop damage. And in South Dakota, increasing precipitation is intensifying spring runoff—which damages water quality and erodes valuable soil. Drought, floods and wildfires have already been worsened by climate change and will continue to increase in severity and occurrence.

To limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5° Celsius, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible while learning to adapt to new realities.

We have the briefest window of time—less than a few years, according to the latest IPCC report—to make the transition to a more stable climate. Even if we achieve our targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the need for climate adaptation is already here, and we will continue needing to adapt.

The Nature Conservancy is working tirelessly on solutions. In our Minnesota-North Dakota-South Dakota chapter, we are responding to the impacts of climate change on our natural systems and human communities. I invite you to explore some examples below.

Thank you for investing in our work to combat the very real threat of climate change with your support for The Nature Conservancy’s Climate Solutions Fund.

Sincerely, Ann

Leveraging Nature to Tackle Climate Change

Natural climate solutions—such as wetland restoration, reforestation and soil health practices—work by ensuring that existing natural areas remain net sinks (rather than sources) for carbon, reducing carbon losses to the atmosphere or increasing carbon sequestration. As it turns out, natural climate solutions are the very things we’ve been focused on in our more than 70-year history.

A pair of hands holding several conifer tree seedlings, ready for planting.
© David Bowman

What are natural climate solutions?

Natural climate solutions are conservation, improved land management and restoration actions that increase carbon storage or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in landscapes and wetlands across the globe.

Natural climate solutions and nature-based adaptation strategies are gaining momentum as cost-effective approaches to addressing climate change. And we are continuing our work to influence the siting of renewable energy infrastructure on already degraded lands and to support other technological climate solutions that are compatible with the conservation of our great places. Our biggest opportunities in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota are protecting grasslands and wetlands, restoring grasslands and peatlands, and using soil health practices on agricultural lands.

Nature's Potential: MN-ND-SD

How we can leverage nature for climate action
  • Annual Carbon Sequestration Potential (Million Metric Tonnes/Year)
    • 9
    • 7.8
    • 15.5
    • 4
    • 18
    • 7

Protect Wetlands

Protect Grasslands

Restore Grasslands

Reforestation

Plant Cover Crops

Reduce Tillage

The Nature Conservancy is committed to our global 2030 goals of reducing or sequestering three gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year and abating climate risks for 100 million people through:

  • protecting resilient and connected lands that are rich in carbon stocks.
  • improving land management to sequester more carbon, retain more water, clean more air and help them adapt to climate change.
  • restoring lands and waters to improve sequestration rates.

Our scientists have shown that nature can provide a third of the solution (11Gt CO2e from nature). But we must act now. The potential for these solutions to succeed in slowing the rate of warming is likely to decline after 2030 and dramatically so after 2050.

  • In Minnesota, natural climate solutions could mitigate 15% of emissions (see our 2021 Nature and Climate report).
  • In North Dakota, this number is likely around 30%.
  • In South Dakota, this number is likely around 70% (report coming in 2023).

Thoughtfully scaling our use of nature to tackle climate change is not a substitute for making substantial reductions in fossil fuel use, nor will it alone solve the climate crisis. Even so, natural climate solutions are a critical part of a comprehensive response to climate change and have a multitude of co-benefits including cleaner air and water, increased agricultural yields, preservation of biodiversity and improved quality of life.

Your support makes this work possible.

Thank you for your investment in the Climate Solutions Fund.

Forests

A well-known natural climate solution, Minnesota’s forests store vast amounts of carbon. But as temperatures rise faster up north, species that were once native to the region (such as birch and aspen) may be vulnerable to rising temperatures and drought during the growing season. 

A closeup of trees in a northern Minnesota forest showing a diversity of species and age throughout.
Mosaic of growth in all stages New growth white pine forest planted circa 2008. This tree planting was on state property near Finland, Minnesota and administered under Minnesota’s Aquatic Management Area program to protect critical shoreland habitat and provide access to land managers and anglers. The Nature Conservancy's Plant A Billion Trees campaign is a major forest restoration effort with a goal of planting a billion trees across the planet. Finland, Minnesota. © David Bowman
Aerial view of an undeveloped lake with forests along its edges in northern Minnesota, protected by TNC thanks to a generous landowner.
Superior National Forest Thanks to the vision and generosity of landowner Mike Freed, The Nature Conservancy was able to protect more than 2,000 acres of undeveloped forestland in northeastern Minnesota. © Fauna Creative

TNC scientists have been studying which tree species are most likely to thrive in this new climate and have been planting these “new native” climate-resilient trees to help our forests adapt and our reforestation projects thrive. Species of interest include eastern white pine, red oak, bur oak and yellow birch.

Northeastern Minnesota Forest Restoration

The Nature Conservancy’s Resilient Forests team worked in 2021 with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to restore state parklands in Minnesota. In the Spring of 2021, we planted 107,722 climate-resilient trees on 237 acres. This restoration work is prominently visible to millions of motorists along Minnesota’s Hwy 61 and the 500,000 annual visitors to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. 

Adaptive Tree Planting at Split Rock (3:27) Working with partners, we're helping to restore North Shore forests at places like Split Rock for the benefit of our climate, clean water and future generations.

Additionally, the team planted another 1.2 million trees in northeastern Minnesota last year—from the shores of Lake Superior along Highway 61 and into the Superior National Forest. Crews planted trees along riparian areas to keep cold-water streams cool for trout and other fish, and to provide wildlife habitat. These trees will be monitored over the next several years to ensure they thrive well into the future. Year by year, our restored forests will capture and store increasing amounts of carbon, an easy and cost-effective natural climate solution that also cleans our air and water. For instance, the 1.2 million seedlings we planted this year will store about a million metric tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetimes while also contributing a host of other ecosystem service benefits.

Minnesota Million

Nature Conservancy scientists have identified reforestation as Minnesota’s biggest opportunity to scale natural climate solutions. And we have a big plan for forests: Launched with a coalition of nonprofit, university and state agency partners in early 2021, the Minnesota Million is an ambitious vision for large-scale reforestation of Minnesota’s once-forested lands, including the iconic and historic Big Woods. 

A map detailing reforestation opportunity areas in Minnesota, which shows primarily overlap in the state's Big Woods subsection or biome (northwest to southeast, with a few prairie gaps in between).
Reforest MN This map details reforestation opportunity areas in Minnesota. © TNC

Reforesting one million acres across Minnesota will enhance the resilience of communities, watersheds and working lands—providing benefits like carbon sequestration, flood reduction, economic opportunities and improved wildlife habitat.

Our vision is to reforest one million acres by 2045. Recent estimates suggest that reforesting one million acres statewide could result in the drawdown of 1.6 million metric tons of CO2e—or the equivalent of emissions from 348,000 average passenger vehicles—each year.

Agriculture

The Nature Conservancy is working to dispel the idea that conservation and agriculture must be at odds. People are part of nature, and our quality of life is dependent on the health of our farmlands. But we must do more to care for our soils to ensure we can continue to feed a growing population into the future. Shifting toward a more sustainable model helps improve water quality and tackle climate change while making farms more productive, enabling them to keep pace with increased demand. 

Two agronomists and a farmer in a field inspecting cover crops.
Regenerative Farming Soil health practices, like reduced tillage and planting cover crops, increase carbon storage in the soil. © Fauna Creative

Improving agricultural practices across the U.S. has the potential to reduce 389 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year—the equivalent of emissions from almost 85 million vehicles. Adopting soil health practices on just half of Minnesota’s cropland would reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the Mississippi River system by as much as 20%.

All Acres for Our Water

The All Acres for Our Water program is a model for productive agriculture that yields clean water and has far-reaching benefits for soil health, water quality, carbon sequestration and increased yields. With the Minnesota Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy is working with growers in the Sauk River watershed on conservation planning and easements, in-field conservation practices such as improved nutrient (fertilizer) management, no- and low-till farming and planting cover crops.

All Acres for Our Water (1:17) In Stearns County, Minnesota, local farmers are leading the way in climate-smart agriculture.

Nature Conservancy soil health experts are working with farmers, farmer advisors and farm co-ops to increase access to specialized equipment through cost-share agreements. The Nature Conservancy is also developing a certification program for Minnesota growers who adhere to best practices in nutrient management, also known as the 4Rs. Properly applying nutrients with the right fertilizer source, at the right time in the growing season, at the right rate of application and in the right place can keep harmful pollutants from our streams, rivers and lakes, increase agricultural production while lowering the cost of fertilizer inputs and result in a more sustainable and profitable agricultural system.

Given the vast agricultural lands across Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, cover crops offer a scalable natural climate solution that could sequester more than 18 million metric tons of CO2e annually if fully implemented.

Peatlands

While tree planting has been the focus of global nature-based efforts to sequester carbon, peatlands are an unsung and often misunderstood hero in the carbon storage game. Though peatlands occupy just 3% of the world’s land surface, they store up to 30% of the world’s terrestrial carbon. Peatlands are wetland ecosystems where the waterlogged ground slows the decay of dead plant matter. Over long stretches of time, these dead plants gradually build up to form carbon-rich peat soil that sustains unique communities.

Closeup of spaghnum (or peat) moss, sundews and other plants growing in a bog.
Peatlands These wetland ecosystems are one of nature's best carbon sinks, sequestering as much as a third of the world's soil carbon. © Kristen Blann/TNC
Closeup of a pitcher plant.
Unique Plants Carbon-rich peat soil provides habitat for many interesting plants, including this pitcher plant. © Kristen Blann/TNC
Peatlands These wetland ecosystems are one of nature's best carbon sinks, sequestering as much as a third of the world's soil carbon. © Kristen Blann/TNC
Unique Plants Carbon-rich peat soil provides habitat for many interesting plants, including this pitcher plant. © Kristen Blann/TNC

Over the last several centuries, many of Minnesota’s peatlands have been degraded through drainage for forestry, grazing, agriculture and other land uses. Ditching peatlands lowers the water table, ultimately releasing greenhouse gasses that had previously been trapped in the bog. Release of emissions from ditched and drained peatlands are exacerbated by warming temperatures, threatening to flip many peatlands from net carbon sinks to net sources of carbon emissions.

With support from the Bezos Earth Fund, The Nature Conservancy’s tri-state chapter is working with partners to develop a Peatland Playbook to assess the potential of hydrologic restoration of peatlands as a natural climate solution in Minnesota and develop a strategy for re-wetting more than 400,000 acres of peatlands in the northern part of the state. Re-wetting our partially drained peatlands represents a significant opportunity to protect remaining carbon stocks, avoid the threat of degradation from past drainage and add capacity for additional greenhouse gas sequestration in restored ditched peat. Healthy peatlands are also important for absorbing precipitation in times of flood and filtering contaminants so we have clean water to drink.

A juvenile orangutan hangs suspended between three branches using both legs and one arm.
© Supratikno Supratikno/Kontes Foto Global 2019

Around the World: Indonesia

The Carbon Cost of Converting Peatlands to Oil Palm


Peatlands are one of nature’s best carbon sinks, yet they're under threat. New research from Indonesia calculates the carbon cost of converting peat to oil palm plantations. Read more in Cool Green Science.

Furthermore, re-wetting publicly administered, partially drained peatlands could be a very cost-effective greenhouse gas mitigation strategy based on the relatively low cost of restoration. Nature Conservancy scientists are undertaking field monitoring and literature reviews to refine carbon sequestration estimates and approaches to restoration. The Peatland Playbook will help land managers better understand the value of restored peatlands in the effort to limit global warming.

Grasslands

Temperate grasslands are the most critically endangered biome on the planet, with a rate of destruction exceeding that of the Amazon rainforest. The Northern Great Plains, one of four remaining examples of this biome, is no exception. These grasslands are being lost at a rate eight times faster than they are being protected. In North Dakota and South Dakota, between 1-2% of remaining intact grassland habitat is lost each year. And in Minnesota, less than 2% of the native grasslands remain. The Nature Conservancy has prioritized the protection of these special ecosystems for decades due to prairies’ importance to both wildlife and people. 

A black-and-orange monarch butterfly resting on a purple dotted blazing star plant.
Blazing Star In addition to sequestering carbon, stabilizing soils and improving water storage, grasslands provide important habitat for many pollinators. © Richard Hamilton Smith
The yellow petals of gray-headed coneflowers create bright pops of color in this prairie landscape scene.
Gray-headed coneflower Improving species and genetic diversity in the prairies we restore can help make them more resilient to changing climate conditions. © Richard Hamilton Smith

More recently, the value of grasslands to local communities is becoming more noticeable. When rainfall becomes more variable, snowpack melts more quickly or prairie is lost to conversion and destructive floods are more likely to impact our cities and towns. In a healthy grassland system, the roots of prairie plants reach deep into the ground to hold soil in place and reduce the velocity of runoff during a flood. Those same root systems are now understood to play an important role in storing large quantities of carbon dioxide.  

Additionally, the nesting and floral resources of prairies are essential for pollinators and grassland birds, both of which have dramatically declined in recent years.

Grassland Protection

Avoiding the conversion of native grasslands to agriculture or development is a high-impact strategy for keeping carbon in the ground and out of our atmosphere. 

Our South Dakota grassland protection program utilizes conservation easements to protect grasslands for wildlife and for ranchers who want to keep their grazing lands in grass for future generations.

Since starting this program, The Nature Conservancy has helped protect more than 98,000 acres of rangeland by leveraging more than $100 million in federal funding.

Since early 2021, TNC helped protect 19,479 acres with conservation easements on private lands in the Missouri Coteau region of South Dakota, resulting in more than 1 million metric tons of stored carbon protected. TNC’s easement technicians work with private landowners and provide technical assistance toward enrollment in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wetland and grassland easement programs.

This high-leverage strategy capitalizes on the availability of federal funds for conservation easements and prioritizes native prairies most at risk of conversion. There is currently a waiting list of more than 600 landowners interested in enrolling their ranches in the easement program, and TNC easement technicians are a critical link in helping these landowners achieve their goals while supporting the economic viability of individual ranching operations and the communities that depend on them.

A gloved hand holding a fistful of prairie seeds as the wind gently begins to carry them away.
© Nancy Johnson

Seeds of Change

When it comes to adapting to change, more diversity is better in both big and small ways. Learn how this wisdom applies to the prairie in Cool Green Science. Read the blog.

Prairie Seed Collection

Climate change poses a significant threat to increasingly fragmented prairies, which have limited genetic diversity and therefore low ability to adapt to changing conditions. To help these landscapes adapt, our grassland team hand-collects seeds from different locations to create seed mixes comprised of high genetic and species diversity. Using these diverse seed mixes, prairie ecologists planted more than 900 acres of climate-adapted grassland on Nature Conservancy preserves across our three states.

Climate-Proofing Our Prairies (2:44) Ensuring resilience, through genetic diversity, is key to maintaining our grasslands into the future.

This restoration project includes 140 acres of climate-adapted tallgrass aspen prairie reconstruction with more than 79 different species. Another 300-acre grassland was planted with climate-adapted seed mixes at Agassiz Dunes preserve—a unique preserve that contains sand dune and bur oak savanna habitat and is an important connector along the string of beach ridge prairies in western Minnesota.

Our grassland science team has mapped more than 31,000 populations of more than 320 different prairie plant species as a future resource for collecting genetically diverse seed. As part of this process, we created a shareable tool to help land managers develop their own genetically diverse seed mixes, and we engaged numerous federal and state agency partners to facilitate adoption of these seed-sourcing practices. This work continues to gain momentum and interest from partners and even private landowners in the region. Restoring climate-adapted prairies improves the resilience of the prairie ecosystem but also improves carbon sequestration and water storage and may even support grass-based livelihoods in the region. Our new outreach materials help spur conversation around climate adaptation strategies. 

Water

Climate change impacts the quality and availability of water by influencing how, when and where precipitation falls. A warming planet is already causing extreme flooding and drought events, leading to insufficient water in some places and too much in others. Nature can help.

Aerial view of a dock on a heavily vegetated lake, where canoes are gathered to harvest manoomin or wild rice.
Manoomin Minnesota’s lakes and rivers support an estimated 64,000 acres of wild rice—more than any other state in the country. © Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber

Beaver Dam Analogues

In western South Dakota, TNC teams are working like beavers to keep water on the landscape in the face of drought and warming temperatures. By facilitating the build-up of sediment, beaver dams slow the velocity of water coursing through a stream while raising the stream bottom. Streambanks become less steep, and the stream can once again connect to the floodplain. By installing a beaver dam “analogue,” we can increase water storage and provide habitat for grassland wildlife. Our goal in installing beaver dam analogues in western South Dakota is to create short-term structures that facilitate dynamic physical and biological processes to build grassland resilience to drought.

Closeup of a beaver dam analogue on a prairie stream, constructed of wooden posts, branches, twigs and other organic material.
Beaver Analogue Structure By building artificial structures that mimic the effect of beavers, conservation practitioners are working to restore degraded prairie streams in South Dakota. © Joe Dickie

In 2021, Nature Conservancy teams in western South Dakota installed 112 beaver dam analogues and 170 rock structures (more permanent versions of a dam analogue) that helped to improve seven miles of streams by trapping sediment and slowing and holding water on the prairie. Streams constitute only 2-3% of the land area in these watersheds but host 80% of prairie diversity.

Despite dry conditions in 2021, all of these structures held water. Our teams continue to monitor the sites to evaluate and communicate the impact of these low-cost interventions on grassland resilience to climate change.

Harvesting Manoomin for Water

Manoomin (Ojibwe), or wild rice (Zizania palustris), is an ecological and cultural keystone species across the western Great Lakes. This shallow water plant is important for the health and well-being of both human and wildlife communities. However, due to climate change, land-use changes, human-altered hydrology and decreased water quality, manoomin has declined in range and abundance across the western Great Lakes. Importantly, many traditional harvesting methods have fallen by the wayside with the lack of recruitment and retention of wild rice harvesters.

A wild rice harvester stopped for a rest on a boulder painted with the words "White Earth."
© Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber

Wild Harvest

Wild rice—called manoomin, or “good berry,” in Ojibwe—is a highly nutritious grain gathered from lakes and waterways in late summer and fall. In northern Minnesota, the Ojibwe people are keeping a vital tradition alive even in the face of growing challenges.

Read in Nature Conservancy Magazine

Scientists from our chapter are embarking on a study funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with many collaborators to explore whether increased recruitment and training focused on traditional Indigenous methods of harvesting manoomin can be a creative, climate-adaptive approach to stem the loss of wild rice across the landscape.

The study’s general hypotheses are that:

  1. Wild rice is an important food for people and wildlife and has intrinsic value as a cultural and natural resource.
  2. Wild rice is threatened by both climate change and by loss of human-ecological connection.
  3. People care about what they understand, know and have a relationship with.
  4. Harvesting and processing manoomin, and sharing the knowledge and experience in community, are ways to build and maintain both relationships and experiential knowledge—making them important adaptation strategies for protecting and maintaining wild rice and providing food and water sustainably in the face of climate change and other threats. 

Energy

Nature is an essential element of any good climate strategy, yet we know natural climate solutions can only take us partway to our goal of holding rising temperatures to no more than 1.5° Celsius. It remains essential to dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption as quickly as possible. The Nature Conservancy is addressing this need primarily through policy and in providing free tools to clean energy developers that help to site renewable energy infrastructure in a way that avoids damaging nature. 

Bison grazing on a prairie with windmills in the background, representing the threat of poorly sited renewable energy sources encroaching on prime wildlife habitat.
Wind Energy North America's "wind belt," which includes North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, can provide clean energy while protecting wildlife—with proper siting. © Richard Hamilton Smith

Mining the Sun

The Nature Conservancy’s U.S.-based renewable energy strategy touches down in our chapter through North Dakota’s Mining the Sun project. Building on success in West Virginia and Nevada, Mining the Sun explores the feasibility of and opportunities to develop solar energy projects on brownfields and former mining lands. By siting renewable energy on degraded lands, we can minimize disturbance and avoid conflict with the conservation strategies that prioritize biodiversity, habitat and restoration. In North Dakota, we are hopeful that this approach will help us to reduce social and political pushback against the transition to renewable energy.

The Nature Conservancy is taking a methodical and careful approach to this work in North Dakota. TNC staff have completed an initial round of mapping and geospatial analysis and are now meeting with partners to understand the potential policy barriers to project development and aligning with potential allies for the work ahead.

Storytelling and Advocacy

As The Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist and renowned climate communicator Dr. Katharine Hayhoe says, one of the best things we can do right now to influence climate change is to talk about it. That’s one of the reasons why we launched a storytelling campaign about Minnesotans using natural climate solutions in their own lives—because sharing our values within our communities will inspire others to take action. 

Trees. Water. Soil.

Through simple actions like planting cover crops, changing the way we manage forests and installing community rain gardens, Minnesotans are already making an impact for people and nature. With our Trees. Water. Soil. campaign, we’re telling their stories so that others might see new opportunities to protect and restore nature as a critical climate solution.

State-Level Advocacy

The Minnesota-North Dakota-South Dakota chapter of The Nature Conservancy offers members an opportunity to communicate directly with lawmakers in Minnesota through our state-level advocacy program. At timely moments throughout the legislative session, we share science-based policy perspectives and encourage individuals to make their voices heard at the Capitol. Please consider joining this effort if you haven’t already or sharing it with a friend if you have. Policy remains the most effective way to create systemic, lasting change.

Thank You!

Your gift to the Climate Solutions Fund is helping The Nature Conservancy demonstrate the power of nature to mitigate the effects of climate change through carbon storage while helping communities and ecosystems adapt to a warming planet. Thank you for being part of the solution.

To support this work with your next investment in natural climate solutions, renewable energy siting and climate policy, contact Minnesota-North Dakota-South Dakota Director of Philanthropy Jamie Ziemann.