Collaborating for conservation: Bemidji State students join local carbon sequestration project

A class of BSU students will partner with conservation organizations to gauge local interest in carbon sequestration programs.

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Crystal Mathisrud, district manager of the Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District, discusses carbon sequestration during a project presentation on Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in BSU's Memorial Hall.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Students of Bemidji State University’s Cartography class will soon have the opportunity to work with conservation organizations in a hands-on learning experience where they will survey landowners about their knowledge and interest in carbon sequestration programs.

The project, which was funded through a grant from the Initiative Foundation, is between Professor Jerry Smith’s Cartography class and two conservation organizations: Northern Waters Land Trust and Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District.

“You’re not just working with one entity, so that’s a really cool opportunity,” said Jake Shaughnessy, who works with the Hubbard SWCD and helped present the project to the students in class on March 22.

The student's role in the project will be to survey local landowners on marginal farmland about whether they might be interested in carbon sequestration. The information they gather will be built into a database that will help conservation organizations gauge what areas would be best suited to pursue these protection measures.

Carbon sequestration is a process that removes carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to climate change, from the atmosphere and stores it. There are multiple methods to do this, including reforestation and good forest management.


“Big on the list is reforestation,” said Paul Radomski, a research scientist for Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources who contributed to the presentation. “The larger, the older the forest, the more (carbon) you’re storing in the trees and soil.”

As such, carbon sequestration has become an increasingly prominent strategy to promote conservation and reforestation, especially in northern Minnesota.

“There’s a lot of conservation going on in this area,” said Crystal Mathisrud, who is also a part of Hubbard SWCD. “We’re looking at how carbon sequestration programs would fit into this.”

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Students in the cartography course at Bemidji State listen to speakers during a carbon sequestration project presentation on Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in BSU's Memorial Hall.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

Students will be asking landowners what they know about carbon sequestration and conservation easements, which are voluntary legal agreements where landowners permanently set aside a portion of their land for conservation, and what types of incentives landowners might need to enter into a similar program.

“(We want) to get their feedback on a carbon sequestration program,” said Annie Knight, who presented to the students on behalf of Northern Waters Land Trust. “How can we incentivize landowners in a financial way to make that an achievable goal for them?”

Climate, carbon and conservation

In the presentation, Shaughnessy informed the students that 16 million acres of historically forested land in Minnesota have been lost over the last two centuries, with the majority of those acres being converted for agricultural use.

“The prairies got hit first, and now that conversion is moving more and more to the forest,” Shaughnessy said.

When an area is converted from a natural forest to agricultural land, this can lead to negative consequences for the environment.


In addition to carbon being released and no longer stored in the trees and soil, converted agricultural lands, whether crops or pastures have higher levels of runoff. This can reduce the water quality in the area and negatively impact aquatic ecosystems.

Preventing further conversion to agricultural lands is the reason for the project’s focus on marginal farmlands and transitional forests. If those areas are protected or replanted, it’s less likely that this progression will continue.

“You shouldn’t mess with large systems if you don’t know what the consequences are,” Radomski said, “and we’re doing that.”

Forests themselves play a pivotal role in capturing and storing carbon, with Radomski sharing the fact that over 50% of a tree's weight while it is alive is made up of carbon.

The amount of carbon a tree can store is often tied directly to its size, so larger and older trees are particularly important when considering carbon sequestration.

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Students in the cartography course at Bemidji State look through a packet about carbon sequestration during a project presentation on Tuesday, March 22, 2022, in BSU's Memorial Hall.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer

By entering into a conservation easement and enacting plans for carbon sequestration through methods like reforestation and forest management, landowners and conservation organizations can reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, help climate change and maintain or reinstate the land’s original forested character.

“How can we bring that land back to its original state,” Knight said, “so that we can meet our goal of keeping this beautiful land beautiful.”

Help from students

With the information that the students will gather through their surveys, conservation organizations will be able to assess which areas are most at risk of conversion and how interested landowners might be in financial incentives to enter into conservation easements.


“It’s figuring out where’s at risk,” Shaughnessy said. “That can help us look to which areas to protect.”

It will also help them figure out what types of easements would be most beneficial to an area, depending on its natural environment, soil types and what strategy of carbon sequestration would work best.

“There’s a lot of types of programs out there,” Mathisrud said. “We want to do this in a way that’s beneficial for climate, landowners, and for local people and economies.”

In addition to working with professional conservation organizations, students in the cartography class will also have an opportunity to be chosen for a paid summer internship with Hubbard SWCD where they can continue work on the project and on other initiatives that the organization runs.

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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