Grass-fed feast an environmental win

Park concessionaire chooses novel approach in net-zero footprint goal

Posted 3/28/23

A plan to put tasty, locally produced, grass-fed beef on the menu in Yellowstone National Park is more about conservation and sustainability than fine dining. Yet, in the end, hungry visitors, local …

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Grass-fed feast an environmental win

Park concessionaire chooses novel approach in net-zero footprint goal


A plan to put tasty, locally produced, grass-fed beef on the menu in Yellowstone National Park is more about conservation and sustainability than fine dining. Yet, in the end, hungry visitors, local economies and the environment are all winners in this quickly growing, one-of-a-kind program just now kicking into high gear after years of hard work.

Xanterra Travel Collection, the largest park concessions management company, has joined forces with the Western Sustainability Exchange with the goal of sourcing the majority of their cuisine for their restaurants from local and sustainable producers. It’s a lofty goal.

Xanterra serves about 17,000 meals a day at peak season, said Dylan Hoffman, director of sustainability for Xanterra’s Yellowstone National Park lodges. They are major purchasers of meat and produce, giving them a fairly unique opportunity to make a significant impact if they reach their goals. Hoffman also serves as a board member for the Exchange, which initiated the Northern Great Plains Regenerative Grazing Program in 2019.

The program involves assisting ranchers who make multi-year commitments to implement regenerative ranching practices, most notably “high-intensity, rapid rotational grazing that improves soil health and increases carbon sequestration,” Hoffman said.

It wasn’t an easy sell at first, he said. Carbon is something that you don’t see, so it’s a really a big educational step for everybody involved to understand.

“They thought it was just kind of snake oil at first,” he said.

A large issue with prospective ranchers was, “Why would somebody pay us to improve our business?” Hoffman said. “We had to do a lot of education around the question.”

Hoffman said lowering Xanterra’s carbon footprint is part of their contract with the National Park Service.

“There’s a lot of different ways you can do it, you can do it on the cheap and have renewable energy credits or offsets that are, let’s say less robust. This is, we like to think, an elegant way of achieving our contractual commitment commitment with [the Park Service] and is something that not only offsets the carbon impact, but it supports the local economy,” he said.


A plus for wildlife, ranchers

Hoffman is passionate about supporting the cultural heritage of ranching, and in return, helping the environment and wildlife using private land for habitat. Large tracts of private land in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are ecologically important to wide-ranging wildlife because they extend habitat available to many species to meet nutritional and reproductive needs, according to a study published in 2022 by a influential group of scientists including Author Middleton, professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley and several University of Wyoming law and environmental professors.

The study, titled “The Role of Private Lands in Conserving Yellowstone’s Wildlife in the Twenty-First Century,” was released during Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary celebration.

“In turn, healthy wildlife populations provide ecosystem services, such as hunting, tourism, and wellbeing, which benefit the public,” the study reported.

They contend private lands in the ecosystem are vulnerable to fragmentation and development.

“Landowners may even be motivated to sell or subdivide their land in response to challenges with wildlife, which fragments land, and further hinders conservation goals,” the study suggested.

Fragmentation narrows or interrupts migratory corridors and limits suitable habitat, creating conflicts which challenge wildlife managers and conservation efforts. Hoffman said it’s in Xanterra’s best interest to take conservation seriously.

“We do this because it’s part of our goals, it’s part of who we are as a company,” he said. “The places that we do business are built upon the environment. So for us, we want to position ourselves as a leader from an environmental conservation standpoint.”

It’s also supporting local regenerative beef products at the end of it, which aligns well with their need to source sustainable products to feed guests and employees.

Xanterra’s sustainability goals are a 5% annual reduction of potable water use in water-stressed areas, 5% annual reduction in waste to landfills, the elimination of single-use plastics purchases by 2030, the elimination of intentionally added harmful polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in food-contact packaging, and offering 70% local and sustainable cuisine at their land-based restaurants.

“To effect change, there have to be some people who, as a group, are willing to think outside the box and do things differently to improve a system and the bigger picture,” said Roger Indreland, owner of Indreland Angus near Big Timber, Montana.

The company is one of the first four ranches signing long-term contracts with the Western Sustainability Exchange, years before they were able to partner with a company capable of quantifying sequestered carbon. It wasn’t until last year that the Exchange signed with Native Energy, a climate solutions company specializing in verifying offsets.

“We were very confident that the sequestration potential was there. And in fact, we were probably overly conservative about the estimates that we were making. Achieving that actual certification from a verified carbon market [through Native] was a pretty big deal a couple of years into the program,” Hoffman said.


How it works

The process is fairly simple. Cattle graze in temporary pastures as small as several acres for short periods, then those grasses are left undisturbed for a year or longer. The healthier grasses created by this rotational grazing are rooted in healthier soils, and the amount of carbon sequestered from the air can be determined directly by measuring the increased organic carbon levels in the soil. Xanterra was the first financial supporter of this program and was instrumental in getting it started.

Starting with about 35,000 acres, the program is growing toward enlisting more than a million acres, possibly including Wyoming ranches, by the end of the year.

Two Wyoming ranches have applied to become part of the Exchange’s carbon trading program, according to Chris Mehus, the program’s director. He said the state’s grass-fed beef industry has already been working with Xanterra and are a natural fit in the program as well as an important state to conserve large tracts of agricultural land which also benefits wildlife.

It hasn’t been easy, said Hoffman, who has been working on developing Xanterra’s softer carbon footprint since 2011 and serving on the Exchange board since 2016 — more than three years prior to signing their first ranch into the program.

Currently, ranches outside the park totaling 209,000-acres are working to improve soil health, provide forage for cattle, and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to help reduce the effects of climate change.

For Xanterra’s part in the project, the offsets created by the program account for all the emissions from electricity used at the lodges while restoring a damaged ecosystem and improving biodiversity — all from regenerative ranching practices.

“Regenerative agriculture reawakens natural processes that have been interrupted. Ranchers can reengage nature’s harmony through innovative management strategies that build soil health, improve water cycling, and encourage biodiversity while enhancing economic resilience,” Xanterra said in the report.