Background: Tillage practices greatly affect carbon (C) stocks in agricultural soils. Quantification of the impacts of tillage on C stocks at a regional scale has been challenging because of the spatial heterogeneity of soil, climate, and management conditions. We evaluated the effects of tillage management on the dynamics of soil organic carbon (SOC) in croplands of the Northwest Great Plains ecoregion of the United States using the General Ensemble biogeochemical Modeling System (GEMS). Tillage management scenarios included actual tillage management (ATM), conventional tillage (CT), and no-till (NT). Results: Model simulations show that the average amount of C (kg C ha-1yr-1) released from croplands between 1972 and 2000 was 246 with ATM, 261 with CT, and 210 with NT. The reduction in the rate of C emissions with conversion of CT to NT at the ecoregion scale is much smaller than those reported at plot scale and simulated for other regions. Results indicate that the response of SOC to tillage practices depends significantly on baseline SOC levels: the conversion of CT to NT had less influence on SOC stocks in soils having lower baseline SOC levels but would lead to higher potentials to mitigate C release from soils having higher baseline SOC levels. Conclusion: For assessing the potential of agricultural soils to mitigate C emissions with conservation tillage practices, it is critical to consider both the crop rotations being used at a local scale and the composition of all cropping systems at a regional scale. ?? 2007 Tan et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.