Friday, August 17, 2012

Saskatchewan Government Announces Plan to sell 720,000 hectares of Crown Grasslands to “private patron groups”

Trevor Herriot's Grassnotes
 August 17, 2012

This lovely image is courtesy of my generous friend, naturalist and photographer, Hamilton Greenwood 

Anyone following this space will have read about the federal government divesting itself of any responsibility for what we used to call PFRA pastures--which contain some of the most endangered ecosystems and species in Canada.

Today the Saskatchewan Government released its plan for how it hopes to manage the transition, applying the news release strategy every PR bureaucrat learns on his first week on the job: if it is news you don’t really want covered in the media, release it on a Friday, and if it is summer, all the better.

Anyway, here is a link to the news release. And here in a nutshell is what it says:

1. Federal Staff will only continue to manage the pastures for one more grazing season after this one.

2. The Sask government made its decision on how to deal with the matter of what will now happen to these grasslands by setting up an advisory committee composed of “industry leaders and cattle producers.”

3. The plan in general is to sell the grasslands, all 720,340 hectares, to “patron-controlled ownership and operation.”

4. If there is good news in this announcement, it is that they are saying that each pasture will be maintained as a block and,

5. “Any sale of native prairie land will be subject to no-break and no-drain conservation easements.”

Ok. It is a relief to hear that the government has come to its senses and agreed to at least place conservation easements on all native prairie they sell off. But these grasslands are a jewel of conservation and sustainable agriculture in Canada, part of our shared heritage as prairie people, and not merely resources to be used in agriculture. These rich and haunting landscapes are some of the last representatives of functioning prairie ecosystems on the continent. It is unconscionable to sell our best remnants of the ancient grasslands to any private group, patrons or not.

We can do better. The people of Canada, and the increasingly rare prairie plants, birds, and other animals that will disappear if the land is managed poorly, have an interest in keeping these grasslands part of Canada’s national legacy and ecological wellbeing. In terms of international importance as protected representative areas, they are least as valuable as our national parks. Would we sell off Prince Albert National Park? Banff?

Here are my primary concerns about the way the province has proceeded thus far:

1. They are proposing to sell 720,000 hectares of valuable land in the public trust but they have not engaged the public in any kind of consultation, nor have they shown any interest in doing so any time soon. The carbon sequestration values, ecological goods and services (soil and water health), and biodiversity and recreational values of these lands mean that all Saskatchewan people should have an opportunity to know this is happening and to respond. The patrons who would like to graze the pastures have a particular and important interest that must be taken very seriously. And, to be sure, well-managed grazing is essential to the ecological health of all grassland, but the broader public interest in these decisions reaches far beyond the land’s potential to fatten cattle. If the Brad Wall government proceeds any farther without involving the public--and in particular people and organizations that speak on behalf of the long-term well-being of the land and its native grassland species--it will once again be leaving itself open to the charges it suffered under the WHPA(Wildlife Habitat Protection Act) issue: namely, this government is selling off public assets and heritage lands without due public process.

Meadowlark with mayflies, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
2. Never mind public process, the government is not even listening to its own biologists and environmental protection people. Somehow, Brad Wall and his cabinet have handed the decision over entirely to one department: Agriculture. These grasslands are no more “agricultural land” than a forest is a tree farm. Have the good men and women who work in Saskatchewan Parks and Saskatchewan Environment had any serious influence on these decisions? Perhaps it was they who managed to at least pull off the conservation easement commitment, but that will not cut it. Any grassland biologist worth her salt will tell you that all of these lands deserve the same of full protection in perpetuity that ecological reserves, parks, and protected areas all receive under the Crown.

3. Under this plan, there will be absolutely no system for maintaining the species at risk and biodiversity protection provisions that were part and parcel of the land management and grazing regimes developed while the Federal Government managed the pastures. That is completely unacceptable and the Harper Government should be held accountable for ensuring that these programs are funded and in place regardless of who takes over management of the pastures in the future.

4. But the great injustice of this plan is that, even with conservation easements in place, the primary issue remains: our government is selling off a major piece of our heritage and birthright as prairie people. Conservation easements may stop new owners from ploughing the land, but that assumes they will be monitored and enforced. History has shown how little environmental monitoring and enforcement our provincial governments have been able to manage in the past. Just ask anyone who has reported a neighbour channelizing and draining land illegally. Even more important, though, a conservation easement does not ensure proper grazing management and stocking rates, and does not protect the land from market pressures that could lead the patron-owners to favour short-term and private gain over long-term and public ecological values.

 A conservation easement will not on its own replace the prudence, stewardship, and vision that has for decades led the decision-making and planning for these lands while under Crown control. And, yes, ranchers and “patron groups” are often (not always) good stewards, as we hear again and again, but once they own the land it will be subject to the vagaries of the marketplace and human weakness unchecked by any kind of public oversight. They may treat it just as well as the former managers while they own it, but if something goes wrong--the co-op falls apart or the market for beef goes from bad to worse--they may be driven to sell. And it is that second generation of ownership that is most worrisome of all. Sooner or later the land will end up in the hands of somone who will not be as good at balancing economic and ecological values. Crown ownership protects land from this kind of abuse. That is why governments own land of high ecological value and that is why we must do what we can to ensure that this land remains part of the public trust.

Please, if you care about Saskatchewan's native grasslands and its wild creatures, send a letter to Brad Wall and Lyle Stewart, the Agriculture Minister. Your letter need not be long. Short and to the point is fine. Here are some instructions and addresses:

• Hand written letters are excellent.

• If you communicate by email, be sure to include your complete name and mailing address. An email with just a name may go unanswered.

Mailing and email address for the Premier:
Honourable Brad Wall
Premier of Saskatchewan
Legislative Building
Regina, SK
S4S 0B3

And for Lyle Stewart, Minister of Agriculture:

Lyle Stewart, Minister of Agriculture
Legislative Building
Regina, SK
S4S 0B3


This image also courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

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