Grasslands Sale Imperils Province’s Heritage


Op-Ed from the Star Phoenix by By Bob Kingston, Josef K. Schmutz and Gord Vaadeland.

Kingston is president of the Agriculture Union. Schmutz is on the board of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. Vaadeland is executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society - Saskatchewan.

 

Canada already has lost more than 80 per cent of its prairie grasslands - that majestic landscape with a special hold on the nation's soul.

In a totally unexpected move, the federal government now is walking away from decades of environmental and conservation stewardship of much of the remaining native grasslands, returning responsibility for these iconic lands to the provinces that own them.

Taken by surprise, the Saskatchewan government quickly decided to sell the land at market prices despite the fact that its preferred buyers, the ranchers who graze cattle on these lands, may not want or cannot afford to buy. Careful Crown management has ensured public access and environmental protection - benefits that are threatened if market forces are unleashed on these vulnerable grasslands. The ranchers who have been important conservation partners could be left out in the cold.

This possible land sale should alarm all Canadians. It's a decision that needs sober second thought. The 1.8 million acres in question, after all, are held in the public trust for future generations. It's valuable Crown land owned by Saskatchewan and managed by the federal government to meet conservation and environmental protection goals. The future of a further 700,000 acres in Manitoba is also in doubt.

The federal government's signature soil conservation initiative, the Community Pasture Program, was created in 1935 during a disastrous drought that turned huge areas of farmland into an eroded wasteland. The idea was to make cattle production the principal component of a carefully planned range management regime that would restore the degraded land and return it to a functioning prairie ecosystem.

More than 3,000 producers use the pastures each summer, paying fees to the government to graze about 220,000 head of livestock.

Several of the 62 individual pastures in Saskatchewan are among the largest remaining contiguous blocks of prairie grassland. They are home to many at-risk species including the swift fox, sage grouse, ferruginous hawk and burrowing owl.

The program's innovative mix of public management and private access, balanced to maintain a careful equilibrium among users, is a classic win-win. Now this internationally renowned success story may be destined for history's scrap heap.

In this year's budget, the federal government announced plans to dismantle the community pastures and transfer responsibility for managing this national jewel back to the provinces at the end of 2013. With the stroke of a pen, Ottawa washed its hands of the environmental and conservation objectives the program is designed to meet.

It's a mystery why this popular and highly successful program is being axed. To many of those involved, including ranchers, plant and animal researchers and conservationists, it is a clear case of trying to fix something that isn't broken.

Saskatchewan's decision to sell the pastures only makes a bad federal decision worse. The brief announcement of the intention to sell says that only some of the land will be subject to soil conservation measures. Conspicuously absent is any mention of other environmental priorities, conservation goals or protection for rare prairie plants, birds and other animals.

There is no indication of how the proposed sale might affect future public access, or how land use will be balanced among competing interests. Neither is there any mention of the rights of aboriginal communities with claims to the land in question.

Agricultural, economic and ecological research has repeatedly endorsed the value of community pastures. If there are genuine improvements to be made, let's make them in a way that retains environmental and conservation goals.

In the meantime, Prime Minister Harper and Premier Brad Wall must explain how the environmental and conservation objectives are to be maintained if the pastures program itself isn't. Until those guarantees are forthcoming, Saskatchewan should cancel the proposed sale of the pastures and Ottawa should suspend plans to dismantle the program.

These iconic landscapes represent some of the last functioning prairie ecosystems on Earth. Anyone who ever stood by a lonely road gazing in wonder at a prairie sunset knows that selling this land will be like throwing part of our heritage to the prairie winds.

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