Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A welcome light at the end of the tunnel for Community Pastures. . .maybe?

by Hamilton Greenwood
This morning I received a media release issued by a steering committee representing Saskatchewan’s First Nations. The group is led by Roland Crowe, elder statesman of First Nations leadership and the man who was able to unify indigenous and non-indigenous policy-makers around the issue of Treaty Land Entitlement back in the ‘90s.

The release says that the province’s First Nations are advancing an alternative for the former Federal PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) pastures that are being handed back to Saskatchewan. Instead of selling them, as the Saskatchewan Party has said they intend to, the Chiefs and other First Nations leaders behind this proposal believe they have a way of keeping the 1.6 million acres of grassland under the Crown while meeting the needs of local livestock producers and maintaining the high level of ecological integrity established by the PFRA over the decades.

Here is a quote from the release:

“Whenever Crown land is being sold, there are some moral and legal imperatives that cannot be ignored,” said former FSIN Chief Roland Crowe. “There are obligations to consider our interests as first peoples and those of all stakeholders. We have an historical and economic interest in the way these pastures will be used and we do not want to see them parcelled up and sold off. Rather than placing them in the hands of a privileged few or worse in the hands of investors and non residents, let’s work together to find a way to conserve and manage these grasslands locally and in whole rather than in part for the good of all Saskatchewan people.”
People should read the release for themselves (see below) but here are some reasons why I feel this proposal deserves a serious hearing by our elected leaders:

1. Sask. First Nations have some experience in managing grassland. Some of the Qu’Appelle First Nations have grazing lands on their traditional reserves and in fact some of it had been managed by the PFRA until the Feds turned the land over to the First Nation. The transition went well by all reports and local non-aboriginal grazing patrons have had a working relationship with the First Nations managers, and continue to graze their cattle on reserve grasslands.

2. The basics of the proposal sound a lot better than any other alternative at the present time: First, they say they are committed to the idea of keeping all of the former PFRA pastures as Crown land. Second, they have said they will retain the current pasture managers and other on site staff (riders mostly) if they want to continue to work on the pastures. And third, they say they will strive to establish a governance model for the lands that will include non-grazing interest groups as well as the livestock organizations and local grazing patrons. In other words, environmental NGOs will have a place at the table and a chance to influence the decisions on how the lands will be used. Of course, it remains to be seen how that will work in actuality, but no one else--certainly not the provincial government or the livestock organizations--are making any serious overtures toward people and organizations that want to protect the ecological integrity of these grasslands.

3. They have Carl Neggers on their side. Who is Carl Neggers? Well, oddly enough, Carl used to be the Director General of the PFRA. He knows the pastures system, and believes in the value of keeping ecologically sensitive and endangered land like this in the public trust. He understands the PFRA system’s origins in the Dirty Thirties, the taxpayer investment over the past 75 years restoring the lands to health and serving local livestock producers, and he was there through the last years when there was increasing pressure from Federal politicians to cut the pastures loose. Carl is a passionate believer in the “triple bottom line” of people, profit, and planet, a big thinker who is convinced that there is a way to bring economic benefits to some First Nations communities while at the same time protecting that long investment Canada has made in protecting some of the largest and best remnants of native grassland ecology.

4. Finally, there are some moral and historical reasons that must be considered, a few troublesome little facts about the way we cleared this land of buffalo and Indians before we could turn it into farms and towns. These 1.6 million acres are the closest thing we have to the way the world looked before our forbears exterminated the buffalo and drove the plains peoples onto reserves. If this proposal contains even a remote possibility of bringing a bit more justice and mutual respect into the relations between settler peoples and Aboriginal people, then it must be given a fair and honest chance to have a moment in the sun. I believe it has at least that and perhaps a lot more.

Who knows? I am just enough of a dreamer to wonder if this could be the start of something restorative and healing not merely for our beleaguered prairie ecosystems, but for the two solitudes of prairie peoples who both need desperately to get back in touch with the real world of grass and sky and song.

Buffalo at Grasslands National Park, Hamilton Greenwood

Here is the actual text of the media release:   Community Pastures Cooperative: a First Nations Sustainable Land Management Joint Venture   First Nation Chiefs present a cooperative business proposal to keep 1.6 million acres of ecologically sensitive grazing land in the hands of all Saskatchewan citizens.

Saskatchewan’s First Nations, lead by various TLE Chiefs, want to bring forward a cooperative business option called the “First Nations Sustainable Land Management Joint Venture” for the federal and provincial government(s) to consider regarding the discontinuation of the Community Pasture Program. Many provincial First Nations are concerned that the Saskatchewan Government intends to sell 1.6 million acres of the province’s most ecologically rich grasslands to a select few cattle producers.

“Whenever Crown land is being sold, there are some moral and legal imperatives that cannot be ignored,” said former FSIN Chief Roland Crowe. “There are obligations to consider our interests as first peoples and those of all stakeholders. We have an historical and economic interest in the way these pastures will be used and we do not want to see them parcelled up and sold off. Rather than placing them in the hands of a privileged few or worse in the hands of investors and non residents, let’s work together to find a way to conserve and manage these grasslands locally and in whole rather than in part for the good of all Saskatchewan people.”

With those concerns and that vision in mind, a steering committee representing various First Nations and chaired by former FSIN Chief Roland Crowe has been formed. Crowe is well known nationally for negotiating the Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE) agreement in 1992, which was an inclusive and cooperative approach that considered the interests of multiple stakeholders. The successful TLE approach is the underpinning for this current pasture business model. Crowe has contacted the Canadian and Saskatchewan Governments to present this management approach as a superior alternative to simply selling off the 62 community pastures. Roland Crowe said that First Nations believe that this land--some of the last large remnants of the prairie the way it was before settlement--should remain in the public trust and continue to be managed for both economic and ecological imperatives using an inclusive, transparent and third party based governance model.

Key management proposal elements include:

• The Province of Saskatchewan would retain title to all 1.6 million acres of provincial lands currently being managed under the federal government's Community Pasture Program.

• Pastures would be managed by the First Nations Sustainable Land Management Joint Venture retaining all 62 pastures under one coherent long-term vision, managing each landscape and ecosystem according to its particular needs and at the same high level of management fostered by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitations Administration (PFRA) over the past 80 years.

• An inclusive management board would modulate the balance of economic and ecological imperatives, with representation from First Nations, the federal and provincial governments, cattle producers, bison growers, research community and environmental NGOs.

• The initiative would bring economic benefits for First Nations for their work in managing the pasture system, balancing grazing, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity in ways that are both profitable and environmentally sound.

• The ecological value of the native pasture and the protection of species at risk and biodiversity would be a top priority, along with the current and long term grazing needs of small to medium-sized local stock growers.

• To take advantage of the knowledge base of current pasture management staff, a transitional plan would request that all existing managers and riders be offered the opportunity to be part of the new management system, with protection consideration to both pension benefits and salaries.

To develop this inclusive First Nations’ business model, the steering committee has engaged the leadership assistance of Carl Neggers, former Director General of PFRA who has significant experience with the highly successful Community Pasture Program.

“Managing grazing lands used by local cattlemen is nothing new for Saskatchewan First Nations” said Neggers. “In fact; several pastures that were established on reserves by the former PFRA were turned over to First Nations management and continue to serve the economic interests of local livestock producers to this day.” Neggers believes that under the proposed third party joint venture approach, enabled through a sound and inclusive business model, this pasture management initiative should appeal to the various stakeholders and still achieve important public policy goals. “History has proven that these lands are better managed and more viable from both a business and ecological perspective as contiguous blocks” said Neggers.

From the First Nations point of view, it is a viable and cooperative joint venture business opportunity that appeals to their traditional understanding of using and sharing the fruits of the land in sustainable ways.

Further Information:

Carl Neggers, SM Solutions Inc



Former Chief – Roland Crowe


Killdeer Badlands, Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Some good news: a politician who gets it

pronghorns on native grassland, by Hamilton Greenwood

Lately, this space has not been much for sunshine and lollipops, particularly since the Saskatchewan government announced its plans to sell off the last functioning grassland ecosystems in Canada. But this week some good news came my way from our more enlightened neighbours to the west in Alberta.

Now, despite all evidence to the contrary, I do not believe that our politicians are villains. For the most part they are just good ol’ Saskatchewan boys who still see the province the way it was presented to them in Grade Five. Remember those cartoon maps of Saskatchewan that showed the north half covered with trees where moose and bear stood next to lakes in which fish leaped away from fishermen? And what was down south of the forest covering the rest of the province where most of us lived? Wheat fields of course, with farmers on tractors, grain elevators, and cattle in pastures, maybe a couple of cities, a potash mine or two, some oil pumps.

If there was anything natural and wild and worth preserving on that map it was clearly in the north, the forested area that the good Lord set aside for fishing, hunting, and tourism. Everything else had been divinely ordained for farming as anyone could see.

When you talk to someone who carries such a map in his head and try to argue that grassland has an ecological value and must be protected your words have nowhere to go. Tell them that there should be a transparent public process before disposing of native grasslands and that they should consult with biologists or environmental groups or First Nations and they just look at you with blank stares. Huh? The map says this part of the province is for farming. Look, can’t you see the farmers on tractors, the cows?

Dr. Neil Brown, Calgary McKay-Nosehill MLA
Even so, there is hope. There are politicians who get it. Or at least one, anyway. Not here but in Alberta, where Dr. Neil Brown, (PC) MLA, Calgary MacKay-Nosehill is developing a private members bill, Bill 202, that would bring some transparency and public process to protect public lands that are available for sale to private interests in southern Alberta.

If Brown’s proposed bill is passed, any government reports documenting wildlife habitat on land put up for sale would have to be made publicly available. Even more important, the public would have an opportunity to comment for 90 days before the land could be sold.

Given our current situation in this province, a bill like this would be most welcome indeed. It does not go so far as to say that some lands should remain in the public trust if endangered species are on the land or if the science available advises the highest level of protection, but it is a good first step toward understanding the ecological value of public lands and letting the public intervene in a sale.

Dr. Brown knows well that if the bill did call for a mechanism to prohibit sale of public lands that he would not be able to get any buy in from his fellow legislators, especially those with the cartoon maps in their heads. As it is, there has already been some push back within the Alberta government about the bill, which will be presented in the legislature sometime in late October or early November.

All in all, we have to be grateful for an effort like this one and support it as a first step. The environmental NGO community has gotten behind the proposal, with the Alberta Wilderness Association, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and Alberta Conservation Association all so far having endorsed Bill 202. More will do likewise and for what it’s worth I have told Neil that he has my support too. I sincerely hope he can get it past the folks with cartoon maps in their heads.

If you are so inclined you can send a letter or email to the Alberta Minister of Enrivonment and Sustainable Resource Development at the following coordinates:

Honourable Diana McQueen
5136B - 52 Avenue
Drayton Valley, AB
Canada T7A 1S5
Phone: (789)542-3355
Toll-Free: 1-800-542-7307
Fax: (780) 542-3331

these guys have no doubts about what prairie is for--image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Out of province investors may be eyeing our pastures

Ten or twenty years after these signs disappear who will own the pastures? 
The Saskatchewan government says it wants to sell the federal pastures (until recently known as the PFRA or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Association pastures) to local farmers. Ag minister Lyle Stewart says that they intend to sell the pastures one by one to the “patrons groups” made up of the cattle producers who have been grazing them.

That sounds so reasonable and nice, tugs at those strings we all keep in our stubblejumper hearts. What could be better than local Saskatchewan people banding together to gain control over the land that they need to raise their livestock? It’s almost like those first agricultural co-operatives we remember fondly from before the days of Viterra and NAFTA.

But hold on here. The price of land in this province is leaping well beyond the reach of the small to medium sized family farms that the Sask Party claims to embrace in its messaging. And the prices are expected to go higher. It’s tempting to blame the galloping land prices on the current government but unfortunately the Sask Party doesn’t have a corner on messing up the conditions small farmers depend on to make a living.

Land prices quickly doubled after the NDP changed the out of province ownership rules in 2003 to allow Canadian buyers to purchase as much Saskatchewan farmland as they like. A few restrictions remain on foreign ownership of agricultural land but who knows? Smart lawyers might be able to help investors get around them.

Paul Hanley’s column on the issue in the Star-Phoenix recently used the following quote from an online article titled, “Foreign Ownership of Saskatchewan Farmland”, on the website of the MLT law firm.

“Saskatchewan has received a lot of attention in the world press and investment community over the past several years. In particular, investment in Saskatchewan farm land has been on the radar of some of the world's most prominent investors for several years."

The MLT article goes on to say that although foreign buyers can't legally buy Saskatchewan farmland, "there are some narrow avenues that, with careful planning, may allow foreign investors to obtain an interest in Saskatchewan farm land." That should be enough to scare anyone concerned about the way farmland is used in this province.

So what does this mean for the 1.8 million acres of critically endangered grassland that the Saskatchewan government is putting on the market? It could mean that while the prices may be far too high for the local grazing patrons to afford on their own, all that money waiting at the border for those fast return land investments will find its way into the hands of the patron groups. And it won’t be a gift.

The investors will have their upside and expect to gain control over the land within a certain time frame or they will have covert control over the way the land is used right from the beginning. Either way, before long, Canada’s greatest prairie conservation lands--nurtured through 75 years of publicly funded management and oversight--could end up in the hands of businessmen whose addresses are in Calgary, Toronto, or Vancouver. Or even farther afield if the lawyers at places like MLT are able to find the loopholes and workarounds that will let foreign investors in on the game.

Right now, the Saskatchewan government requests identification from out of province buyers to verify the land will remain in Canadian hands, but as Mark Folk, GM of the Saskatchewan Farmland Security Board, said in the paper this week, some Canadians may already be buying land to hold for foreign investors.

But surely this can’t be happening with the pasture lands too. If the local cattlemen in those “patron groups” are being approached by people with out of province money, surely they realize that these investors will sooner or later take control of the pasture and do what they want with it: sell it for a profit, or set terms that will make it impossible for small operators to make a decent return grazing. Either that or the investor-profiteers will push the stocking rates so high they will ruin the land. No one benefits from that. . . .or do they?

A friend reminded me of another factor in this quagmire of unenlightened self-interest threatening to swallow up the PFRA grasslands. The average age of the men in those patron groups is well above fifty. Most of them only need a few more good years before they sell out and retire. Many in the patron groups might be happy just to have a few years of grazing at reasonable rates to bridge them over and whatever happens after that in the long term--well that is out of their hands, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, Canada’s cattle herd is dropping fast and with rising feed grain prices things are not looking good. Someone showing up with enough money to get the patron groups some cheap grazing for ten years might just look like a savior, and who can blame a man who is just wanting to retire comfortably? It doesn’t take a business genius to imagine the kind of quid pro quo corporate investors might propose to a group of cattlemen desperate for cash.

I want to believe that the Brad Wall government is not doing this on purpose, or turning a blind eye as the patron groups make deals with devils from out of province, but it is beginning to look like they could easily make a show of working with “local patron groups” to sell the PFRA pastures, while using or at least allowing them to act as a cover of local legitimacy hiding the fact that the land has been sold (or will ultimately be sold) to out of province land barons.

Lyle Stewart, our Agriculture Minister has assured us that all the lands sold will have conservation easements, but the provision of conservation easements is not enough to conserve the biodiversity and carbon and soil of the grasslands. Conservation easements are never monitored properly and at best might (and only might) prevent the owners from outright ploughing. There are a thousand ways to ruin a pasture and degrade its ecological value that have nothing to do with ploughs and everything to do with human cupidity and ignorance.

If we let the Saskatchewan Government sell the community pastures to groups supported by hidden backers from out of province, the local patrons now being used as tools of capitalization will be soon cast aside. Twenty years from now, how many local farmers with forty or sixty head of cattle will have access to these lands? How long will it take to clear the land of small, local livestock operations and replace them with a kind of agriculture that better serves the interests of investors?

We can be fairly certain that land prices will continue to rise, and when they go high enough the helpful investors from out of province will do what capitalists always do: sell high to cash out. And the highest prices may come from offshore investors, especially if Saskatchewan buckles to pressure to further liberalize restrictions on foreign land ownership. Before long, there could be a new kind of absentee landlord owning the grasslands that have for 75 years been conserved as the crown jewels of prairie conservation in Canada.

This is the central reason the PFRA pastures must be kept in the hands of all Saskatchewan people.
Once the land is no longer part of the public trust and is in private hands, the economic benefits will outweigh any ecological considerations and will serve distant investors instead of the local farm communities. Will land corporations from Ontario or Beijing care what happens to the burrowing owls and Mormon Metalmark butterflies on the pastures?

It is never in the interest of local people to allow the commons to be cleared, to have their access to and benefits from local pastures be thrown aside. If we stand by and let these sales happen, Canada’s richest grassland remnants will before too long be cleared of the activities and ecologies that serve the local community so that industrial agriculture and other kinds of development (oil and gas for example) can have exclusive and unimpeded control.

Golden eagles like this one hunt on the pastures, photo courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Why the community pastures must not be sold

Mule deer on native grassland, by Hamilton Greenwood
There are many disturbing elements to the Saskatchewan Government’s plan to sell the more than 700,000 hectares of grassland habitat and grazing lands (see recent posts here), but the one that I think is most shocking of all is that Canadians no longer seem to even notice when the Government of the day sells off a massive piece of the Commons to private interests.

We sleepwalk while our elected leaders, following their blind faith in the private sector and the marketplace, sell the farm to avoid costs and bring revenue into a treasury that perhaps is not collecting as much potash revenue as they had projected.

If we do not speak out against this kind of action, the Brad Wall government is justified in believing its own ill-founded assumptions: i.e. environmental protection and policy is a hindrance to economic growth, and the economy comes first and if that means other things have to suffer, well that’s just the way it is. (Read Paul Hanley's excellent piece in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix this week for some thoughts on how the pastures might end up in the hands of out-of-province capital.)

In this line of thinking, nothing is as valuable as the revenue and (I would say dubious) economic benefits of privatizing the grasslands: not the endangered species, not the small farmers and local communities who have for generations depended on these pastures, and certainly not the millions of dollars of investment made by Canadians over the years to conserve the prairie and ensure that it will be grazed sustainably. Perhaps worst of all, the ecological goods and services of biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water and soil conservation provided by well-managed native grass seem to have zero value to us compared to the one-time gain of selling the land off.

Sage flats, by the talented and generous Hamilton Greenwood

But that is the important fact to remember here. No matter how many millions the provincial government scoops into the treasury by selling the 700,000-plus hectares, those dollars only happen once. Meanwhile, the annual economic, social, and ecological benefits that Canadians have enjoyed for seventy-five years from these well-managed pastures all begin to erode as the new owners change the way the land is used and managed and the kind of access that is allowed (the pastures have always been open for hunting and fishing, research and other activities by permit).

Research sponsored by the PFRA program a few years ago estimated that each 100 acres in the community pastures program contributed $2109 in value to Canadians. Another study concluded that "the value of private and societal benefits (of the pastures) to all Canadians was 55 million dollars annually." A one time sale will look good in the revenue side of the balance sheet for one year, but after that if the land is misused by the new private owners all of the value to Canadians will disappear into private pockets and the ecological value will be severely degraded.

People often ask me where the meadowlarks have gone or why they never see prairie chickens or crocuses in spring any more. Well folks, we have let the market turn grassland into a cropped world of wheat and canola that is getting rid of even small patches of weedy pasture. We are down to 17% of our native grassland in Saskatchewan and Brad Wall wants to privatize the last and largest remnants for a few dollars on his balance sheet.

Wake up from your slumber, Saskatchewan people: the native prairie is what nurtures us, body and spirit. Think of your mother and the life she gave you. Some things have given so much to us they must never be made into commodities for the privileged few to exploit.

Sharp-tailed grouse on lek, by Hamilton Greenwood

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