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


  1. I believe the province has committed to putting no break, no drain conservation easements on all native prairie grasslands. Shouldn't this be adequate protection? I am wondering if you know what percentage of native prairie was remaining 25 years ago?

  2. Thanks for the comment--I believe that the estimates for Sask in the 1990s were that we were down to somewhere between 20 and 25% of our native grassland.

    Unfortunately, rules against breaking grassland are not enough to protect the biodiversity and ecological services on native pastures. As anyone studying grassland ecology can tell you, there are many ways to abuse and severely degrade grassland that stop short of outright ploughing. To see what I mean all you have to do is count the bird species in a well-managed federal pasture and then do the same for a pasture that has been mismanaged.

  3. The Pastures will be taken care of properly if the proper rules are in place. Every decent cattle operation has proven that year after year. The hope is that community,conservation,and the cattle business can stay intact without the greed of the Corporate or Conservation Land Grabs. Its called balance and reality.

  4. Thanks for the comment. I'd like to learn more about your perspective. It sounds like you have some experience that might help me believe that the PFRA pastures will be treated as well as they always have been with stocking rates set to serve ecological as well as economic imperatives. If you have time to talk about it over a coffee, email me at


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