Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What is the hurry to dispose of the pastures?

This wild penstemmon (image by Hamilton Greenwood) is one of hundreds of native plants on the PFRA pastures that rely on the good stewardship of the PFRA pasture managers

Having spoken to many people in the conservation community in the last couple of days, it is beginning to become clear that last week's announcement by Lyle Stewart, the Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister, was not the good news that it seemed at first.

A leasing option sounds better if it means that more of the land might remain under provincial ownership instead of being sold to private interests. Once land is privatized, there is little recourse to defend its natural ecosystems and species at risk from development or damaging agricultural practices.
But the more I think about this new plan announced by the province, the more it seems that we are being rushed into a decision on the pastures that over the long run will not serve Saskatchewan people or our endangered and threatened prairie species very well. I believe we can do much better than Minister Stewart's plan, which would simply hand Canada’s most ecologically intact and well-managed native grassland remnants over to what he is calling “patron-controlled operation.” In the end, the question of whether the successful patron groups buy or lease the first ten pastures being put up for bid may not be as important as the question of how they manage the land. Mr. Stewart has told us not to worry because the “patrons have been grazing these pastures for years; they know this land better than anyone else; they are our best environmental stewards.”

Last night I called up Mert Taylor, pasture manager for Bigstick PFRA Pasture and one of the PFRA’s longest-standing pasture managers, to ask him what he thought about this statement, which comes from Minister Stewart’s release on Friday.

Mert is as straight a shooter as you are going to find in the federal pasture system. Here is what he said about Lyle Stewart's assurances that the patrons are "our best environmental stewards."

“What a load of crap. I'm sorry, but I’ve been involved nearly all my life with these pastures: thirty years as a manager, and I rode twelve years before that. The number of patrons I have met who would even know where their cattle are at any given moment is about 1%. They know we are going to take care of their cows, they will get the best grass around and get their shots at the right time. Now, sure, there are always a few producers who know a bit about grass, but 90% of them are only concerned about the bottom line. Most are just so busy trying to make a living they can’t take care of a pasture the way we do. And it only makes sense—they have to look out for their self-interest like any business person. They aren’t going to be able to manage the grass the way we have.”

Then I spoke to another pasture employee who wished to remain anonymous and asked him the same question.

"The patrons are not the stewards of the pastures. The pasture managers are, but they have done it with a lot of support from professionals--grass specialists, water management specialists, livestock specialists, species at risk specialists. If we turn the management over to the patrons, it will be disastrous. We make decisions based on what is good for the grass and that is not always what will serve this year's bottom line. The patrons are mostly thinking about their calf crop that will be sold in the fall, and that's about it. When I started working for the pastures, I didn't understand how fragile this land can be. If I go out and drive my truck through the grass today, that trail will still be there fifteen years from now. If this pasture is given to the patrons to manage I'll have to move away. I might come back once to see how it looks, but I wouldn't be likely to come back a second time."

this shot of a pasture managed by an owner-operator in the Qu'Appelle Valley
shows that not all of our cattlemen are good stewards

The PFRA employees, some of the last real cowboys on the prairie, are an irreplacable resource and a keystone to the future management of these globally important grasslands. We owe it to them, to the heritage of all the PFRA has accomplished, and to our descendants to retain these important caretakers--the real stewards of Canada's last great pieces of native grassland.

A closing thought. The government's own ecologists will tell you that these are the most important conservation lands in the province. Why are we treating them like any other chunk of farmland?

Tomorrow I will try to post a response to Lyle Stewart's ludicrous assertion (in his letter to the editor in yesterday's Leader Post) that the Federal Species at Risk Act will be enforced on any land sold or leased under his plan.

Grazing practices matter: this shot by Hamilton Greenwood shows the difference from one side of the
fence to the other under different operator-owners

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