Thursday, August 30, 2012

A visit to ancestral landscapes in the Eastern Qu'Appelle

the village of Tantallon, a few miles west of the Manitoba border
Last weekend I travelled with my parents, now in their 80's, to the Eastern Qu'Appelle Valley to join family in laying to rest the remains of my last living aunt on my mother's side. If you read River in a Dry Land, you may remember the chapter "Bank Deposits" where I brought my mother and Aunt Doris back to the old homestead site for some reminiscing. The rest of this posting will be an annotated photo album but first here is a short excerpt from the opening of that chapter, which I wrote about 18 years ago:

As we walked, one memory arose, settled and faded into the next, spanning the years of their life in the house my grandfather built in 1921: the house they were born in seventy years ago; the house that was empty soon after and that became in my time a wind-worn monument to the floor-sweeping, pail-slopping existence that was once here, until it vanished leaving nothing but stories behind. Stories that weather the memory as peak moments capped and hardened by humour, grief, or drama--odd figures crystallized within the soft, eroding drift of days and left standing like hoodoos in the heart's terrain.

"the mansion"

This image shows the house we always called "the Mansion" in Tantallon, which I lived in very briefly one winter as a small child. My grandparents owned it at the time. It was a grand ediface right by the river. It looks like someone has been repairing it and perhaps had to stop working for some reason.

the United Church my parents were married in 60 years ago

My mother, the last remaining member of her generation, greeting relatives at the Valley View Cemetery

It was a windy day--many of the headstones in the cemetery are my ancestors, all Scottish, all settlers in the Eastern Qu'Appelle region

Big Bluestem at roadside
There were large patches of Big Bluestem grass and other native prairie plants growing right at roadside as we drove home along the valley bottom leaving Tantallon.

Yellow coneflower
Coneflower still blooming.

heavily wooded south slopes of Eastern QV
Tremendous poplar and oak forests in the Eastern Qu'Appelle once you get downstream of Round Lake.

Brian Hoxha and a new giant etching of the valley which will be at Nouveau Gallery soon
One of the happier moments of the visit was when Brian Hoxha showed me a new etching that will soon be on display at Nouveau Gallery in Regina.  

Brian, a Toronto-based artist who is also a "shirt-tail" relative of mine, comes back to the valley faithfully each August to sketch and paint for a month. I got to tell a little of his story in one of the last pieces in River in a Dry Land.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ranchers may be good stewards but the de facto steward is the marketplace

Mule Deer in native grassland, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
In today’s Leader-Post Bruce Johnstone has been good enough to give some more ink to this important issue. He allowed Agriculture minister Lyle Steward to respond to the concerns I have been expressing and then gave me a chance to speak again as well. The discussion in a public forum has been helpful, but I wanted to use this space today to begin to take a look at the Saskatchewan government’s PR talking points on this issue, the stuff Lyle Stewart used in his interview with Bruce, and which also fills their official responses to people who send in emails and letters on the matter.

The point that almost always gets trotted out first to justify this move to privatize more than a million acres of conservation land in the public domain is that “our ranchers are excellent stewards.”

That sounds so nice but what they are really saying is that “it’s ok to sell the last and best examples of 7,000 year old ecosystems filled with species at risk because the buyers will look after the land. You can trust these guys.”

Who wouldn’t want to trust a rancher? Many ranchers are good stewards, but there are two reasons why this argument is a way of covering up what is really happening to the land and to its local stewards:

1. No rancher or grazing co-op, no matter what its stewardship credentials, will last forever.

Once they are no longer merely patrons on the land, but own it, they will sooner or later end up selling. It is the second buyer more than the first that we should worry about. Once patron groups and ranchers have free title to the land, if something goes wrong, the co-op collapses, the market goes sour, or the owners die or move on to other things, the land will be put up for sale. Will it always be sold to another excellent steward? Not likely. There are a lot of people around the world now interested in Saskatchewan farm land as the best real estate deal on the planet. Few of them have stewardship on their minds.

Under the plan that Lyle Stewart and the Brad Wall government is implementing, there is nothing in place to provide for the stewardship of these rich ecosystems in perpetuity. There is nothing preventing new owners from sooner or later selling the land to really bad stewards. Conservation easements are a minimum because they may help prevent any breaking of the prairie (assuming it is monitored and enforced!), but a line of legal encumbrance written on the land title will not be enough to maintain the biodiversity that exists today on these unparalleled jewels of grassland conservation.

We have for centuries now been living under governments that have a habit of giving or selling to the few the great treasures that should always belong to the many. From the enclosure of the commons in Britain to the Hudson’s Bay land grant to the swindling of the Northwest from the hands of the indigenous peoples, we have seen this story happen again and again. Is it any wonder that we no longer seem to understand that the reason we keep land in the hands of the community is so that we all have some say over how it will be disposed of?

Once ecologically important lands become private, even if the initial owners are "good stewards", they will very likely be sold to someone else in a few years and once that happens there is no avenue for public discussion or influence over who will buy them or how they will be used. Keeping ecologically sensitive and rich lands in the public domain is one of the best ways to guarantee its protection in perpetuity, and to allow public interest to have a say in how it will be used.

2. The marketplace is the de facto steward for any grazing land that does not remain in the public domain with its capacity for oversight and conservation in perpetuity.

What exactly do we mean by “excellent stewards”? For people who know very little about the ecological needs of native prairie plants and animals, any landowner who hasn’t ploughed up his native grass is automatically a “good steward.” There might be roads all over the pasture, there might be areas that are grazed down to the nubs all summer long, there might be nothing protecting the creeks and sloughs from overuse, there might be leafy spurge and crested wheatgrass invading hundreds of acres, and the sprague’s pipits and sharp-tailed grouse might have vanished ten years ago, but, hey, the grassland hasn’t been ploughed so the owner gets a “good stewardship” sign to post at the gate.

Don’t get me wrong. Ranchers are not the enemy here by a long shot. The meat industry has been driving them to abuse the land for a long time with a cost-price squeeze that would challenge anyone’s ideals for sustainable grazing. Men and women who are trying to make a living grazing cattle will tell you that increasingly these days the real steward deciding how land will be treated is the marketplace. Consumers are demanding cheap beef and the grossly-consolidated meat packing industry controls exactly how that will happen, manipulating prices at the ranch gate and ultimately making it next to impossible for ranchers to take more ecologically sound measures and stock their land at rates that serve their own long term goals of maintaining healthy grass. Private operators can seldom afford to implement the kind of best management practices enforced on publicly managed grasslands.

long-billed curlew in stipa grassland, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

And that is why anyone who works in grassland conservation or range management will tell you that there is a gradient of range quality and stewardship on our native prairie. On the top with the best practices are our federal pastures now under threat; beneath that are some (but by no means all) of the large crown land leases being grazed by the old traditional cow-calf ranchers (Peter Butala was one of these). Some of the provincial pastures and land trusts are about on par with this second standard.

Below that level are the rest who are just trying to make a living grazing private or Crown leased grassland but who, because of low prices and escalating costs, are not able to manage it as well. They may overstock some pastures, leading to overgrazing and poor carbon sequestration, and reduced biodiversity. In a couple of years of overstocking, riparian areas along creeks and sloughs are ruined, pernicious introduced species and shrubby growth begin to take over reducing the overall health of the grassland and degrading habitat for endangered native plants, insects, mammals and birds. Because the land is not ploughed we may also call these land owners “excellent stewards,” but the truth is the ecosystems are suffering and cannot compare to the health and biodiversity found on the large federal community pastures. Is any of this strictly the rancher’s fault? Absolutely not. Canadians all have an interest in maintaining healthy grasslands--for their carbon sink capacities (when grazed properly), for their sustenance of biodiversity and endangered species, for their work in maintaining water and soil quality, and for their cultural, historic, and recreational values as places to remember the days of buffalo and the wild prairie and to restore the soul in a spiritually stirring landscape.

If we have any interest in protecting these values we have to buffer our last best stretches of publicly-owned grassland from the bad stewardship of the market. And the way to do that is to keep them in the public domain. That, of course, involves some cost. Anything that is worth doing well for the common good costs taxpayers some money, whether it is health care, bridge maintenance, fisheries management or grassland management. In the Leader-Post interview, Lyle Stewart brings up their back-up argument, which is to say that Saskatchewan cannot afford the level of management that the federal government has been providing. I can certainly sympathize with this argument, but not because I want to save on my taxes. As I have said, these lands serve all Canadians, not merely Saskatchewan people or a few ranchers. That is why it always made sense for the federal government to maintain them. The Brad Wall Government should insist that Agriculture Canada contribute to a plan and funding for a proper transition to ensure that the regime of ecosystem management and grazing is handed over to the province in a way that gives us time to find a new way to recover more of the costs of maintaining this level of good stewardship.

Landscapes this rare and valuable always cost the public something to maintain them. It won’t be much--grazing fees should be able to recover most of the costs--but if there are extra costs to maintain values that do not necessarily put pounds onto the flanks of a steer, we must continue to pay for them with public funds as we always have with the federal pastures and as we do with the other important natural landscapes that we choose to protect in this country.

The federal community pastures program recovered most of its costs from user fees, but some of the programming and infrastructure did require some federal funding each year--and those are presumably the costs that the Harper government wanted to shed in passing responsibility for the pastures back to the provinces.

In this era where most lands and waterways are used in industry, it costs money to monitor, regulate, and manage that use with an eye out for the public good. Grasslands, like forests, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters that are used for economic gain, will simply degrade and cease producing the values we have always taken for granted if we ignore the costs of managing and maintaining them. If overuse or misuse prevents important life-sustaining ecologies from functioning at nature’s dynamic optimum, and natural regeneration processes are hindered by human enterprise (e.g. in forests, fire and other forms of natural disturbance are suppressed in favour of wood-harvesting), the work of bringing the land or waters back to health will involve even more costs. If we don’t make industry pay for it then we either pay for it with our taxes or we choose to not do that work and let our treasured landscapes and wild places slide into dysfunction, all to gain some short-term savings. Despite the best efforts of our Federal Government (see the recent omnibus bill), millions of dollars of Canadian taxes are still used every year to pay for the costs of mitigating and managing the use of public goods.

The Stephen Harpers and Brad Walls of this world, of course, want to reduce that to an absolute minimum. They have many strategies working for them, but how far are we going to let them take this particular self-destructive tactic of privatizing ecologically rich lands in the public domain so that we don’t have to incur the costs of buffering them from the depredations of the marketplace and industry?

Not surprisingly, it seems to be the recent whims of industry that are driving the Saskatchewan government to sell off vast stretches of land in the public domain. Their oh-so-rosy budget predictions are losing their bloom now as promised potash mines are being withdrawn day by day. Like all of us who come from Saskatchewan settler stock, though, these good prairie lads seem to know that when things get bad enough you can always sell the farm.

Pronghorn at sunset, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

News Coverage on the Sask. Grasslands being sold

photo by the amazing Hamilton Greenwood
 Thanks to people reading this space, the story of the provincial government selling the pastures is getting some coverage. Paul Hanley wrote a column today in the Stoon Star-Phoenix and and yesterday Bruce Johnstone wrote one for the Regina Leader-Post--both quoting from recent posts here on Grass Notes.

These grasslands are one of Canada's best models of the economy and environment working well together under the public oversight of government agencies. This kind of success in maintaining the public commons for the good of all does not come along very often in this world. We must not let it be squandered for a few dollars to be added to the Saskatchewan Party's efforts to balance the books in the face of sliding oil and potash revenues.

These 60 remnants of native grassland in Saskatchewan, as maintained under federal management for decades, are widely believed to be among the most important, well-managed chunks of native prairie on the continent. To sell them off, even with conservation easement and to the most well-intentioned of private owners, would effectively remove any possibility of continuing the level of ecosystem management that has made them into jewels of conservation and agricultural sustainability.

Because the grasslands are provincial Crown land, Stephen Harper may be able to wash his hands of any responsibility for them and the more than 31 species at risk they support, but as of today the 720,000 hectares in Saskatchewan still belong to the people--to you and me and our descendants.

Let's do everything we can to keep it that way.

How? For starters, we can fill Provincial Ag minister, Lyle Stewart's in-basket and email:

P: (306)-787-4300

F: (306)-798-3216

2405 Legislative Drive, Regina, SK, S4S 0B3

another image by Hamilton Greenwood

Friday, August 17, 2012

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

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


the following image also courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood


Monday, August 13, 2012

North American Prairie Conference, 2012

I have been away from computers for a good spell, hence the lack of posts here, but now that I am back I thought I would use this space to record a few random notes and questions that bubbled up for me last week when I attended the 23rd North American Prairie Conference (Here is a bit about the conference that appeared in the online version of a magazine called Woodlands and Prairies.)

I was invited to come speak at the conference and decided to use the platform to get people thinking about the loss of our federal pastures (see previous posts here).

I've said it before here, but meeting all of the passionate American tallgrass prairie volunteers at this conference (in its 23 years it has only been held in Canada twice) only convinced me all the more: people who work in tallgrass advocacy and restoration, having lost 99.9% of their type of grassland, are way ahead of the rest of grassland advocates. Can we skip the part where we lose the remaining 14% of our Saskatchewan prairie and just go directly to the enthusiasm and advocacy? Hmmm?

Candace Savage's new book, Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape,  should be read by every prairie person, because most of our cultural and ecological problems begin with the originating act of sacrificing our indigenous grassland human cultures and natural communities. It is just out and I was happy to get a copy at the conference, and have Candace, one of the keynote speakers, sign it for me. Still reading it, but I can tell you that it is a compelling narrative. This book delivers on its title and a whole lot more. It is a narrative of Candace's experience in digging into the truth of all that was destroyed by removing the first peoples and handing the prairie (the Cypress Hills in particular) over to private settlement. Should go on the shelf next to Stegner's Wolf Willow, Don Gayton's Wheatgrass Mechanism, and Sharon Butala's Perfection of Morning, which also illuminate the human and natural history of the Hills, our "last plains frontier". Candace's story, though, may be the best at revealing the disturbing details of just how the Hills were cleared to make room for settlement. As always with her books, this one is well-crafted, thoughtful, and full of the kind of assiduous research that brings new information to the reader.

Lots of tremendous research presented at the conference, as there always is at these events. Just wondering, though: when will we know enough about the habitat requirements of prairie organisms and natural communities to allow us to at least take a step or two forward in declaring what should be saved and what kind of grassland we might encourage or restore without creating sink habitats that are worse than doing nothing at all? And how we balance it across a large region of landscape so we can serve the needs of a full mix of species in crisis? Do we know enough yet to at least get started? When are our scientists going to begin telling the public and policy-makers what needs to be done to help these dwindling populations and ecologies?

A University biologist from Winona is my new favourite defender of prairie. His name is Bruno Borsari and his Italian accent and enthusiasm makes him about the most disarming, upbeat and heartening advocate for prairie you will ever meet. He spoke after me, not as a biologist, but as a man with a lot of heart who believes that art and imagination are vital in our efforts to bring back the prairie. We need a Bruno in every university across the Great Plains.

Believe it or not, there is a tallgrass prairie restoration project in Louisiana. The Cajun Prairie Restoration Society is going strong. No Saskatchewan Prairie Restoration Society, but there is one in Louisiana.

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