Saturday, February 23, 2013

Fresh inspiration at PCESC 2013

On Thursday I had a chance to talk to biologists, ranchers, economists and prairie conservationists about Saskatchewan's community pastures. It was the tenth Prairie Conservation and Endangered Species Conference in Red Deer, a four day gathering of the clan that helps us all to return with new enthusiasm to our work in helping to conserve prairie wildness.

Joining me on the podium were Lorne Scott (representing Nature Sask) and Carl Neggers (representing the First Nations who are trying to attract partners for a joint venture management proposal). Bryce Burnett, who sits on the interim board for the new Community Pastures Patrons Association of Saskatchewan, was to be with us speaking on behalf of patrons; however, with the weather turning cold he had to stay home with his calving heifers. He was good enough to send along a statement we could read to the crowd and that worked very well.

I love these conferences for all kinds of reasons--meeting some of the key thinkers and researchers doing terrific work on grassland conservation and species at risk; seeing all the new faces, the young people who are taking up the torch and bringing new energy into the circle; hearing inspiring talks from people who have for decades gone up and down the peaks and troughs of prairie conservation without giving up. You go home a little lighter in the heart, a little more certain that the work you do is worth getting back to even if there are no guarantees of success.

Our session was well received, with a spirited and cogent discussion filling the last half hour and then spilling over toward supper time when we gathered for the banquet. From the floor discussion came several interesting comments and ideas. Sue Michalsky, a rancher and biologist from the southwest who is part of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, said that according to one evaluation of PFRA programming, the costs of running the pastures system (over and above revenues from grazing fees) was about 6$ per acre per year. That amounts to a little less than $10 M per year.

As another person pointed out, that investment is a bargain considering the value of the ecological goods and services that the pastures provide to all Canadians. Suren Kulshreshtha's widely respected study,  "Distribution of Public and Private Benefits on Federally Managed Community Pastures in Canada", pegs the annual carbon sequestration benefits alone at more than $20 million. Add in recreation, hunting, biodiversity, research, and soil conservation and you get almost $34 million. Add in the benefits to the grazing patrons and you have $54 million a year. Now $6 an acre is looking pretty cheap.

Putting dollars and cents to the ecological goods and services (EG&S) seemed to be one of the common themes at the conference--or at least the sessions I went to. Prairie conservationists have been talking about EG&S for years, groping in the dark for ways to compensate livestock producers who treat their prairie well and follow "best management practices." Progress has been slow and so far no one has come up with a scheme that works over the long term, but at this conference I thought I detected a shift.

For one thing, the term "natural capital" seems to have become mainstream.

There was an entire session on socio-economics of prairie conservation (I missed it unfortunately) analyzing costs and benefits and looking at the economics of BMPs. One session I enjoyed featured a young economist from the University of Alberta's Department of Resource Economics and
Environmental Sociology presenting on the topic "Employing economic instruments  to achieve conservation goals". Her powerpoint slides showing a matrix of economic choices brought back some bad memories from Econ. 101, but it was wonderful hearing someone bring fresh ideas to the question of incentives and disincentives.

There was an entire session with speakers presenting ideas on ecological goods and services, one on education and engaging youth, and another on citizen science. Heck, even Stephen Davis, one of our best grassland field biologists, was sounding like a darn good sociologist when he presented results from the South of the Divide project's survey of landowners.

As much as I love going to workshops on the migration of yellow-bellied racers and sex lives of longspurs, I appreciated this conference's new focus on the one species that can make a difference in conservation. "Engaging people in conservation" was the theme, and people were there in excellent numbers. Almost 400 of us, engaged and engaging one another, exchanging handshakes, email addresses, brochures, and ideas.

We wrapped up yesterday with a triumphant summary from conference rapporteur, Canmore's Kevin Van Tighem--former superintendent of Banff National Park, a great defender of prairie and the author of several wonderful books.

Kevin (who has been helping me in working through a draft of my new book) was gracious enough to email me the entire text of his wonderful summary. Here are two segments among many that resonated for me:

In this first one he is starting to list some of the encouraging things he witnessed at the conference:

1.       Rather than letting the complexity and unknowns and risks of economic innovation discourage us, there is some amazing work being done to quantify ecological goods and services like native prairie restoration, carbon capture, wetland recharge and so forth, and then to develop economic instruments that can enable those whose stewardship of private lands ensures a continuing or renewed supply of those benefits to profit economically from them.   This is probably, to me, some of the most exciting and important work underway today because it goes both to reversing the loss of prairie Canada’s ecological wealth and revitalizing and renewing rural economy.  Farming is not just about producing food; it is about sustaining land.   Society values both.  The market should reward both and, frankly, ecological goods and services are worthy of public investment.  We’ve certainly never had difficulty investing public funds in ways that degrade ecosystems, even though I can’t think of any credible argument that the degradation of ecosystems is in the long-term public interest.  So it’s way past time for government to redirect public investment into incentives and rewards for things that are truly in the public interest – living landscapes, clean air and water, vitality, wholeness – restored and vibrant ecosystems.  In other words: a future worth living in and a future where we can still know ourselves as prairie people because the prairie, the whole prairie, is still there.

This second excerpt expresses a thought that was dawning on me as I listened to people speaking about market instruments and EG&S: perhaps we need to approach the pastures question from the other end of things: instead of trying to convince the public that it needs these pastures maintained well and protected in perpetuity, look for ways to deliver products from the pastures that consumers will want to buy because they are bird-friendly, grassland-friendly, and carbon offsetting. As organic beef producer, Keith Everts, said on the last morning, we get lots of fair trade from other places; it's time for some fair trade Canada.

[Note Kevin's deft reference to working with First Nations on the community pastures]:

This truly is a time of “dangerous opportunity”.  The motivators today – the levers that can deliver successes we could only have dreamed of before – are, ironically, the very threats that frighten us most.
Climate change for example:  yes, it adds new vulnerabilities in our stressed and fragmented prairie ecosystems but it has also created huge social license issues for the energy industry and governments who rely on their profits.  Meaningful, tangible and lasting protection of prairie ecosystems – whether through new Heritage Rangelands in Alberta or innovative First Nations Joint Ventures on Saskatchewan’s community pastures – can go a long way towards repairing the damage others’ blunders have caused to Canada’s social license and reputation.  

Health and sustainability concerns are increasingly motivating consumers to seek out products they can feel good about, whether that be Forest Stewardship Council certified wood, bird-friendly coffee or sustainably-produced beef.   The markets are finally ready to help us conserve prairie and reward enlightened stewardship. 
image by Allan McKeigan

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