Tuesday, July 9, 2013

What do we mean by “professional managers”?

Clint Christianson showing us Val Marie PFRA pasture  (image courtesy of Colin Hubick, Red Hat Studios)

[First, look at this video based on footage Colin Hubick shot on the BirdLife tour. He is hoping to get some funding to make a full documentary on the PFRA story.]

One of PPPI’s six principles on how the PFRA pastures should be transitioned says that any new system should “utilize professional pasture managers”. When we drafted those principles way back in March, I remember agonizing over that word, “professional.”

I was worried that people might think we believe hired pasture managers always do a better job than the guys who manage their own native range that they lease or own privately. Or that there are no patrons who have the skills and capacity to manage native grass pastures themselves. Of course that is not true so we looked in vain for other ways of saying what we meant but it was hard to do it without a lot of explaining. Maybe now is a good time to try.

First, though, it is important to say that anyone who is making money managing their land is by definition a professional. And most of the cattle producers who graze Crown lease land are very skilled professionals. They learned from their forbears that overstocking will hurt them in the long run, and that it is not wise to use too much of the resource. Many of them take advantage of training and advice offered by government extension programs, but they start from a base of traditional knowledge that must be recognized and valued.

So, what’s the problem? What would happen to the PFRA pastures if each one was sold to a single rancher who comes from that tradition of stewardship? As long as the land was managed by that single rancher, I believe that the ecological condition and biodiversity of the pastures would become more or less be much like the rest of our Crown lease land—which means it would be pretty good on average—some terrific, others less so.
Ian McCreary, Chair of Community Pastures Patron Association of Saskatchewan (image courtesy of Colin Hubick, Red Hat Studios)

By and large the Crown lease land in Saskatchewan is well managed and still good habitat for birds and other native species that are in trouble. But, here’s the rub. If we sell these great pieces of grassland to private ranchers, not only do we put hundreds of small to mid-sized cattlemen out of business, there is nothing to guarantee that sound management over the long term. The first buyer’s good stewardship will only last as long as they own the land and keep it in one piece. Sooner or later they will sell or die and the second buyer may not be from the longstanding Saskatchewan tradition of good stewardship. They could claim undue hardship and get a court to remove the conservation easement that protects the land from cultivation. Or simply subdivide the land and sell it in parcels, or graze it much more heavily. Once it is no longer owned by the Crown, anything is possible.

However, the Province is telling us that, instead of selling the land, they plan to lease out most of the PFRA pastures to groups of the existing pasture patrons—some of which are ten, twenty, or thirty strong. Now, instead of a single cattle producer/steward making the management decisions in his own long term best interest, which often coincides with conservation interests, you have ten or twenty cattlemen with varying ideas of how the land should be stocked and managed.

Without an independent “professional” (for lack of a better term) management system that is the final word on how many cattle go where and when and how much grass to keep back, there is bound to be at best a few disagreements and a low common denominator of management that over time will push the land harder than it has been under the PFRA system. At worst, you may well end up with the scenario described in Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons argument: i.e. “the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one's self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group's long-term best interests.” (Wikipedia)

How would that tragedy look on a former PFRA pasture? Well, it would look like many (some would say most but not all) of the “co-op” pastures in the province, where the land is divided up into smaller fields and each member gets his own piece to graze more or less as he sees fit. No unitary management system, no co-mingled herds managed in a system that is based on a coherent plan. Short term interests win out and over time you get degraded pastures and reduced biodiversity and habitat for endangered species.

PFRA patrons that I speak to are concerned that, if the lease rates, taxes and other costs set by the Province are as high as they are being asked for, there will not be enough money left on the table for them to afford hiring an independent manager who sticks to a plan in good times and in bad. Rest-rotation systems would be replaced by season-long grazing in fields that are too small. And if market or weather conditions go the wrong way, there will be pressure to use the grass more heavily than they would like to.
Clint Christianson, Val Marie rancher and long time patron of Val Marie and Lone Tree PFRA pastures (image courtesy of Colin Hubick, Red Hat Studios)

The overall productivity of the land will drop over time, hurting the cattle producers. That in turn hurts the local community, and degrades the public asset we invested in for more than 75 years restoring the ecology and biodiversity of these conservation lands.

Finally, there is another side to what we mean by “professional” management. And that is a management system that is accountable to the public and its interest in the ecological wellbeing of the land. Such a system would have to balance conservation values with economic/grazing values and settles on a lower stocking rate to strike that balance—just as the PFRA always did. Range managers will tell you that Crown lease land is generally stocked at a higher rate than the PFRA pastures have been. That is part of the reason why, on average, the PFRA pastures have for example been superior bird habitat, especially for species that like longer grass and a lot of carry over in their habitat.

No matter how good a private steward might be with his land, if he is paying for a higher stocking rate set by the Province he will be inclined to stock at that rate. And the Province, under the NDP and the Sask Party, has been all too willing to push the land to pull in maximum revenue for the treasury. In a better world, all of our publicly owned native grasslands—Crown lease and community pastures—would give the cattlemen a lower lease rate and keep the stocking rates low enough to ensure that our pastures are good for both cattle producers and a wide range of species at risk.

That dual management for both cattle and biodiversity and ecological health is what we need to find a way to retain from the PFRA model—both by recognizing, and fostering the knowledge of our cattlemen, and by connecting it with a management system that will ensure that they are not left holding the bag for species at risk and all the other public benefits that you and I receive from them.

So many of our ranchers are terrific stewards—anyone who travels in the southwest of the province can see that--but we have an opportunity here with the transition of the PFRA lands to do something that will ensure that that ethic will be a part of the way our publicly owned grasslands are managed and protected for everyone’s benefit. We need to find ways to protect that ethic, to recognize it, foster it and divide the costs of being a good manager among all Canadians. How we work that out would require a discussion that brings together agriculture and conservation, economy and ecology—but the discussion will have to begin with the people who live and work on the land.

Photographer Branimir Gjetvaj at work on Val Marie Pasture (image courtesy of Colin Hubick, Red Hat Studios)

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