Saturday, August 31, 2013

Privatized Crown grassland being ploughed up this week

cultivating sage brush prairie in Montana
Long before the PFRA pastures issue arose, the Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture had already begun looking for ways to sell off Crown lands, including native grasslands. In 2009 they began trying to sell the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands (WHPA) by seeing if they could justify removing their designation as wildlife habitat. Conservationists spoke out against the privatization and WHPA lands are still in limbo today. Meanwhile, Sask Ag. has begun selling non-WHPA Crown land, including some native grassland that supports species at risk. Many of these properties are as valuable ecologically as WHPA lands but simply were not designated. Because they were not WHPA lands the sales happened without any conservation easements to prevent the new owner from ploughing the ancient prairie.

Well, the inevitable is starting to happen. Yesterday I received news that someone in the southwest of the province is plowing land that until recently was protected under the Crown. Apparently, an Alberta farmer bought the land from a Saskatchewan resident who had originally purchased title for it from the Province and then flipped it for a profit. Local people reported that the new owner has a hired man running a 24 foot breaking plough through the sod. So far, he has broken forty acres of native grass and 160 acres of crested wheatgrass. The land in question adjoins the west flank of the Govenlock PFRA pasture and therefore supports its ecological integrity as a single block of intact native grass.

The rumour is that the owner plans to break more native grass if the land produces well enough.
He is entirely within his rights as a landowner and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it, just as someone who owns title to tropical rainforest is entitled to log it.

This is why Public Pastures--Public Interest and prairie conservationists in general believe that the best way to protect our largest pieces of Crown grassland is to keep them under the Crown. Once they are sold to a rancher the land can be re-sold to someone who wants to plough it and plant crops or destroy it in other ways for profit. Conservation easements provide some protection but the legislation leaves room for the easement to be removed if a second buyer takes it to court and demonstrates undue hardship. Also, with no one monitoring the easements the government puts on Crown land before they sell it, there is little risk for a landowner who goes ahead and plows and then asks for forgiveness later. Still, if any Crown grasslands are sold--whether it is WHPA or not--it should have a conservation easement on it.

Our cattlemen in the southwest will tell you that there are areas where virtually all of the land is being bought up by Albertans--farmers and ranchers flush with oil and cattle money from just over the border where their Province gives them better terms on Crown lease rates, as well as a bigger share of the oil and gas income extracted off their land. This leads to an uneven playing field that is virtually guaranteeing that our cattlemen are not as competitive as their Albertan counterparts and will be out-bid for land time after time.

And with our aging ranchers in the South West and few of their children able to afford the costs of getting into cattle (again in part because our Animal Unit Month rates on lease land are much higher than Alberta's, Montana's or Manitoba's), our lands are going to go to out of province land lords--some of whom many not have the same conservation ethics that have always kept our native grass intact as habitat for species at risk.

And yet I meet cattlemen who say they like to have the option to purchase outright the land they lease from the Crown so they have more control over it. Well, folks, the down side of having that right and control is that the purchaser also has the right to re-sell and when he does the new land owner might do exactly what is happening now on the West side of the Govenlock PFRA pasture.

This province is long overdue for a thorough public review of all of our Crown native grasslands--co-op pastures, Provincial and Federal community pastures, and the 7 million acres of Crown grassland leased to private cattlemen. First, to find out what we have remaining,  and then to determine its ecological value (biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil and water conservation), its heritage resources (Metis and First Nations' ancestral sites), and its food security values, and then to decide in a full consultation with all stakeholders, how we want these incredibly valuable and endangered landscapes to be managed for the good of all and generations to come.
Val Marie PFRA pasture, image courtesy of Colin Hubick of Redhat Studios


  1. Trevor
    In terms of soil capability for agriculture, land in that part of the province is registered as “Class 4”. It contains land on soils that has severe limitation restricting the range of crops that can be grown, or require special soil conservation practices (or both). There is even moderate limitation for grazing production, based on soil capability data. What might be tempting to a perspective farmer is that the area is on moderately textured soils with slopes less than 5% (i.e. on more or less flat land). Perfect for running massive agricultural machinery. It is just a matter of time before the farmer realizes that he / she will not get much of a crop output from that particular piece of land. In 5 or 10 years we will probably going to use tax-payers money to seed that land back into a perennial grass cover.
    On the other hand, this area is extremely rich in biodiversity. The Northern Plains Conservation Network mapped the extreme SW corner of the province as the area providing suitable habitat for more than 45% of species from their “high priority list”. The NPCN priority species list includes species that are globally ranked as threatened or endangered, keystone species, and / or endemic bird species (the list is not limited to birds; it includes plants, mammals, birds, invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles).
    The extreme SW corner of Saskatchewan you are talking about is our biodiversity hotspot. While more civilized nations try to protect their natural and cultural heritage, we plow it over. It took us 75 years of running PFRA community pastures in attempt to mitigate the damage of ill-conceived agricultural policies and we are doing the damage all over again.

  2. Thanks for those thoughts and points, Branimir. Very interesting to consider, especially since so many people who justify selling Crown grasslands often do it by saying "no one would ever bother to try to grow crops in that stuff." Well, they are wrong, dead wrong.

  3. Isn't this exactly what everyone expected to happen? I wasn't the only one saying that the actual intent was to do something like that. There could be no other reason for selling off.

  4. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see Plains Bison roaming all over Southwest Saskatchewan instead of Oilfield equipment and Alberta rich factory farms. The NPCN has such vision for species at risk by agriculture industries.


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