Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Red Williams: province is abandoning its role of protecting land from cultivation

Crown grasslands that are sold may be broken

Red Williams, professor emeritus of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine from the University of Saskatchewan, has published this week some comments on the Province of Saskatchewan's recent announcement that it has decided to sell some of its leased grasslands formerly protected under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act.

In his 89 years, Red has seen agriculture go through a great deal of technological change as the prairie was converted into industrialized cropping landscapes. More than most of us he knows what has been lost and knows the cost of short-sighted agricultural policy. Here is the text of a note he sent out earlier this week in his newsletter, which he still pens regularly from his home in Saskatoon:

Lease Land for Sale
The Saskatchewan government has taken one more step in the ideological trend that has been evident over its tenure. The land previously held or leased with restrictions on its use has been a contention for years. The larger ranchers and farmers have wanted to have title to their leased land in a long time lease while the smaller operators would prefer that it continue as is because of the cost of purchase. The claim by the Minister of Agriculture that it is alright because the lessees have been good stewards of the land is pure “poppy cock.” They have been required to maintain the land in its original state which is the objective of the government’s ownership whether the land is suitable for grain production or not.

We have still not seen the end of the move to sell-off the PFRA lands to individuals or groups and therefore exposing them to cultivation and resale. The whole picture is one in which land held in trust by government is being abandoned and eventually lost of its original purpose of protection from cultivation. It is all a matter of political ideology; whether you believe in conservation or in the total exploitation of the land resource.

With little expectation that an election will change the administration in the next term, it behooves the public to object as strongly as possible that the wholesale sale of protected lands is counter to the will of the majority.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Province confirms that public ownership is the best way to conserve the most ecologically significant lands

Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister, Hon. Lyle Stewart makes the announcement as Environment Minister Cheveldayoff looks on (photo courtesy of Saskatoon Star-Phoenix)
Last week the Province announced a new plan for the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act (WHPA) lands in Saskatchewan.The announcement declared that the following triage system would determine which, if any, Crown lands in the WHPA could be sold:

  • Approximately 1.7 million acres with high ecological value will be retained under Crown ownership and WHPA protection;
  • Approximately 1.3 million acres with moderate ecological value may be eligible for sale with the protection of a Crown conservation easement; and
  • Approximately 525,000 acres with lower ecological value may be eligible for sale, without restrictions.
While the conservation community might prefer that all of the lands be retained under WHPA and Crown ownership, this announcement introduces an important new "science-based" Crown Land Ecological Assessment Tool, or CLEAT that allows the government to "categorize lands based on their ecological value and risk of development."  

As much as we might like to see CLEAT protect all Crown lands from privatization, at this point I think we have to congratulate and give credit to the Province, especially to Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart, and to the hard-working biologists, ecologists, and agrologists in Saskatchewan Environment and Sask Agriculture. In cooperation with Saskatchewan's primary conservation NGOs (Nature Saskatchewan, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ducks Unlimited, and the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation), they have developed a model and a land management strategy that clearly places a high value on public ownership of our most ecologically significant lands. CLEAT recognizes that the strongest form of protection is sustained public ownership, and, to quote again from the Province's website

"supports implementation of the Southern Conservation Land Management Strategy and its goal of maintaining appropriate protection based on land’s ecological values. The tool considers a variety of factors, including:
  • natural cover
  • unique ecological features
  • road density
  • species at risk reports
  • size of the parcel
  • proximity to other conservation lands
  • activity on adjacent lands
The assessment provided by the CLEAT is considered, during the review of the potentially salable parcel, to determine whether land may be sold."

It would be fair to assume that the province's scientists and the conservation NGOs will ensure that the PFRA community pastures will also be put through the CLEAT system and this new "Southern Conservation Land Management Strategy".

As everyone who has experience with the PFRA pastures knows, these grasslands would rise to the top of the list based on that list of factors used in CLEAT, placing them in the category of land that must not be sold.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A visit to Chico Basin Ranch, Colorado

My wife Karen and I spent a pleasant four days in Colorado Springs area last week. Mike Siddoway, Associate Dean of Faculty at Colorado College, had invited me to come for a visit, read from the new book, The Road is How, and speak to a class in literature and science at the college.

The visit was wonderful in many ways--the class, getting to know birders and environmentalists, book lovers, and bright young students at the reading at the faculty club and afterward at a dinner hosted by Mike and his wife Chris, who teaches Geology at the college.

On the last day we arranged to have the education director at Chico Basin Ranch, Kathryn Baker, show us around this unique project east of Colorado Springs in the cholla cactus/shortgrass prairie. (See slideshow above.) Kathryn was a delightful host and answered my one hundred questions about how the ranch works. It seems to be a partnership between the State of Colorado and a private ranch family, based on a 25 year lease on the 87,000 acres.

The deal seems to be that the ranch operator, "Ranchlands", grazes the land under a cost scheme that commits them to follow certain conservation measures and to work with a range of conservation NGOs and government agencies to enhance and protect the ecological value of the grassland and its riparian zones. On the ranch's website, which is quite sophisticated, they say under conservation that they
"are fortunate to enjoy collaborative, working partnerships with respected organizations including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, the Colorado Native Plant Society, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, The Nature Conservancy, Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado State University Extension, Land EKG, and Holistic Management International."
It would be good to hear from some of these agencies and NGOs to see if they feel that the management of the ranch is returning the benefits that the State of Colorado wants to see from this public land, but it certainly looked impressive while we were there.

A bird banding station from the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (who endorsed the PPPI principles!), managers who seem genuinely concerned about conservation, a vacation ranch operation, apprenticeship programs, and open access for the public. I met two birders who were there for the day including the cheerful and very sharp Bill Maynard who writes a birding blog for the ranch.

As I traveled and spoke to staff and visiting birders, I had to wonder whether this kind of public partnership with private ranchers might work in Saskatchewan on public lands.

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