Thursday, January 22, 2015

More signs of hope for Saskatchewan's pastures

mixed grass prairie close-up at a community pasture

Last night, as I sat listening to Jason Unruh’s lecture on his research into how the oil industry is affecting grassland birds (a terrific talk and part of the Prairie Conservation Action Plan’s (PCAP) speakers series—soon to be posted on PCAP's Youtube channel), I looked around the room at the others sitting in the seats, all of us keen to hear what Jason would say about oil and these vulnerable prairie birds.

There were members of Public Pastures-Public Interest, and there were students and scientists who focus on grassland ecology. There was a staff member of the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan, PCAP people, a couple of provincial government biologists, at least two federal government employees, and an assortment of others who volunteer with, work for, or at least support the non-government organizations that are trying to conserve our remaining grassland.

Three years ago, most of us took it for granted that there would always be a federal community pasture system (which we still call the “PFRA,” or Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration). It had been there for seventy-five years, managing large expanses of native grass for the wider public interest and providing affordable grazing for local cattle producers. Surely not even the Harper Conservatives would be so foolish as to discontinue such an effective model of agricultural sustainability.

We were wrong. In March, 2012, the Government of Canada trashed the PRFA along with many other vital environmental programs in the nation, sending the pasture lands back into provincial hands.

Looking around that room last night, I saw many people who have, one way or another, done their part in the intervening three years, to make the best out of a bad political decision--many from within government departments and agencies. Not all of us have had the privilege to speak our minds in public on the issue, but most have found their own way to contribute to the cause of protecting these invaluable ecological treasures as they make the perilous passage from federally-funded programming to private leaseholder grazing corporations.

The first ten out of the sixty-two Saskatchewan pastures were handed over last summer to the new patron-run grazing corporations: McCraney, Estevan-Cambria, Excel, Fairview, Ituna-Bon Accord, Keywest, Lone Tree, Newcombe, Park, and Wolverine (even the names of these places carry a certain poetic weight).

The transition for these first ten through the chute has not been easy, but they had a wet summer with no shortage of grass and could look forward to record high beef prices. Throughout, the cattlemen have acted with honour and remarkable composure in the face of terms and conditions that at times seemed all but impossible. They get the lion’s share of the credit for pulling together and devising business plans on short notice and in the absence of sufficient information. But the terms of their leases would’ve been much less favourable had it not been for the pressure exerted on their behalf by the Community Pastures Patrons Association ofSaskatchewan, which was formed in the wake of the announcement in March, 2012.

Just this week, we saw another example of the courage and wisdom of community pasture patrons in the face of this maelstrom of change. Confident in their own abilities to continue managing their shared pasture (after all, they each manage their own private holdings), the patrons of Lone Tree Community Pasture nonetheless made the decision to sign a management partnership agreement with theNature Conservancy of Canada.

I was not surprised when I heard it was Lone Tree. I remembered a moment during the Atwood tour two summers ago, when Lone Tree's committee chair, Clint Christianson spoke to us most eloquently about their lives and all that was at stake. "It's all native grass from here to Val Marie," he said, his voice cracking with emotion and pride. Clint has the kind of character and courage that made this deal with NCC come into the light of day.
Clint Christianson (left) image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj
Under the terms, NCC's Saskatchewan Region will work with Lone Tree’s pasture shareholders and manager to record best practices for management of the 33,697-acre pasture. Paying for some of the costs of management, they will also consult on conservation practices and develop a best practices guide that will be made available to other community pasture groups.

With this kind of creative solution fostering new connections between cattle producers and an organization like NCC, the road ahead for Saskatchewan’s community pastures is looking a little brighter today.

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