|image from South of the Divide Conservation Action Program|
Several of the resolutions to be debated surprised me because they seem to run counter to the conservation ethic that the SSGA and most cattle producers generally support. Now, of course, these resolutions may well not be passed, but here are two of them that are going to leave SSGA’s partners in conservation scratching their heads:
Resolution #5 WHEREAS public funds are being forwarded to the Nature Conservancy of Canada from the federal and provincial governments. BE IT RESOLVED that the SSGA lobby the federal and provincial governments to cease financial support to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and other ENGO’s for the purpose of purchasing agricultural lands.
Resolution #6 WHEREAS conservation easements held in perpetuity devalue property and do not recognize future considerations. BE IT RESOLVED that the SSGA lobby the federal and provincial governments to revise The Conservation Easements Act to make conservation easements no longer than twenty five years.
Another resolution calls for changes to the Species at Risk Act.
Regardless of whether these resolutions get any traction at the AGM, it seems fair to say that they are a sign that an undetermined number of cattle producers do not like some of the primary tools we commonly use to protect native grassland and its species for the public good they represent. Conservation easements, species at risk legislation, and land trusts that purchase habitat are three legs of a four-legged platform that conservation NGOs and government agencies use to protect at least a few pieces of our remaining native grasslands (only 17 to 21% is left in Saskatchewan) into the future.
Before describing the fourth leg, it needs to be recognized that private cattle producers themselves have always applied their own platform of protection based on a culture and tradition of stewardship passed down from one generation to the next. This important platform of native grassland protection, practiced primarily in the southwest of the province, is what carried much of our remaining large pieces of mixed grass and moist mixed-grass prairie into the twenty-first century.
However—and this is where some people, conservationists and ranchers, for different reasons, may part ways with me—there was another factor that helped keep a few large tracts of native grass intact. What I am referring to here is the bargain struck between public and private interest on Crown native grassland.
The beauty of keeping grassland in the public domain and leasing it out to private cattle producers is that it leaves room for public policy to help with the handoff of land stewardship from one producer’s lifetime to his successor while ensuring that over time the land will not be significantly altered.
We all are drawn to the romantic ideal of the lone cattleman taking care of his native range far from the eyes of regulation and government. It has a strong emotional appeal and we all know examples to prove the theory. But the chink in the armour of entrusting grassland conservation entirely to the culture of private rancher stewardship is that even the best steward will die some day and he or she may not have an apprenticing child to takeover the legacy. Crown ownership or ownership by an NGO such as NCC allows us to retain an element of public involvement that allows the native grass to stay right side up regardless of how heavily or lightly the next leaseholder chooses to graze.
In my mind, the public plays a vital role in ensuring that our last remnants of native grass do not become ranchettes or cultivated fields, by providing a fourth leg shared by the two platforms of conservation maintained by NGOs and government agencies on the one side and private ranchers on the other. The individual cattle producer needs affordable lease rates and programs that help them sustain the ecological goods and services produced on rangeland, while the public and conservation groups need grazing animals and their managers to provide the kind of disturbance essential to healthy grassland diversity. This is the basis for grassland conservation that is working in various forms and to varying degrees of success all over the prairie landscapes of
North America—on community
pastures, National Grasslands, provincial and national parks, leased public
lands, and public grazing reserves: our remaining grassland commons.
Somehow, somewhere along the way many of
producers have lost faith in that leg of their conservation platform connecting
them to the public interest. They no longer see Crown land or land owned by
conservation NGOs as the ground where private and public interests can converge
to do the best job of protecting our native grass and its many rare creatures. Canada
This is why we hear that the leadership of the SSGA and the Saskatchewan Cattleman’s Association both would like to see community pastures and other Crown grasslands up for sale. It may also be the reason why the SSGA is entertaining resolutions that oppose conservation easements, the Species at Risk Act, and NCC’s purchase of native grassland.
All of which is fine, if they have a better idea, if they have a plan for protecting our dwindling native grasslands for future generations. Relying entirely on the goodwill and stewardship of the rancher tradition is not a plan. While we can say that the ethos of the private rancher protected the grass we still have in hand, there is the matter of the other 80 per cent of the native prairie in this province that disappeared when we placed it entirely in the hands of private landowners.
So, if we are to abandon Crown ownership of land and public involvement in the stewardship of native prairie, then what is the plan? How would those who drew up the SSGA resolutions propose that we replace Species at Risk legislation, land trust purchase of land, and conservation easements?
I would love to hear some thoughts from cattle producers on how we could make those changes and somehow do a better job of protecting our precious native prairie.