Monday, October 16, 2017

Colonial Mindset Prevails on the Prairie: Tallying up the Sale of Crown Lands

“Sold a record number of lands that have no significant public, ecological or economic benefit through the strategically-focused 2015 Agricultural Crown Land Sale Program and The Wildlife Habitat Protection Act Moderate Ecological Value Land Sale Program. To some extent, this success was made possible by the new public online auction sales platform.”From Saskatchewan Agriculture’s 2016-2017 Annual Report

On Friday I received an email that included a link to a graph on the Ministry of Agriculture’s web page showing the dollar value of all the Crown lands that the Ministry has sold in recent years. I was going to post that revealing little graph here today but it mysteriously disappeared over the weekend and is no longer available online.

But I found the data anyway by digging through a bunch of old annual reports for the Ministry of Agriculture.

Let’s start with the baseline. How much Crown land did we have in the southern half of the province when the Sask Party took office and starting selling it off?

Well, according to the 2006 annual report for the Ministry of Agriculture (the year before the Sask Party came to power) the ministry was at the time administering “approximately 7.3 million acres of Crown land that is leased to farmers and ranchers or operated as community pastures.”

The annual report goes on to say that 3.4 M acres of that Crown land, “representing one-third of all wildlife habitat in the agricultural region, is reserved from sale and has specialized development restrictions under The Wildlife Habitat Protection Act. These natural areas make a significant contribution to maintaining existing wildlife populations and biodiversity across the agricultural region of Saskatchewan.”

Within a year of taking office, the Brad Wall/Bill Boyd government began selling Crown land at a discount, offering financing alternatives to cash sale. They stated their intention to sell approximately 1.6 million acres of Crown land. By 2014 they were eyeing up the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands to see how they might justify selling some of them off.

Here are the dollar figures and acreages from all Ministry of Agriculture Crown land sales from 2008 to today. (All data come from Ministry of Agriculture Annual Reports, but after 2012 they stopped reporting acres. However, I have estimated the acreages sold by extrapolating from the reported acreages for the earlier years, which work out to an average price of $300 per acre.)

From 2008-2009 annual report: $7 M in Crown land sales, selling approximately 23,000 acres

From 2009-10 annual report: “More than 161,000 acres of Crown Land, valued at $48 million were sold in 2009-10.”

2010-2011: 83,631 acres of Crown Land, valued at $25.4 million were sold.

2011-2012: $30.2 M (67,294 acres were sold); and the report says that since 2008, the ministry had sold 304,885 acres worth more than $91,000,000.

2012-2013: $28 M (93,000 acres sold)

2013-2014: $26 M (87,000 acres sold)

2014-2015-- $15.4 M, (50,000 acres sold)

2015-2016: $29.2 M, (100,000 acres sold).

2016-2017: $145.9 M, (nearly 500,000 acres sold).

That adds up to approximately 1.1 million acres of Crown lands in the south of the province that they have sold since taking office in 2007--15% of the Crown lands in the prairie ecoregion, one of the most endangered and least protected landscapes on the continent.

How much of that 1.1 M acres contained native grassland, wetlands, aspen parkland is anyone’s guess because no one inside or outside of government is keeping track, but much of it was formerly protected under WHPA and, as we have seen recently, there are Crown lands with native grassland and bush that were never in WHPA but are now being auctioned off in the next few weeks.

Our Crown lands—already so scarce in the south because 85% of the land has been privatized—are the last shadows of the prairies we were entrusted to share and protect together under treaty, the closest thing we have to land held in common for the benefit of all treaty people.

If we stand by and let this government sell them off, we will be abandoning any possible renewal of the spirit in which the treaties were signed, and inviting a new form of colonization taking us even further from any legitimate social contract with the land and its first peoples.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Conservation community silent as Wall govt auctions off more native prairie

Brad Wall continues to auction off Saskatchewan's prairie heritage parcel by parcel, and the provincial conservation organizations are standing by in silence.

This fall Ritchie Bros auction has listed 75 parcels of Crown land--much of it native grassland, aspen parkland, wetlands and forested areas. Almost none of these lands for sale are receiving conservation easements to stop future owners from plowing and draining the natural landscape--not that a government conservation easement provides much in the way of real protection anyway.

In a quick scan through their very helpful website (oddly named, I found several parcels with hundreds of acres of native grassland up for sale--most with no easement.

One chunk of more than 2,240 acres of native grassland near Bengough is being advertised as a single lot of land to be sold without a conservation easement. The Province promised when it began selling off Crown land that any land of high ecological value would not be for sale and that land with moderate ecological value would be sold with conservation easements. If 2,200 acres of native prairie in an area surrounded by many more blocks of native grassland is not of the highest ecological value then nothing is.

this is a screen capture from the auction website--go there and take a look
at the satellite images yourself
This evening I called up the current leaseholder of that land near Bengough, a rancher named Gary Shaver. I told him I was writing a story about the Province auctioning off native grassland.

Leaseholders are often reluctant to speak on the record but Gary was willing to talk. He was quiet but clear in his concerns about the auction.

I asked him if he was planning to bid on the land. "Well I guess I haven't got much choice." Would you rather keep leasing it for your cattle, I asked.

"Sure if that was an option, but they've made their minds up to sell it."

I told him that some of us fear that Crown grasslands that are sold off could eventually end up in the hands of someone who would plow the land under.

2,240 acres of Crown native prairie  near Bengough on the auction block

"Well," Gary said, "what some of us are afraid of is the land getting into the wrong hands and then we'll end up being a bunch of peasants working for someone else." He said he has seen the price of land driven up by out of province interests bidding on land.

"I'm not too happy with that Wall anymore," Gary said. "He's been letting people come in here and buy up land, driving up the prices."

He agreed that most ranchers will treat the land well but eventually everyone has to sell--whether you retire or your heirs decide to sell--and when that happens there is nothing to stop future owners from turning the native prairie into canola or lentil crops.

I spoke to another Crown grassland leaseholder this evening, Jason Mapleloft of Lethbridge who has likewise seen his lease of native pasture put up for sale. His reaction paralleled Gary's. 

"We are losing too much native grassland these days," he said. "It should be left as is." He said that if the land he leases falls into the wrong hands it could easily be converted to cropland.

Jason Maplecroft's leased Crown land near Lloydminster

Most confusing and frustrating of all, there has been no public outcry whatsoever from the conservation community. Nothing from Ducks Unlimited, Nature Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Environmental Society, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

I am at a loss to account for their silence.

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