Wednesday, September 7, 2011

French-frying the Ancient Prairie: Alta. Re-opens Potatogate

Will it be this . . .

. . .or this?

When the Alberta government tried to sell 16,000 acres of native grassland in the Bow Island area to a large potato farming corporation last September (see original posting on this story here), a public outcry put an end to the deal by Christmas (link to posting here).

As the story unfolded in the media, it became known as “Potatogate,” because it seemed to many observers that, for reasons one can only guess, the Ed Stelmach government really wanted this particular potato corporation (SLM Spud Farms) to get the land in question.

As every defender of wildness knows too well, however, any victory is merely a victory for today. The forces of darkness do not go away; they just regroup and come back in disguise. By February this year, the Stelmach Government had a new scheme to sell off provincially-owned grassland. They would unload 84,000 acres of tax recovery land, much of it unbroken native prairie, to counties and municipal districts for a dollar a quarter section. That way, the local authorities would be free to turn around and sell the land off to the highest bidders, without having to worry about annoying little obstacles like provincial regulation and public input.

Again, the Alberta Wilderness Association (the AWA, who should win some kind of award for perseverance) swung into action and got the word out. Letters and emails started to arrive at the Alberta Legislature from people concerned about public land being sold off without any public accountability.

Now, however, the exact same 16,000 Bow Island acres are being put up for sale again--this time in a bid process (here is the official “opportunity notice from the Alberta Government) and after doing a “wildlife survey,” but once again without due public process. Hard to believe but in another way not hard to believe. When you can get away with re-branding tar sands oil as “ethical oil,” why would you not try to sell some endangered species habitat to an industrial potato farming operation?

Here is a Canadian Press article on the story, “Grassland selloff: Alberta seeks to convert native prairie to irrigation land.” And here is an article in the Medicine Hat News showing that after failing in its first attempt to buy the land last year, SLM Spud Farms hired a lobbyist to massage Alberta MLAs and get them to see the light (this is a big potatoe operation but hiring a lobbyist? Makes you wonder if a french fry or potato chip manufacturer is really footing the bill.)

Meanwhile, Alberta is in the midst of a leadership race for the Tory party, in effect determining who will be the next premier. In recent days, one by one the leader candidates are distancing themselves from the boondoggle and questioning what appears to be a rush to sell the land before a new premier gets into power. Here is a Calgary Herald article ("Tough to Find a Tory who likes sale of grassland") on the topic.

According to Cliff Wallis, VP of the AWA and one of the greatest advocates of prairie wildness in this country, the wildlife survey is suspect. It was not done by a professional biologist, but by a practitioner with limited skills in species at risk. Perhaps most damning, no plant work was done during the survey. Apparently, but again not surprisingly, the species at risk survey and report were not prepared for the government but for SLM Spud Farms, who also had the irrigation study done that is included in the bid package materials. Gee, isn’t that handy? The corporation that really wants the 16,000 acres helps the government get all the stuff it needs to initiate the RFP. Well, I guess it’s all one big family in Alberta, so ordinary rules of propriety and governance don’t really apply.

What does it take to convince people that these 100 quarter sections of native grass matter? According to a release on the AWA website , two active burrowing owl nests were found on the lands posted for sale. There is also a breeding pair of the endangered ferruginous hawk, and several pairs of North America’s largest shorebird, the long-billed curlew, a species of special concern. This region is particularly important to female pronghorn antelope, who use it as a fawning ground where they can hide their fawns safely in the native vegetation.

The people who want to convert this ancient and venerable piece of native grassland into irrigated cropland have most of the economic and political force on their side. On the other hand, those of us who would defend such places have most of the science, media opinion, and moral high ground on our side. We need to find more ways to use them--get scientists to make strong public statements, engage more people in the media, and always, always speak from a position of defending those who cannot defend and speak for themselves, i.e. the wild species who depend on these last large remnants of native grass.

And, of course, take a minute to write a letter or email to your Premier and to his Minister of Sustainable Resource Development. Here are the addresses:

The Hon. Ed Stelmach
Premier of Alberta
Room 307, Legislature Building
10800 – 97th Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5K 2B6

Honourable Mel Knight
Minister of Sustainable Resource Development
Alberta Legislature Building
10800 – 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2B6
Phone: 780 415-4815


  1. Thanks, Trevor -- good piece! (Bernadette linked to it on Facebook.)

  2. Thanks Shelley--Bernadette is a real connector. Much appreciated.

  3. Interesting reading!
    I'll share this with as many as I can.

  4. What we should do is find a way to boycott this selling again, or we should just all fundraise money and buy the land and leave it as a conservation area.

  5. I know this article is a couple years old now, but I have just found out this Potatogate land deal is going to be happening yet again. For the 3rd time. Wondering if anyone else has heard anything about it starting up again?

  6. Yes, Greg Wagner, who monitors this from Alberta, has told me that things are heating up again. As I mentioned in that piece, when you are defending habitat, a victory is only a victory for today.


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