Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Ranchers may be good stewards but the de facto steward is the marketplace

Mule Deer in native grassland, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
In today’s Leader-Post Bruce Johnstone has been good enough to give some more ink to this important issue. He allowed Agriculture minister Lyle Steward to respond to the concerns I have been expressing and then gave me a chance to speak again as well. The discussion in a public forum has been helpful, but I wanted to use this space today to begin to take a look at the Saskatchewan government’s PR talking points on this issue, the stuff Lyle Stewart used in his interview with Bruce, and which also fills their official responses to people who send in emails and letters on the matter.

The point that almost always gets trotted out first to justify this move to privatize more than a million acres of conservation land in the public domain is that “our ranchers are excellent stewards.”

That sounds so nice but what they are really saying is that “it’s ok to sell the last and best examples of 7,000 year old ecosystems filled with species at risk because the buyers will look after the land. You can trust these guys.”

Who wouldn’t want to trust a rancher? Many ranchers are good stewards, but there are two reasons why this argument is a way of covering up what is really happening to the land and to its local stewards:

1. No rancher or grazing co-op, no matter what its stewardship credentials, will last forever.

Once they are no longer merely patrons on the land, but own it, they will sooner or later end up selling. It is the second buyer more than the first that we should worry about. Once patron groups and ranchers have free title to the land, if something goes wrong, the co-op collapses, the market goes sour, or the owners die or move on to other things, the land will be put up for sale. Will it always be sold to another excellent steward? Not likely. There are a lot of people around the world now interested in Saskatchewan farm land as the best real estate deal on the planet. Few of them have stewardship on their minds.

Under the plan that Lyle Stewart and the Brad Wall government is implementing, there is nothing in place to provide for the stewardship of these rich ecosystems in perpetuity. There is nothing preventing new owners from sooner or later selling the land to really bad stewards. Conservation easements are a minimum because they may help prevent any breaking of the prairie (assuming it is monitored and enforced!), but a line of legal encumbrance written on the land title will not be enough to maintain the biodiversity that exists today on these unparalleled jewels of grassland conservation.

We have for centuries now been living under governments that have a habit of giving or selling to the few the great treasures that should always belong to the many. From the enclosure of the commons in Britain to the Hudson’s Bay land grant to the swindling of the Northwest from the hands of the indigenous peoples, we have seen this story happen again and again. Is it any wonder that we no longer seem to understand that the reason we keep land in the hands of the community is so that we all have some say over how it will be disposed of?

Once ecologically important lands become private, even if the initial owners are "good stewards", they will very likely be sold to someone else in a few years and once that happens there is no avenue for public discussion or influence over who will buy them or how they will be used. Keeping ecologically sensitive and rich lands in the public domain is one of the best ways to guarantee its protection in perpetuity, and to allow public interest to have a say in how it will be used.

2. The marketplace is the de facto steward for any grazing land that does not remain in the public domain with its capacity for oversight and conservation in perpetuity.

What exactly do we mean by “excellent stewards”? For people who know very little about the ecological needs of native prairie plants and animals, any landowner who hasn’t ploughed up his native grass is automatically a “good steward.” There might be roads all over the pasture, there might be areas that are grazed down to the nubs all summer long, there might be nothing protecting the creeks and sloughs from overuse, there might be leafy spurge and crested wheatgrass invading hundreds of acres, and the sprague’s pipits and sharp-tailed grouse might have vanished ten years ago, but, hey, the grassland hasn’t been ploughed so the owner gets a “good stewardship” sign to post at the gate.

Don’t get me wrong. Ranchers are not the enemy here by a long shot. The meat industry has been driving them to abuse the land for a long time with a cost-price squeeze that would challenge anyone’s ideals for sustainable grazing. Men and women who are trying to make a living grazing cattle will tell you that increasingly these days the real steward deciding how land will be treated is the marketplace. Consumers are demanding cheap beef and the grossly-consolidated meat packing industry controls exactly how that will happen, manipulating prices at the ranch gate and ultimately making it next to impossible for ranchers to take more ecologically sound measures and stock their land at rates that serve their own long term goals of maintaining healthy grass. Private operators can seldom afford to implement the kind of best management practices enforced on publicly managed grasslands.

long-billed curlew in stipa grassland, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

And that is why anyone who works in grassland conservation or range management will tell you that there is a gradient of range quality and stewardship on our native prairie. On the top with the best practices are our federal pastures now under threat; beneath that are some (but by no means all) of the large crown land leases being grazed by the old traditional cow-calf ranchers (Peter Butala was one of these). Some of the provincial pastures and land trusts are about on par with this second standard.

Below that level are the rest who are just trying to make a living grazing private or Crown leased grassland but who, because of low prices and escalating costs, are not able to manage it as well. They may overstock some pastures, leading to overgrazing and poor carbon sequestration, and reduced biodiversity. In a couple of years of overstocking, riparian areas along creeks and sloughs are ruined, pernicious introduced species and shrubby growth begin to take over reducing the overall health of the grassland and degrading habitat for endangered native plants, insects, mammals and birds. Because the land is not ploughed we may also call these land owners “excellent stewards,” but the truth is the ecosystems are suffering and cannot compare to the health and biodiversity found on the large federal community pastures. Is any of this strictly the rancher’s fault? Absolutely not. Canadians all have an interest in maintaining healthy grasslands--for their carbon sink capacities (when grazed properly), for their sustenance of biodiversity and endangered species, for their work in maintaining water and soil quality, and for their cultural, historic, and recreational values as places to remember the days of buffalo and the wild prairie and to restore the soul in a spiritually stirring landscape.

If we have any interest in protecting these values we have to buffer our last best stretches of publicly-owned grassland from the bad stewardship of the market. And the way to do that is to keep them in the public domain. That, of course, involves some cost. Anything that is worth doing well for the common good costs taxpayers some money, whether it is health care, bridge maintenance, fisheries management or grassland management. In the Leader-Post interview, Lyle Stewart brings up their back-up argument, which is to say that Saskatchewan cannot afford the level of management that the federal government has been providing. I can certainly sympathize with this argument, but not because I want to save on my taxes. As I have said, these lands serve all Canadians, not merely Saskatchewan people or a few ranchers. That is why it always made sense for the federal government to maintain them. The Brad Wall Government should insist that Agriculture Canada contribute to a plan and funding for a proper transition to ensure that the regime of ecosystem management and grazing is handed over to the province in a way that gives us time to find a new way to recover more of the costs of maintaining this level of good stewardship.

Landscapes this rare and valuable always cost the public something to maintain them. It won’t be much--grazing fees should be able to recover most of the costs--but if there are extra costs to maintain values that do not necessarily put pounds onto the flanks of a steer, we must continue to pay for them with public funds as we always have with the federal pastures and as we do with the other important natural landscapes that we choose to protect in this country.

The federal community pastures program recovered most of its costs from user fees, but some of the programming and infrastructure did require some federal funding each year--and those are presumably the costs that the Harper government wanted to shed in passing responsibility for the pastures back to the provinces.

In this era where most lands and waterways are used in industry, it costs money to monitor, regulate, and manage that use with an eye out for the public good. Grasslands, like forests, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters that are used for economic gain, will simply degrade and cease producing the values we have always taken for granted if we ignore the costs of managing and maintaining them. If overuse or misuse prevents important life-sustaining ecologies from functioning at nature’s dynamic optimum, and natural regeneration processes are hindered by human enterprise (e.g. in forests, fire and other forms of natural disturbance are suppressed in favour of wood-harvesting), the work of bringing the land or waters back to health will involve even more costs. If we don’t make industry pay for it then we either pay for it with our taxes or we choose to not do that work and let our treasured landscapes and wild places slide into dysfunction, all to gain some short-term savings. Despite the best efforts of our Federal Government (see the recent omnibus bill), millions of dollars of Canadian taxes are still used every year to pay for the costs of mitigating and managing the use of public goods.

The Stephen Harpers and Brad Walls of this world, of course, want to reduce that to an absolute minimum. They have many strategies working for them, but how far are we going to let them take this particular self-destructive tactic of privatizing ecologically rich lands in the public domain so that we don’t have to incur the costs of buffering them from the depredations of the marketplace and industry?

Not surprisingly, it seems to be the recent whims of industry that are driving the Saskatchewan government to sell off vast stretches of land in the public domain. Their oh-so-rosy budget predictions are losing their bloom now as promised potash mines are being withdrawn day by day. Like all of us who come from Saskatchewan settler stock, though, these good prairie lads seem to know that when things get bad enough you can always sell the farm.

Pronghorn at sunset, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood


  1. I agree, leaving the commons to the whims of the global marketplace is unwise. Canadians place a high value on these wild places but our politicians lose their vigilance as soon as we go on summer holidays. The long term trend of unwise decisions that has lead to reducing Western Canada to a "natural resource market" for the world is creating more and more conflict on our landscapes. I think a good place to start reducing this conflict is we need governments that will plan at least 200 years down the road.

  2. Thanks Dan. I just got back from a short trip to the eastern Qu'Appelle where rapacious gravel operations are making a mess of the valley--all to feed new potash development in the area.

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