Friday, October 12, 2012

A chat with Roland Crowe on the First Nations proposal for the PFRA pastures

coneflower through the fence at Brokenshell Community Pasture

I have been getting a few questions and comments lately from folks concerned about what may happen to the former PFRA pastures if they are managed or owned by First Nations. How would that affect grazing access, conservation initiatives, hunting rights, oil and gas issues? All good questions, worth pondering.

A week ago I met with Roland Crowe to hear first hand what his First Nations Land Management Joint Venture is proposing. Though we did not go over every detail and question of ecological management, grazing agreements, and public access, I have to say that in general Roland was forthright and very convincing. Their first aim, he said, is to simply prevent the lands from being sold off and removed from the public trust. Second, to protect the land's ecological values while managing it as a business for First Nations, which means grazing and carbon sequestration.

He said he did not think access for hunting would be a problem. "Why would we change that if they have always had access?"

When I asked if this is about getting control and ownership under Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE), he looked me in the eye and said "this is about keeping the land from going into private hands, but if the government insists on selling it, then of course we would like to own the land." Better these lands be owned in common by First Nations, he said, than to be put on the market with no plan for succession, no responsibility to the wider community.

Then I asked if their interest is driven by oil and gas potential. Oil and gas would be part of the revenue potential of the pastures, he said, as it will be no matter who owns them.

I expressed my concerns that oil and gas are already destroying some of the PFRA pastures and without pausing Roland answered, "yes, exactly, but we would do a better job of making sure that they don't leave such a mess."

I found myself thinking it would be nice if First Nations people could resist the temptation to develop the oil and gas on land they manage, but my second thought was, if no one else can pass up that opportunity for wealth, why should we expect the people with the least in the way of economic resources to be able to leave it in the ground? The reality is that one way or another every oil and gas field that is economically feasible to develop will be developed--no matter where it is, who owns the land, or how loudly we protest. Given that our federal and provincial regulations have done such a shoddy job of protecting our grasslands from resource development so far, can it hurt to give our First Nations a chance to see if they can do better?

No, none of this is ideal. In a better world, our Indigenous people would be able to thrive in the modern economy but still follow all of the spiritual values and respect-for-Creation traditions generally attributed to their ancestral religion. The same could be said for people of Christian ancestry, but we are never surprised when corporate and government economic growth imperatives leave out the mission to serve the poor.

I left the meeting with Roland Crowe thinking that, unless something better comes along, this First Nations proposal is our best chance to hold the government to account on the PFRA pastures. No other group has the legal position to demand that the province not sell the land to the private sector.

Does that mean that I am 100% convinced that if down the road the First Nations group did end up either managing or owning the PFRA pastures that they would fulfill their promises to manage them as well or better than the feds have been doing? There is no way to be sure, and all I can say is that so far the First Nations group is saying all the right things and hoping to work with the ENGO community and livestock groups to take their ideas forward. No one else making a play for the pastures is saying very much about the importance of managing the lands for ecological health.

If this initiative can buy us some time and stop the sale of the pastures then I think those of us in the conservation community should support it conditionally. The condition should be that the First Nations involved must be willing to discuss with the ENGO and livestock producing communities the formation of a trust that would formalize the oversight of how the lands are managed. The trustee in such a trust could be the whole Canadian public, which should not lose its investment and interest in these well-managed ecosystems.

Baird's Sparrows like this one thrive in the native grasslands at Brokenshell

Later I asked Carl Neggers, former PFRA Director-General, to send me an email outlining why he believes in the First Nations Joint Venture initiative. I asked whether he thought Roland Crowe and the other leaders were focussing on buying the land through TLE and he said that he believes they will only use their TLE rights "if the province is adamant that it wants to sell the land. However, the Joint Venture initiative is not about land ownership, it is solely about inclusive and sustainable land management."

Carl feels that the media has jumped to the conclusion that the Joint Venture is about buying the land under TLE:

"In several recent media releases there was some confusion regarding the specific intent of the Joint Venture that needs to be clarified. The media seems adamant that there needs to be conflict in a story or some "cowboy and indian" fight on the horizon to capture readers attention. The Joint Venture is not a fight, it is a constructive and innovative management approach. Specifically, this initiative host key benefits to all:

• the federal government achieves its fiscal policy goal of not running a community pasture program and under this JV management approach still meets many of it's legal requirements regarding a number of international biodiversity and trade agreements,

• the province does not assume a federal program that it doesn't want to manage and still satisfies it's goal of protecting patrons and providing much needed access to residual pasture land for small and medium sized stock growers,

• the land stays in the public domain and serves the various interests of stakeholders while protecting the land for future generations and finally

• the First Nations establish a collaborative business model that is viable economically and ecologically.

Given that this is likely the largest agricultural and ecological land transfer (in excess of $1.6 billion) to occur in western Canada in a few centuries, I believe it deserves critical public examination and regard. From my perspective I can't see any losers in the Joint Venture approach and I would put this initiative up on a white board with all other proposed approaches and/or alternatives and open them all up to public examination and scrutiny."

Carl may get that wish. I am working with a committee of folks who are just getting started planning an open public forum on what Saskatchewan people want for these public grasslands. If all goes well, we will be holding the forum this November. If you want to make sure you receive notice of the details, fire me an email at


  1. I follow your blog and am greatly concerned about the future of rural Saskatchewan. The fragil balance of the thin crust of fertile top soil that can sustain us or can break down like the dirty thirties. I am currently reading you book "River in a Dryland ". This deal with the PFRA is alot like the Buffalo Rock in order to get something done you have to be talking to the right people. I hope the results aren't the same remember that was the PFRA .

  2. Hi Jerry--It is interesting that the PFRA was the immediate villain in that story of the old buffalo rock, but with the pastures and the shelterbelt centre at Indian Head, they proved their value to Canadians and prairie people in particular over the long run. So true what you say about that thin layer of fertility we rely on.

    thanks for writing.


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