Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Wellbeing of our public grasslands goes beyond politics

Laurier Pasture, image courtesy of an anonymous supporter of the pastures system

Minutes ago I had a phone call from Rick Swenson, leader of the PC Party of Saskatchewan. Rick served in the cabinet of the Grant Devine Government in the 80s and 90s as Legislative Secretary and de facto head of the Agriculture Ministry ("Devine was Minister of Agriculture in name, but I had the portfolio along with Minerals and Mines"). "I know a fair bit about this file," Rick said, "enough to say that this does not make sense from an agricultural perspective."

Rick Swenson, head of PC Party of Saskatchewan

Rick also believes that the pastures pay for themselves many times over and any management costs for keeping them public and managed as they have been is dwarfed by the economic benefits they bring in. "Beef has always been a net profit thing in Saskatchewan, even during BSE. It supports our provincial economy."

But the big revenue from this land of course is mineral--oil and gas, but gravel too. In our phone call, Rick wondered aloud whether anyone has calculated the millions the province gets in resource revenues from the federal pastures. I said I had heard that the Lomond pastures (there are three units) alone have in some years provided $80 million to the province. Estimates of the entire management budget for the community pastures is at around $10 million, but the overall economic and ecological benefits from the pastures is estimated to be roughly $24 million a year according to the famous study, Distribution of Public and Private Benefits on Federally Managed Community Pastures in Canada, Society of Range Management, Vol 30, Issue 1, 2008. Suren Kulshreshtha, George Pearson, Brant Kirychuk, Rick Gaube. Get pdf here.

Anyway, it was wonderful to hear that someone of Swenson's background is taking up the issue. Rick said they are getting the party set for a bit of a rejuvenation so perhaps we can look forward to hearing more from him on the pastures. At the end of our call he spoke of a British friend who commented on the matter by saying that Canada has been known and respected globally for keeping its public trust of land held in common--our forests and wild places where all have access and common ownership. Britain got rid of that a long time ago with the enclosures, his friend said, and it was a tremendous loss.

The rest of this post is a reprint of Rick Swenson's recent piece written for the PC Party of Saskatchewan website, pcsask.ca. From the third paragraph onward he addresses himself to the community pastures.

    JANUARY 28, 2013

I think everyone is aware that the Saskatchewan livestock industry has had more than its share of challenges in the last 10 years.  Those challenges have included the BSE crisis in cattle, Country of Origin labelling laws in the United States which affected both hogs and cattle and the high price of feed grains which has been primarily driven by the rationing of corn supplies in the United States.  This rationing has occurred because of the US government’s mandated ethanol content in gasoline sold to the public.  Canada has similar laws but it certainly has not removed the quantities of feed grain from the system that the American laws have.  

On top of all of this we have an aging farm population, who faced with these types of challenges which are totally beyond their control, have been exiting the industry in record numbers.  It has been much easier to sell the hogs and cattle and continue grain farming or else sell out and retire to the city.  The challenge I think for Canadian agriculture and western Canadian agriculture in particular is how do we keep young people involved and even encourage them to take on the debt load and hard work that is necessary to take over from the preceding generation or start out on their own without family help.  

One of the last things that should have happened to the livestock industry in this province was for the federal government to all of a sudden make a snap budget decision to get out of the PFRA pasture system without any type of meaningful type of consultation or a plan in hand other than to simply turn the land back to the province.  The province of Saskatchewan has already had control of mineral development on these lands since 1931 and there are oil wells and gas wells on some of these lands as we speak.  The province didn’t get any more warning than anyone else and seems to be like a deer in the headlights on this issue.  They have tried to assure producers that their rights will be protected in this transition but given the Sask Party’s track record on other issues and the cozy relationship between this government and some of the large land companies, producers are wary of the words coming out of the Minister of Agriculture’s mouth.  

It is was very heartening to see this last week hundreds of men and women who are current patrons of the PFRA’s pastures gathering together in Saskatoon demanding that government listen to their concerns.  As I understand it, they have formed their own producer group and are asking each pasture and its patrons to select representatives who will speak for that pasture in the larger group and will bring ideas forward on how this land can be maintained in its native state and what a proper transition process should look like.  This is what the Federal Department of Agriculture under Minister Ritz should have done in the first place.  These pastures were formed out of the devastation of the 1930’s dust bowl.  Much of this land was badly eroded, had to be levelled and re-seeded and has become over the years one of the foundations of the cattle industry in this province.  It has fostered good land management practices on surrounding private lands and has certainly been leading edge in the development of good breeding practices and herd health over the years.  

Why the Federal Government would wish to do away with all of this good will with one stroke of the pen because the bureaucrats in Finance don’t have the courage to stand up to other departments where the waste is obvious to everyone is beyond my comprehension.  All of us have seen people in the Department of Defence spend sums of money equal to the entire budget to the PFRA pastures in a matter of minutes.  One only has to read the Auditor General’s report each year to know that there is abundant waste and mismanagement in the government of Canada which could be cleaned up long before we were forced to sell the PFRA pastures and the Tree Farm at Indian Head in order to keep the wolf from the door.  My hat goes off to the patrons who have stood up to this nonsense and I look forward to the opportunity of meeting with them to see if there is any way that the PC Party of Saskatchewan can help resolve this issue in favour of farmers, ranchers, wildlife people and the health of our environment.  

Your feedback is welcome on anything you see in the Monday Morning Commentary.  Please send your comments to contact @pcsask.ca.  If you know of anyone that would be interested in receiving this by email, please forward me their email address.  Also – don’t forget to check out our website at pcsask.ca.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Pasture Patrons have their first meeting

Yesterday in Saskatoon, more than two hundred patrons of the federal community pastures got together for a meeting to look at their options in the light of the Province's plans to dispose of the 62 former PFRA pastures. [Note--by "pasture patrons", we mean the folks who have been paying fees to graze their livestock on the publicly owned community pastures. They and the pasture staff have the greatest personal stake in the future of this land being put up for sale and lease.]

I was not able to attend, but reports have been trickling in from those who were there. Right now it is difficult to ascertain exactly what transpired, but I am sure we will find out in the days ahead. Mr. Lyle Stewart, our provincial Agriculture minister, was there to present the official position of his government, and to answer questions from the patrons. There were presentations from a cattle producer in Manitoba where they have already formed an association of patrons and worked with the province to devise the outline of a plan to retain the pastures under the Crown and manage them retaining existing pasture management staff. Apparently, the Manitoba patrons have formed a non-profit corporation to manage the program. They have a business plan and have retained accounting, business and wildlife management staff.

That certainly sounds like an approach that our newly formed Saskatchewan patrons association might want to take a close look at. Of course, they would need the co-operation of the Province. I hope that Mr. Stewart will sit down with representatives from the new patrons association and recognize them as a legitimate group that represents the interests of patrons. Mr. Stewart has apparently talked about negotiating with the individual pasture patron committees one by one and pasture by pasture, but the patrons' position as a whole will be much stronger if they stick together and insist on negotiating a plan that will work for all of the pastures and their patrons. United they stand . . . .etc.

This coming Monday, at 12:35 on CBC Radio One's Blue Sky, the phone-in show will be all about the community pastures issue. Laura Stewart, with Public Pastures-Public Interest, will be in the studio with Garth Materie, answering questions and comments. Should be interesting.

Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan media is doing a good job of covering the story. Here are some of yesterday's reports:

Best article summarizing the patrons meeting:
Saskatoon Homepage - Jan 23, 2013 18:04
Written by Neil Billinger    
Other coverage yesterday
NewsTalk 650 CKM Saskatoon – Jan 23, 2013 - First Posted: Jan 23, 2013 3:07pm
Demise of grazing land program presents challenges, opportunities
Reported by Bryn Levy

MetroNews – Jan 23, 2013 – updated 5:56 pm

And, finally, the best piece of journalism on the pastures issues this week was an opinion piece by Pat Atkinson published in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix:

[here are some more stories gleaned on Saturday morning, Jan 26]:

Star Phoenix, with some good lines from Ian McCreary, the new president of the pasture patrons' association.

western meadowlark nest

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Pasture news of the week

pronghorns on native grass (by the ever generous Hamilton Greenwood)
News just keeps getting better, folks. The story of the federal community pastures being put up for sale is starting to get the hearing it deserves. Here are some recent items in the media:

The latest story comes from this week's Western Producer. Karen Briere did a fine job on this piece.

A news story on Southwest TV (Swift Current) today, interviewing pasture patron (and cowboy poet--see last week's post) Bryce Burnett.

A couple of days ago, CTV Saskatoon interviewed Professor Joe Schmutz, a University of Saskatchewan biologist who is on our steering committee for Public Pastures--Public Interest (here is our website).

A Saskatoon Star-Phoenix letter to the editor, from University of Toronto's Dr. Andrea Olive (my favourite Pol Sci and Geography prof) correcting some misinformation on the issue of whether privatized pastures would be protected by any legislation.

crocus and juniper (Hamilton Greenwood)

And finally, the pasture patrons this week released an announcement, which I am posting here in its entirety, because it is so darned encouraging to hear the cattlemen speak about endangered species and the wider community interests in the pastures (red emphasis mine).

PFRA Community Pasture patrons to meet at Saskatoon
(Colonsay, SK)  January 14/13 – PFRA Community Pasture patron representatives from across Saskatchewan will attend an all-pastures meeting at Saskatoon on January 23rd to discuss transition of the PFRA and proposed sale or lease of these lands by the Province of Saskatchewan to individual patron groups.

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz announced in April that Ottawa’s management of the PFRA pasture system will end in 2018, with transfer of the first ten pastures to the Province of Saskatchewan scheduled for 2013. Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture Lyle Stewart stated in August that the PFRA pastures would be sold at market value with a preference to individual patron groups. Stewart has since indicated some pastures are not suitable for purchase and that his department will also entertain proposals to lease.
Government plans to disband the PFRA and sell/lease the pastures have raised widespread concern among participants in the current, federally managed grazing system. Rising land values have put market value purchase beyond the means of most PFRA patrons.  The financial risk of individual pastures is much higher than the risk for the system as a whole. Valuation of improvements is uncertain at this time.  Patrons are also concerned for loss of the professional grazing management provided by PFRA pasture managers and riders, and for the ecological well being of the pastures.  The PFRA pasture system has operated successfully for more than 75 years.

These pastures are important resources to the wider community in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, widely used for hunting and fishing. In addition to grazing, ecological and recreation values, many PFRA pastures also contain significant mineral resources.  This network of pastures is one of the largest reserves of remaining native prairie in North America and home to a significant number of endangered species. As well, numerous Saskatchewan First Nations have indicated their interest in the PFRA pastures as a means of resolving outstanding Treaty Land Entitlement and Specific Land Claims with the federal and Saskatchewan governments.   .
Confirmed speakers at the Saskatoon all-patrons meeting will include:
  • Lyle Stewart, Saskatchewan Minister of Agriculture
  • Darrell Crabbe, Executive Director, Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation
  • Barry Lowe, Chair, Steering Committee for Association of Manitoba Community Pastures
  •  Mert Taylor, Agriculture |Union-PSAC (PFRA managers and riders)
  • Brad Michael and Krystine Lamotte, Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN)
Established in 1937, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) Community Pastures system was created in response to severe drought and soil erosion during the Great Depression. The PFRA operates 87 community pastures containing approximately 2.3 million acres across western Canada, of which 62 pastures containing 1.78 million acres are in Saskatchewan. Approximately 2500 Saskatchewan farmers and ranchers representing some 200,000 beef cows rely on the PFRA and its services.
The all-patrons meeting will take place at Sutherland Hall, 1112 Central Avenue in Saskatoon on January 23/13. Doors open at 8:30 AM and the meeting will begin at 9:30 AM. The morning and noon sessions are open to the media. The afternoon session, beginning at 1:00 PM, is a closed meeting and will not be open to the media.
For more information please contact the all-patrons meeting steering committee:
  • Joanne Brochu – home: (306) 255-2046, cell (306) 255-7602
  • Ian McCreary – home: (306) 567 -2099, cell (306) 561-7838
  • Bryce Burnett – home: (306) 773-7065
Loggerhead Shrike on Buffaloberry (Hamilton Greenwood)

Thursday, January 10, 2013

PFRA Pickle: a Cowboy poet's thoughts on the pastures

this beautiful image was taken recently at a PFRA pasture where staff were loading cattle
The day before yesterday a message arrived in my inbox from Bryce Burnett, a cowboy poet who is also a cattleman and a patron of the Swift Current-Webb community pasture.

"Enjoy your blog keep up the good work  I have been a patron in the Swift Current –Webb pasture for many many years.

Then Bryce included a short opinion piece he wrote on the topic of the community pastures, speaking on behalf of cattlemen and pasture patrons. For my dollar, it is as good a call for sanity on this question as any I have seen. May this be the honest passion rooted in experience that carries the day when the PFRA pasture patrons gather later this month in Saskatoon.

Here is part of what Bryce sent, including a poem he wrote, called PFRA Pickle. With folks like Bryce onside, we have every reason to hope for a good outcome.

"It is time for the Saskatchewan Party government to stand on their own two feet and stick up for the cattle,ranching and grazing INDUSTRY.  Agriculture is and will remain the basic INDUSTRY in Saskatchewan as the majority of the population in Saskatchewan  is directly or indirectly affected by the sustainability of this INDUSTRY Agriculture – after all we all eat.
Let us not dismantle the structure of the PFRA community pasture system for the sake of ideology.  The majority (we must not forget we live in a Democracy) of patrons, conservationists and those affected by these fragile lands realize the benefits, production and profitability of the present structure, now and into future generations.  This is an opportunity for this provincial government to step up and keep the lands under one umbrella,  it is not necessary to reinvent the wheel.   Forming new individual identities for each pasture will only cost patrons more money which they cannot afford and is needless, for less benefits and a significant loss to environmentalists,hunters and wild life and the Agriculture INDUSTRY.

The domain of the PFRA system in many instances was brought into the fold because of the fragile structure of the land.  These lands have been successfully brought into production and maintained viable by the proficient stewardship of trained and accomplished managers – stewards of the land and extremely important citizens contributing financially , socially and structurally to our communities.  The existing system has given many young producers an opportunity to grow their livestock operations in a positive direction, allowing them a valuable start into the Agriculture INDUSTRY.  Patrons cannot afford to purchase lands and assets which they have already contributed to and in most cases already paid for with pasture grazing fees.

It is time for patrons to come together and let our provincial government grasp the benefits of an existing system for the sustainability of our Agriculture cattle INDUSTRY."

                                               PFRA PICKLE
The government reckoned it’s time to hang the PFRA pastures.  It’s an ideological thing.
We’ll throw it over to Saskatchewan – let those cowboys swing.
Now the Saskatchewan party’s got a hot potato, it’s a political fiasco.
They don’t want it, how to get rid of it, what’s it worth, who in the hell would know.
The feds have set aside Agriculture, Embridge is a much better partner in bed.
Let those cowboys hang, they don’t care – they’ll feed ‘em ecoli instead.
The province agrees, PFRA don’t matter, Agriculture just ain’t their mission.
They’ll spend the money on a football stadium and with it replace Agribition.
They want all the patrons to form individual Associations,co-ops,companies and such.
Patrons will pay more, loose the equity they have and maintain unity – not very much.
Then the First Nations came forth, opportunity for fulfilment of treaty rights to the letter.
For sure politicians wouldn’t be here if their initial immigration policy had of been better.
Conservation,environment and wildlife will all be overturned with a tandem disc.
Only thing for sure is our pasture managers have become the next species at risk.
The government bureaucracy is in a pickle, no one seems to know why or how.
All patrons know – they’ll sure be paying more when this land is grazed by a cow.
Dealing with government levels has become a quagmire, makes one wonder if they’re sober.
Next time you gaze into the blank eyes of your MLA – you might as well just bend over.
                  Bryce Burnett

Monday, January 7, 2013

New citizen's group formed to speak in defence of the pastures

a corner of Brokenshell Community Pasture, with cultivated land just across the road

A group of people who attended our community pastures public forum in November has recently coalesced into a new citizens group advocating for the retention of the PFRA pastures as public land. We are calling ourselves "Public Pastures--Public Interest" (PPPI).

See below for our first news release. Meanwhile a group of like-minded Saskatoon people (perhaps they could be a Saskatoon area "chapter" of PPPI?) are planning another pastures public forum to be held in late February. Stay tuned for further details.

Anyone who would like to be added to our growing email list of PPPI members (no fee) can email me directly at trevorherriot@gmail.com or to our PPPI email address: public4pastures@gmail.com

Media Release—January 7, 2013

New Citizens Group Urges Retaining Public Ownership of Community Pastures

The future of the PFRA (Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) pastures the Federal Government recently returned to the Province of Saskatchewan may be in jeopardy, says a new group of rural and urban citizens who are throwing their support behind the growing number of people who want to see these lands retained under the Crown and managed professionally both for the long term benefit of livestock producers and for grassland conservation.

Public Pastures—Public Interest is a group of conservation-minded Saskatchewan residents who are urging the Government of Saskatchewan to ensure that these irreplaceable grasslands will continue to serve the broader public interests of all Saskatchewan people.

“We support the position taken by many producers, PFRA pasture patrons, and farm people around the province,” said naturalist Trevor Herriot, spokesperson for PPPI. “The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities and Agriculture Producers of Saskatchewan both passed strong resolutions requesting the Government of Saskatchewan retain ownership of the PFRA Pastures. We agree and hope we can work with others to ensure the pastures will be managed well for local agriculture and for conserving soil, water, and biodiversity.”

PPPI members are concerned that if this transition for the 62 PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan is not handled well, the lands could end up in the hands of corporations or groups who for any variety of reasons are unable or unwilling to continue managing them in ways that balance short term profit with the wider, long term interests of conservation.

“Right now, these pastures still belong to all Saskatchewan people,” said Herriot. “They are ecological, historical, and cultural resources that we should treasure and steward carefully for our children and grandchildren. They contain critical wildlife habitat, but also important archaeological sites in landscapes that evoke our history as prairie people: the natural prairie that supported our First Nations for millennia, the stories of the early open range ranching outfits, and finally our survival of the Dirty Thirties when the PFRA pastures were founded as a conservation initiative.”

PPPI maintains that this conservation work is, if anything, even more important today, because the province is down to less than twenty per cent of its original native grassland. This loss of habitat, among the most extensive on the continent, is the reason why the Great Plains Region of western Canada contains more Species at Risk than any other part of Canada. Well managed native grass sequesters carbon and conserves biodiversity, and soil and water quality in ways that cultivated landscapes cannot match.

PPPI is part of a growing community of urban and rural people in the province—farmers, ranchers, First Nations people, scientists, hunters, naturalists, and prairie enthusiasts of all kinds—who believe that the security of these pasture lands for livestock producers, conservation values and the people of Saskatchewan can best be served by the province retaining ownership of these last large vestiges of native grasslands.

Anyone who would like more information on Public Pastures—Public Interest can visit their website, http://pfrapastureposts.wordpress.com/

To arrange an interview with our media spokespersons, Trevor Herriot and Laura Stewart, email public4pastures@gmail.com or phone 306-585-1674 or 306-529-5753(cell).

Arrangements can also be made for an interview or photo session adjacent to Wellington Community Pasture, near the town of Tyvan, a fifty minute drive from Regina.


Who we are: Public Pastures—Public Interest draws together rural and urban Canadians who share an interest in conserving the great public grasslands of Saskatchewan. The province’s community pastures, totaling more than 2.5 million acres of grassland, most of it native, are ecological and cultural treasures that belong to all of us. They protect local soil and water quality, and provide ecological goods and services that reach far beyond the pasture land itself. The deep roots of native plants store carbon where trees cannot thrive. Many rare and fascinating plants and animals are found only in prairie landscapes, making our grasslands internationally significant for biodiversity. At the same time, these pastures provide fair access and affordable grazing for local livestock producers in a balanced system of environmentally sustainable agriculture.


·         To help Saskatchewan people and their elected representatives safeguard the wellbeing and legacy of the province’s publicly-owned grasslands in the face of pressure from resource industries and other interests that could harm these internationally significant ecosystems.

·         To foster broad-based communities of support for the province’s public pastures, helping people to celebrate and grow in awareness of their ecological, cultural, and agricultural value.

·         To support a model of professional range management based on practical experience, scientific research, and ecological responsibility, integrating the needs of the ecosystems and livestock within a unified vision for all of Saskatchewan’s public pasture land.

male chestnut-collared longspur (photo courtesy of Allan MacKeigan), one of many fascinating birds that depend on the native grasslands of Saskatchewan's community pastures

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Starting the New Year with good news

snowy owl flying over the lost grasslands of the Regina Plains

Just confirmed some really terrific news for one of the most important pieces of native grassland in Canada, the Suffield National Wildlife Area in Alberta, and for grassland conservation in general. A day or two before New Year's, a friend mentioned Cenovus (Encana) had lost in its bid to honeycomb Suffield NWA with more than 1200 gas wells. Over the past thirty years, 1154 wells have already been drilled in the NWA, but Encana wanted to double that in three years and then do a bunch of ditching and ploughing to build a web of pipelines tying them all together.

Apparently, Environment Canada made the decision to turn down the application in November, but no real announcement was made. The decision appears on the Environmental Assessment Agency website, but it is so buried I doubt anyone other than the webmaster has been able to find it. I had help from someone who knew where to look.[After first posting this I found out from my friend Branimir (see comment below) that there was a media release. Take a look here.]

a shot of the South Saskatchewan River winding through Suffield NWA, courtesy of Nature Canada, one of the groups that succeeded in securing this important decision for all Canadians

Reading the legal decision I still had trouble believing it so I checked with Cliff Wallis, Vice-President of the Alberta Wilderness Association. Cliff is a tireless defender of native grassland and was involved in defending Suffield. I knew he'd have the scoop. Here is some of what he wrote back to me in an email:

It is as ironclad as can be. The wording is bizarre and caused us some consternation at first but legal scholars interpret it as a big win!

Cenovus will continue to operate the existing wells and we will be participating in DND led management planning process whereby we hope to also (over time) gradually phase out those existing wells. The new wells would have meant an unbelievable amount of new and ongoing activity. It will be very difficult for Cenovus now to even operate, do workovers etc. as they did not play ball and continue to be intransigent. We have offered them olive branches but they keep slamming doors in our face even when we try to work on existing problems.

We knew that with low gas prices, Cenovus had no intention of drilling those wells in the near term. That was confirmed when we received the decision and Cenovus commented (kind of sour grapes). Anyway it was a win. Delay sometimes means we get what we want in the end regardless of what is said. This delay was a big win on the grassland conservation landscape and I think will be interpreted as such decades from now. It is a credit to the hard work of naturalists, the public and several ENGOs at the local, provincial (including Nature Sask) and national levels (Nature Canada). We had an incredible amount of support on this issue.
These are things we have to make sure we celebrate and keep in mind as we try to defend other pieces of native grassland from gas and oil development. Now we have a precedent we can refer to. Suffield is a marvelous piece of grassland, crucial to so many prairie species, but so are the PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan. Many (Wellington for example) have already been severely damaged by resource development, but there are other pastures that oil and gas is just now moving into and many more that are on their agenda. Some people speculate that the entire plan to divest the PFRA pastures was a sneaky way to remove federal protection from these pastures (both environmental assessment processes and Species at Risk legislation), clearing the way for for hassle-free resource development.

That may sound awfully cynical but not beyond the moral order now in charge of this nation's natural resources. If Suffield had been under provincial jurisdiction, where assessment processes are less rigorous, Encana would almost certainly been given the green light for its 1200 wells and network of pipelines.

the Regina Plains has lost 99.7 percent of its native grassland but still attracts these owls most winters

Share this post

Get widget