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.

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