Saturday, November 30, 2013

In Defense of Wildness and Federal Lands: the Stegner Legacy Part II

the Battle Creek PFRA lands that helped to launch a new defense of wild lands in North America (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)

In my most recent post here (In Defense of Wildness and Federal Lands: the Stegner Legacy Part 1), I wrote about how a single letter written by Wallace Stegner in 1960 led to the passing of a piece of American legislation (The Wilderness Act) that remains one of the continent's best pieces of policy protecting public wild lands. If Canada had similar legislative protection for its Federal grazing lands stewarded for 75 years by the PFRA system, we would not be scrambling to ensure that they remain well-managed public grasslands once they are transferred to the provinces.

This difference between Canada and the United States, which retains its Federal grazing lands, is made even more trenchant when you realize that Stegner traces his concept of the spiritual need for wilderness to a piece of land that is now contained in one of Canada's most ecologically rich PFRA pastures, Battle Creek. This astonishing fact came to me three weeks ago via an email from Bob Peart, a great proponents of grassland conservation and the new executive director of British Columbia's Sierra Club. The email contained a message sent to Bob by Jim Foley, an amateur Stegner historian from Alberta who has done some digging into the author's roots on the Canadian Plains.

As I read the email and Stegner's Wilderness Letter, I thought about the young Wallace Stegner and his brother running half wild themselves with the black-footed ferrets, sage grouse and swift foxes of their homestead in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan on the US border. When you read the Wilderness Letter, it becomes clear that, more than any other landscape, the wild Canadian prairie--the largest pieces of which for now remain protected on PFRA pastures such as Battle Creek, Govenlock, Val Marie, and many others--inspired Stegner and taught him why wild places must be preserved.

"I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone. A prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea. It is as good a place as any for the wilderness experience to happen; the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the alpine forest."
Speaking to Jim Foley on the phone, I learned that he would like some help forming an interdisciplinary committee (of local people in the southwest, as well as conservationists, government, literary/culture people, historians, etc.) to advance the idea of protecting the Stegner land and as much of Battle Creek pasture as possible in honour of Stegner and his "idea of wilderness" as expressed in his letter. 
this map shows in red boundaries the three PFRA pastures south of the Cypress Hills along the US border in Saskatchewan's southwest: from left to right--Govenlock, Nashlyn, and Battle Creek

I think it is a brilliant idea. The Wilderness Act and the work of Stegner and the Sierra Club has over the last 50 years had a tremendous influence on North American wilderness thinking and advocacy. 
Jim suggests connecting a strip of Battle Creek pasture including the Stegner homestead land to Govenlock Community Pasture through the neighbouring Nashlyn PFRA pasture. The land would then become The Wallace Stegner National Wildlife Area, a significant corridor of grassland conservation named for the man whose defense of North American wilderness took its origins from the Canadian prairie in 1914. In honour of Stegner's roots and his recognition that cattle grazing is not incompatible with prairie wilderness, the land would continue to be grazed sustainably by local cattle producers as it has been under the PFRA for nearly 80 years.

Passages like the following from the Wilderness Letter could be placed on a brass plaque and mounted at a roadside historic monument on the boundary of the Battle Creek Pasture:
"The reassurance that there are still stretches of prairies where the world can be instantaneously perceived as disk and bowl, and where the little but intensely important human being is exposed to the five directions of the thirty-six winds, is a positive consolation. The idea alone can sustain me."
Stegner concluded his historical Wilderness Letter with a phrase that has become part of the literary heritage of wilderness defenders:

"That is the reason we need to put into effect, for its [wild lands'] preservation, some other principle than the principles of exploitation or "usefulness" or even recreation. We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."

In this part of the world, where the Canadian government has abandoned its commitment to conserve our Federal grasslands, Jim Foley's vision for one piece of the southwest corner of Saskatchewan has sent a ray of hope into a geography where it is far too easy to throw up one's hands in defeat. And, just for the record, the people who care about grassland and a strong and diverse grazing economy in this province are nowhere near giving up. We are just getting started.

If you would like to help Jim and others see his vision through, if you want one day to be able to drive to the edge of the Wallace Stegner NWA and look in, fire me an email at and I will put you in touch.

another gorgeous shot of Battle Creek PFRA by Branimir Gjetvaj

Friday, November 22, 2013

In Defence of Wildness and Federal Lands: the Stegner Legacy Part I

View from the Stegner Homestead (image courtesy of Jim Foley)

"I may not know who I am, but I know where I came from."
 Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow

For many of us who live on the prairie parts of this continent, Wallace Stegner is regarded as one of the first to articulate the ecological and cultural destruction in the wake of western frontier-chasing.  Saskatchewan people claim a piece of his legacy because he lived for a spell in this province and then, returning for a visit forty years later, wrote Wolf Willow, part memoir and part history of the Cypress Hills region.

In 1914, when Wallace was five, his family moved from Iowa to southwest Saskatchewan, spending the six years that comprised the most settled and formative part of Stegner's childhood. His father, George Stegner, was a feckless schemer always on the move looking for eldorado, taking his wife and two sons from frontier town to frontier town, and often leaving them behind for spells as he continued to search for a way to get rich fast.

Arriving in southwest Saskatchewan, George took out a homestead quarter and a pre-emption quarter, 320 acres of prairie wildness just north of the U.S. border. The soil was very poor but they ploughed some of it anyway and had a decent crop the first year. In 1916, though, the crop was rained out. For the next three years after that, the grain withered in drought. The Stegners moved back to the States in 1920, abandoning their homestead. Wallace was eleven years old.

By then, he had learned two things that stood in opposition to one another: one, that the prairie earth, with its winds, solitude, dangers, and wild creatures, has a moral and spiritual weight that feeds the soul, and, two, that there are men like his father who will dedicate themselves to taking the gifts of the land and exploiting them without thought for tomorrow.

Wallace Stegner (Wikipedia)

For the rest of his life, Stegner's effort to carry these two lessons in his imagination fostered not only some great novels (including the Pulitzer-prize winning Angle of Repose), but a Western environmental movement that successfully defended wildness on public lands.

In the 1950s he wrote an article for Harper's about the threats to public lands in the West, a book telling the story of John Wesley Powell and the Colorado River, and then a book celebrating and defending the Dinosaur National Monument. The latter, This is Dinosaur (1955), is widely credited with saving both the park and the Green River from proposed dams.

But Stegner's triumph was a 2400 word letter he wrote that galvanized the movement to pass The Wilderness Act of 1964, a single piece of federal legislation in the United States that continues to this day to defend more than 100 million acres of Federal public lands from any activity or development that would destroy it. If Canada had such a piece of legislation, the PFRA pastures would never have been transferred to the provinces.

Stegner composed the letter, now known as The Wilderness Letter (full text here), shortly after returning home from  the visit  back to Saskatchewan that forms the heart of Wolf Willow. When Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall spoke at a 1960 conference on the need for legislation to protect and preserve wild places, he scrapped his own speech in favor of simply reading the Wilderness Letter. The language Stegner used is reflected in the wording of the final act and when it was passed in '64, Stegner's letter was read out in the House.

At the heart of the letter's eloquent plea, is this passage clearly tracing his "idea of wilderness" to his time on the Saskatchewan prairie:

“Let me say something on the subject of the kinds of wilderness worth preserving. Most of those areas contemplated are in the national forests and in high mountain country. For all the usual recreational purposes, the alpine and the forest wildernesses are obviously the most important, both as genetic banks and as beauty spots. But for the spiritual renewal, the recognition of identity, the birth of awe, other kinds will serve every bit as well. Perhaps, because they are less friendly to life, more abstractly nonhuman, they will serve even better. On our Saskatchewan prairie, the nearest neighbor was four miles away, and at night we saw only two lights on all the dark rounding earth. The earth was full of animals--field mice, ground squirrels, weasels, ferrets, badgers, coyotes, burrowing owls, snakes. I knew them as my little brothers, as fellow creatures, and I have never been able to look upon animals in any other way since. The sky in that country came clear down to the ground on every side, and it was full of great weathers, and clouds, and winds, and hawks. I hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone. A prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea. It is as good a place as any for the wilderness experience to happen; the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the alpine forest.

What does this mean for Canada's public lands and the PFRA pastures in general? More on that in Part II of this story but the land that inspired those words, which in turn inspired legislation to defend public land in the United States, rests just north of the Montana border at the base of the Battle Creek Community Pasture in Saskatchewan. Yes, the "wilderness" of Stegner's Wilderness Letter, including the site of his family homestead, is on a piece of Federal public land that is scheduled to be transferred to Saskatchewan and then leased out like all of the other PFRA pastures.

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Making cash on grass: where will the money go?

Eric Weisbeck, Pasture Manager at Wolverine Community Pasture near Lanigan (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)
$4.5 million. That is what it would take to hold onto the expertise and knowledge of the PFRA managers and seasonal riders through the transition of the federal community pastures to provincial responsibility.  That is all it would take to keep them and their families in some of the more remote regions of southern Saskatchewan; that is all it would take to ensure a smooth transition for the management for these ecologically critical public grasslands, helping to conserve the grass, manage invasive species and maintain habitat for endangered species.

$4.5 million is less than one-fifth what the Province has been giving to subsidize the biofuel industry each year, until they finally reduced the subsidy down to $16 M in March. All to prop up an industry that was nothing but a boondoggle from the word go, that did not reduce Saskatchewan's overall greenhouse gas emissions, that drove up grain prices artificially, which in turn hurt the beef industry, while giving farmers incentives to switch from food crops to fuel crops and, in some cases, to plough their pastures and seed them to grain.

$4.5 million a year would be a wise investment in food security, grassland conservation, and our livestock industry, but the Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture, led by the Honorable Lyle Stewart, has said it cannot spend any money on helping to manage the pastures because of their responsibility to taxpayers.

That would make sense if the pasture patrons and conservationists were asking for money to come out of taxpayers' pockets, but that is not the case. We are simply suggesting that some of the funds collected from grazing patrons be directed back to help pay for management. Under the lease terms the Province is asking for, the Department of Agriculture stands to earn $10 to $12.5 M each year once they have all 62 pastures leased out. $4.5 M would be much less than half of that. It would protect our cultural and ecological birthright as prairie people while investing in our future--the future wellbeing of our native grasslands, and the future wellbeing of our livestock industry and the local communities that depend on it.  Is it too much to ask that we set aside a fraction of the pasture lease revenues each year to foster and protect those important public values?

$4.5 million is a bargain to manage 1.8 million acres of grazing land for the public good, and if we consider that the Province is also making untold hundreds of millions off this land each year from oil and gas revenues (Bigstick Community Pasture has brought as much as $80 M in oil and gas revenue in one year on its own), this grass is providing our Provincial Treasury with an awful lot of cash. The least we can do is spend a tiny portion of that revenue to ensure that our 75 year investment in the ecological integrity of the PFRA pastures will not be jeopardized.

Eric Weisbeck, Wolverine Pasture Manager, rescuing a short-eared owl (image courtesy of Brian Payne)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Wolverine PFRA: a Photo Essay by Branimir Gjetvaj Honouring our Federal Cowboys

Wolverine Pasture Mgr Eric Weisbeck sorting cattle to return them to patrons for the winter (all images courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj)
Today's post pays homage to life and work of Canada's federal cowboys, the pasture managers and riders whose skill, sweat, and dedication have been taking care of the nation's community pastures in Saskatchewan and Manitoba for more than seventy-five years.

This fall, photographer Branimir Gjetvaj visited Wolverine Community Pasture north of Lanigan, which is scheduled to be one of the first five PFRA pastures to be transferred to Saskatchewan and then leased out to the cattle producers who graze it.

A biologist and environmentalist, Branimir is one of the best grassland photographers you will find anywhere. His images have appeared in magazines, books (including his award-winning The Great Sandhills: A Prairie Oasis), calendars and websites. Most recently, his shot of crocuses covering a vast plain was on the cover of Bird Studies Canada's Birdwatch magazine, for the feature story on the loss of the PFRA grasslands program. Visit his website at

Here are a bunch more of the images that Branimir took that day. Many show Eric Weisbeck, the manager at Wolverine (black hat and blue hooded sweatshirt; Eric was featured before a couple of times in Grass Notes ), working with riders to sort cattle for delivery to patrons at the end of the grazing season. Toward the end there are some shots of them taking a break in what looks to be a tack shed.

The PFRA and its manager-cowboys
Along with a system of management and public oversight that supports small to medium-sized cattle producers while protecting biodiversity and species at risk on some of the last large contiguous blocks of native grass on the northern Great Plains, the PFRA pastures have given rise to a slice of Western cowboy life that is as worthy of preservation as the grasslands themselves.

Each of the 88 community pastures in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have a resident pasture manager who lives on the pasture in a home owned by the federal government. These men, and sometimes women, raise their families there, teaching them horsemanship, how to work with cattle and dogs, and how to take care of the grass that supports their livelihood and the livelihood of every other thing on the pasture (here is an article in The Western Producer about one family). In addition, there are pasture riders hired to help manage the cattle in summer, following the PFRA grazing system for the pasture, ensuring the water systems are functioning, and the cattle are safe and healthy, with cows bred by the resident bulls.

If public land shared by many cattle producers is to be managed effectively, there has to be this kind of authoritative manager who will see that the resource is not degraded over time, who will not be swayed by any grazers who want to stock more heavily, who knows what will protect the grass and water and sticks to the plan. Without such an authority to ensure fair access and prevent overuse, public grazing lands may be pushed beyond their carrying capacity, particularly in time of drought, as the members of the pasture are moved by market pressures, the cost of leasing, or a shortage of grass on their own range.

Why we need these cowboys
What this means for the PFRA system is that, if Saskatchewan's government does not lease the land out on terms that will maintain the system of pasture managers and riders, the leasing cattlemen will in many cases not be able to keep the pasture in large fields with their herds co-mingled and rotated according to a sustainable management plan. Instead, with no resident manager to move and oversee the livestock in a co-mingled herd, it is very likely that these vast grasslands would be subdivided and cross-fenced into smaller paddocks where each grazing patron will place his own animals for the entire summer. Some may manage their fields well, but many of these will become places of season-long grazing with little or no real management or rotation. That on its own is not necessarily an ecological problem, depending on stocking rates. But if there is no one to ensure the stocking rates stay at levels healthy for the ecology of the pastures, some of the patrons may begin to overstock to help pay for the high costs of their leases. With overstocking you get less carry over of grass from year to year, reduced carbon sequestration and degraded habitat for the many native plants and animals that prefer longer grass and more carryover.

Here is one last shot by Branimir--Saskatchewan now has a chance to sustain and improve upon the legacy of the PFRA and its skilled, dedicated cowboys managing grass and cattle for the public good. Next year will the riders in these photos be there working with the livestock and keeping an eye on the wildlife? Will the new management system and the leasing terms from the Province allow (and financially support) the hiring of pasture managers to oversee the pastures into the future?

The way we set the terms for managing Wolverine and the other four pastures first to go through the chute will form a precedent for the remaining 58 pastures in the province. Let's make sure we get it right.
in the tack house at Wolverine PFRA, image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj

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