Thursday, March 6, 2014

Selling the Crown jewels of our grassland ecology

who will ultimately end up owning the community pastures?
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since the Province first announced it would sell the 60 PFRA community pastures which comprise some of Canada's most ecologically important remnants of native prairie. 

No pasture patron group to date has offered to buy one, choosing the lease option instead. In fact, so far, only a couple of pasture patron groups have come to terms with the Province and agreed to lease.

Meanwhile, although it is not mentioned that often, the Province is not backing down on its ultimate plan to sell off, piece by piece, our heritage and birthright as prairie people.

If you look at the Powerpoint presentation that Sask Agriculture has been using to explain how it is handling the transfer of the PFRA community pastures from federal to provincial jurisdiction, there is the following slide announcing that "Sales can take place any time after the transition date."

Further on in the same presentation, there is another slide that talks about pricing, using the example of one of the first pastures being transitioned, Lone Tree, down on the Montana border south of Val Marie:

Eight million dollars is hard for a small group of pasture patrons to come by on their own so the sale option seems to be less of a threat for now. 

For now, but not for long. 

By 2017 when these pastures are all transferred, half of the patrons will be 60 years old or more and ready to retire. There are not a lot of young cattlemen coming along to replace them, thanks to years of bad agricultural policy and rising land prices, so the patron groups may end up having to give up their leases because they do not have enough cattle to fill their respective pastures.

So what happens to the pastures then? When the patron groups default, the province may well begin to sell off the land to outside investors. It could be big players in the cattle industry, large feedlot operators, feeder cattle operations, or meat packing companies. But it could also be oil and gas companies, who would be more than happy to purchase hassle free access to large stretches of grassland where they operate.

Meadowlark with mayflies, courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood
The Province assures us, however, that selling the land is just fine because they are putting conservation easements on anything they sell.

Conservation easements may stop new owners from ploughing the land, but that assumes they will be monitored and enforced. History has shown how little environmental monitoring and enforcement our provincial governments have been able to manage in the past. Just ask anyone who has reported a neighbour channelizing and draining land illegally. Even more important, though, a conservation easement does not ensure proper grazing management and stocking rates, and does not protect the land from market pressures that could lead new owners to favour short-term and private gain over long-term and public ecological values. 

A conservation easement will not on its own replace the prudence, stewardship, and vision that has for decades led the decision-making and planning for these lands while under Crown control. Even if we are lucky and conservation-minded ranchers buy the land and steward it well for a few years, eventually they will sell the land. No one lives forever and younger people are not staying at home on the ranch. Eventually, the good stewards will end up selling for one reason or another. 

And it is that second generation of ownership that is most worrisome of all. Sooner or later the land will end up in the hands of someone who will not be as good at balancing economic and ecological values. Crown ownership protects land from this kind of abuse. That is why governments own land of high ecological value and that is why we must do what we can to ensure that this land remains part of the public trust.


  1. Saskjoan@gmail.comMarch 22, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    Wonderful clear analysis of the situation, Trevor. I think most ranchers and farmers would agree with you? It would be great to see all the stakeholders working on the same side for once, actually trying to understand and help each other.


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