Saturday, April 11, 2015

From White Butte’s 1000 acres to the 1.7 million acres now at risk

folks gathered to write letters to save White Butte (from Global TV)
Like many people, I sometimes find myself bemoaning the state of democracy in the world today, but it only takes the leadership of one responsive and responsible elected official to remind me that an engaged public of informed citizens can still carry the day.

At the end of March, when the Hon. Mark Docherty, Minister of Saskatchewan Parks, Culture, and Sport announced in the media that there would not be a golf course made at White Butte Recreation Site, there were about three thousand Regina and district folks who were digging in for a battle. The news took everyone off guard in the best possible way, and people who were appalled that the Province would even consider such a proposal were expressing surprise that Minister Docherty and the Saskatchewan Party came through with the right decision so quickly. 
So what is the take home message here? Well, part of it seems to be that Docherty is an elected representative who takes his democratic responsibilities seriously and includes all members of the public in a single unitary category of the citizenry he represents, rather than sorting them into friends and enemies.

It is important to note another force at play here, demonstrating that the system does work if we use it. Public accountability depends on opposition and scrutiny in the legislative assembly. In this case it was provided ably by the NDP's Trent Wotherspoon, who did a fine job raising the question in the legislature and supporting the public interest in protecting White Butte.

Hon. Mark Docherty, MLA Regina - Coronation Park and Minister of Parks, Culture and Sport

But the main lesson here is that the public sent a clear signal to all of our legislative representatives. The traffic on Facebook, Twitter and stories in the conventional media got a lot of attention, but in the end I think it was the letters, emails, and phone calls to the Ministry that helped the Provincial Government to see that many people value the public amenities and ecological heritage of the native prairie at White Butte.

All of which is good news for the 1000 acres at White Butte so important to Regina people. It is fair to say, however, that the public has perhaps not spoken loudly and clearly enough to help the provincial government see what needs to be done to protect the 1.7 million acres of grassland contained in the former PFRA pastures now being transferred to Saskatchewan.

Why is that? Well, first, the threat is not as clear and present as a golf course proposal. For the 62 federal community pastures, there is the threat of sale at some point down the road and there is the loss of publicly-accountable governance and management as each pasture is leased out to private grazing corporations or co-ops.

These are major threats to some of the most ecologically-significant landscapes in Western Canada, but they are just not big and bold enough for many people. Read that sentence above starting with “For the 62” and you can feel your interest drifting when you hit “publicly-accountable”. A couple more phrases like that and you are snoozing or clicking onto other things more compelling.

But the main reason the public has not been as engaged as they could be has to do with access and experience.  We love White Butte because we walk there, ride horseback there, and store memories there. By contrast, for most Saskatchewan people, the community pastures are remote agricultural landscapes that they may never have seen, much less hiked or ridden through.

Public Pastures – Public Interest (PPPI), the non-profit that led the charge defending White Butte, is hoping that over time there will be more public access to at least some of the community pastures, but right now access is nothing but a burden on the private cattlemen who have suddenly been saddled with the responsibility of caring for the public values on these rare grasslands.

Managed properly, with support from the Province, increased public access to some of the community pastures could help people to understand the way grazing, carbon sequestration and biodiversity can work together; to see that cattle, when managed well on native grass, are good news for the environment.
image from Parks Canada website

If the governance structure and management model made room for it, there could be safe and controlled access allowing people to hike or ride horseback through some of these beautiful plains and coulees, and welcoming First Nations people to experience a prairie one step closer to the world their ancestors knew. It happens on Provincial Grazing Reserves in Alberta and on public grazing lands in Montana—why not here?

But that will never happen unless we ask for it. If you like exploring White Butte, you can be sure you would love to spend time at the many undiscovered prairie places with names like Caledonia-Elmsthorpe, Auvergne-Wise Creek, Wolverine, Battle Creek, and Govenlock.

The volunteers at PPPI have launched a new letter-writing campaign aimed at getting 1000 letters to Premier Brad Wall, letting him know that Saskatchewan people want to see our community pastures kept in the public domain and managed for the whole public interest and not merely agriculture.

Please take a few minutes to write and then pass this on to everyone you know who might also like to help.

image courtesy of Angie Evans


  1. Hi Trevor,
    I have been thinking about your recent posting and about the connecting the overwhelming support for White Butte, our treasured recreation site, and the pastures. Though this is long for a posting, here are a few thoughts on the subject:
    What do White Butte and the pastures have in common? They are scattered pieces of land used differently – a recreation site for city dwellers and source of livelihood for ranchers. The argument to conserve White Butte was immediately accessible – build a golf course at another location and give White Butte an environmental status that ensures its protection. The arguments to conserve the PFRA Pastures are a complicated two-step process: (1) believing that that public ownership will provide more long-term ecological and cultural benefits than private and (2) being willing to work through relationships between ranchers, First Nations groups, conservationists, government and the public, using statistics, studies, politics and long-term plans to reach that goal. How or why then, should we connect the conservation of White Butte with the public ownership of the pasturelands?
    As I reflect on it, the deepest connection between White Butte and the pastures, and the deepest cause for me to work in PPPI can be plainly stated: I feel that my health, from the inside out, is deeply connected to the natural environment, which in Saskatchewan means grasslands. For me, if native grasslands disappear, so does a beloved healer. Do others feel the same way?
    I have experienced some emotional and psychological difficulties and felt pretty fragile in the past. I can say that being in a natural place like a wide sweep of prairie, with few or no visible reminders of human disturbance, with plant and animal life that belong there, played a key role in restoring my emotional balance and peace of mind. Calling images of these places to mind continues to do so.
    Knowing that there is native prairie calms and reassures me that I can find a balance again if I need to. If I know that natural places are damaged or disturbed, I also feel disturbed and under more stress. It is much harder to feel relaxed, to release stress. This is why I worked to oppose the golf course at White Butte and also work for the public ownership of the pastures – for me conserving them also conserves both my physical and mental health, and the health of those around me.
    In my mental ramblings, I have been thinking of how news of damage to our natural environment causes pain. The recent oil spill in English Bay, bald, clearcut Rocky Mountains, algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg that are visible from space; dry and cracked land in California - this environmental harm is obviously emotionally disturbing to the people who live near these places and motivates them to protect their land. I feel a painful loss in each case as well, even though I live in another province. I wonder if others feel the same way.

    That feeling of loss motivates me to protect the natural environment that we have in Saskatchewan. I think here in the land of the Living Skies, we sometimes forget to look at the land. When we do, we see that incredible amounts of the natural environment in Saskatchewan have been disturbed by human activity.
    So, for me, working for public management of the pastures, where there is still native prairie is very connected to opposing a golf course at White Butte. It is about health – mine, of those around me, and of future generations.

  2. Very true, Simone--the intangibles and immeasurables are so easy to forget, but ultimately are the most deeply felt reasons to stand in defense of the more than human world. Thanks for sending your thoughts along.


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