Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Stockgrowers' Resolutions against Land Trusts, Conservation easements, and SAR legislation

image from South of the Divide Conservation Action Program
Reading through the latest issue of the Saskatchewan Stockgrowers Association (SSGA) magazine, I came across a list of new resolutions that they will be considering at their annual convention and AGM in Swift Current on June 7th to 9th .

Several of the resolutions to be debated surprised me because they seem to run counter to the conservation ethic that the SSGA and most cattle producers generally support. Now, of course, these resolutions may well not be passed, but here are two of them that are going to leave SSGA’s partners in conservation scratching their heads:
Resolution #5 WHEREAS public funds are being forwarded to the Nature Conservancy of Canada from the federal and provincial governments. BE IT RESOLVED that the SSGA lobby the federal and provincial governments to cease financial support to the Nature Conservancy of Canada and other ENGO’s for the purpose of purchasing agricultural lands.

Resolution #6 WHEREAS conservation easements held in perpetuity devalue property and do not recognize future considerations. BE IT RESOLVED that the SSGA lobby the federal and provincial governments to revise The Conservation Easements Act to make conservation easements no longer than twenty five years.

Another resolution calls for changes to the Species at Risk Act.

Regardless of whether these resolutions get any traction at the AGM, it seems fair to say that they are a sign that an undetermined number of cattle producers do not like some of the primary tools we commonly use to protect native grassland and its species for the public good they represent. Conservation easements, species at risk legislation, and land trusts that purchase habitat are three legs of a four-legged platform that conservation NGOs and government agencies use to protect at least a few pieces of our remaining native grasslands (only 17 to 21% is left in Saskatchewan) into the future.

Before describing the fourth leg, it needs to be recognized that private cattle producers themselves have always applied their own platform of protection based on a culture and tradition of stewardship passed down from one generation to the next. This important platform of native grassland protection, practiced primarily in the southwest of the province, is what carried much of our remaining large pieces of mixed grass and moist mixed-grass prairie into the twenty-first century.

meadowlark nest

However—and this is where some people, conservationists and ranchers, for different reasons, may part ways with me—there was another factor that helped keep a few large tracts of native grass intact. What I am referring to here is the bargain struck between public and private interest on Crown native grassland.

The beauty of keeping grassland in the public domain and leasing it out to private cattle producers is that it leaves room for public policy to help with the handoff of land stewardship from one producer’s lifetime to his successor while ensuring that over time the land will not be significantly altered.

We all are drawn to the romantic ideal of the lone cattleman taking care of his native range far from the eyes of regulation and government. It has a strong emotional appeal and we all know examples to prove the theory. But the chink in the armour of entrusting grassland conservation entirely to the culture of private rancher stewardship is that even the best steward will die some day and he or she may not have an apprenticing child to takeover the legacy. Crown ownership or ownership by an NGO such as NCC allows us to retain an element of public involvement that allows the native grass to stay right side up regardless of how heavily or lightly the next leaseholder chooses to graze.

In my mind, the public plays a vital role in ensuring that our last remnants of native grass do not become ranchettes or cultivated fields, by providing a fourth leg shared by the two platforms of conservation maintained by NGOs and government agencies on the one side and private ranchers on the other. The individual cattle producer needs affordable lease rates and programs that help them sustain the ecological goods and services produced on rangeland, while the public and conservation groups need grazing animals and their managers to provide the kind of disturbance essential to healthy grassland diversity. This is the basis for grassland conservation that is working in various forms and to varying degrees of success all over the prairie landscapes of North America—on community pastures, National Grasslands, provincial and national parks, leased public lands, and public grazing reserves: our remaining grassland commons.

Somehow, somewhere along the way many of Canada’s cattle producers have lost faith in that leg of their conservation platform connecting them to the public interest. They no longer see Crown land or land owned by conservation NGOs as the ground where private and public interests can converge to do the best job of protecting our native grass and its many rare creatures.

This is why we hear that the leadership of the SSGA and the Saskatchewan Cattleman’s Association both would like to see community pastures and other Crown grasslands up for sale. It may also be the reason why the SSGA is entertaining resolutions that oppose conservation easements, the Species at Risk Act, and NCC’s purchase of native grassland.

All of which is fine, if they have a better idea, if they have a plan for protecting our dwindling native grasslands for future generations. Relying entirely on the goodwill and stewardship of the rancher tradition is not a plan. While we can say that the ethos of the private rancher protected the grass we still have in hand, there is the matter of the other 80 per cent of the native prairie in this province that disappeared when we placed it entirely in the hands of private landowners.

So, if we are to abandon Crown ownership of land and public involvement in the stewardship of native prairie, then what is the plan? How would those who drew up the SSGA resolutions propose that we replace Species at Risk legislation, land trust purchase of land, and conservation easements?

I would love to hear some thoughts from cattle producers on how we could make those changes and somehow do a better job of protecting our precious native prairie.


  1. Hi Trevor, As one of those lone ranchers out protecting the native prairie I as has my father before me resisted government policy and promotion to "Improve " native prairie by breaking and seeding tame grasses therefore allowing the government to charge higher lease rates. If preservation of native prairie is for the public good maybe they should be paying the managers of native prairie for the Ecological goods and services that well managed native prairie provides.
    Michael Burgess

  2. Thanks for the comment, Michael. You have touched on a very important point. I believe ranchers who are managing public lands need to have the public good component recognized somehow in the cost structures they work under. If we expect producers to take measures to protect a species' habitat and those measures represent an opportunity cost or a real cost their lease terms should account for that. As you alluded to, though, Saskatchewan's governments have always tended to look upon Crown grazing land as a source of cash for the treasury and so our lease rates are higher than those in adjacent provinces and states. If we don't begin to recognize the value of EG&S and look for sustainable ways to share the costs of protecting our remaining grassland habitat, the divide between ranchers and the conservation community will be hard to reconcile.

  3. Trevor, Under the homestead act 30 acres of every 160 had to be farmed before the
    Government gave up title. In the 70's portions of Provincial pastures were
    "improved" by seeding crested wheat grass. Many other programs instituted by
    Government which favour annual cropping have resulted in loss of native
    prairie.The CWB quota system promoted breaking of marginal land just so a farmer could sell 3 bushels of grain off his good land, the Crow rate was a subsidy on the growing of grain by paying a portion of the freight to the coast or lake head.

    Private ownership played no role in these programs which resulted in the
    loss of the majority of the native acres in the province and many lessees
    knew better than to destroy land held under lease in spite of Government
    experts recommendations.
    After branding calves in 30 plus degree heat on Monday and 4 hours sleep I was up and drove 200 miles to Swift Current to be present at the meeting considering these resolutions. The main issue with CE's was the "perpetuity" clause and have terms of 25 years. Is that reasonable?
    The resolution regarding governments funding NGO's to compete with ranchers using tax dollars for grazing land is pretty straight forward. Let the NGO's work on the same pasture as a rancher and use their production from said lands and private donations to purchase land.
    It would have been nice to see some come along with Lorne Scott to try and defend these 2 resolutions. We could have had a good discussion.
    Michael Burgess

    1. All very compelling points, Michael. I use those same examples to explain to people why we have so little native prairie remaining.

      However, it is worth remembering that all of those government mistakes (except the seeding of crested wheatgrass on community pastures) gave incentives to private managers to break prairie on what was mostly private land. Some of it might have been leased Crown land, but I think most would have been deeded land. So I am not sure what you mean when you say that private ownership played no role. Wasn’t most of that broken land privately owned and all of it privately managed--again with the exception of the community pasture land converted to crested wheatgrass?

      And I am pretty sure that all of this misguided policy came from the Ministry of Agriculture. There are other ministries (and conservation groups) that take a different perspective on native grassland. On those rare occasions when governments enact strong legislation (usually at the initiative of the Ministry of Environment) that is aimed at keeping the native grass intact, it usually gets good results. In the U.S. the Wilderness Act has protected millions of acres. Here in Saskatchewan, the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act has kept seven million acres of mostly native public land grass-side up. Conservation easement legislation has also kept a lot of land from being broken.

      Even so, I don’t particularly care if land is privately owned and managed or publicly owned and managed. What I care about is keeping the grass intact and well managed into the future for many generations. If you know a way of doing that without involving governments, conservation easements, and species protection legislation, I would love to hear it. Or maybe you know of a conservation organization (one that uses scientific methods for measuring range health and ecological wellbeing and has no vested interests in cattle or oil and gas) that has found a way keep native rangeland intact in perpetuity while keeping good stewards like yourselves on the land.

      That is what we are all looking for, but I have trouble seeing how we can achieve our common goal of protecting native grass into the future without some kind of government or NGO protection for land and without easements and endangered species legislation.

      This is an important conversation, Michael, and I have a lot of respect for your insights as someone who lives and works on native grass and really cares about its future. If you are interested and have a response to this comment, I would be happy to publish our dialogue in a future post on Grass Notes. And I would let your response be the last word, only inviting others to send their thoughts too. Email me at trevorherriot@gmail.com if you want to discuss possibilities.

  4. It is interesting that I am in the picture you are using at the top of this article. lol
    That was taken on a tour organized by the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance Inc. . We toured area under the Greater Sage grouse protection order.
    Michael Burgess

    1. that is funny. . . I found it in a SodCap presentation that Tom Harrison made. It was the best looking bunch of ranchers I could find.

  5. All the Homestead land was Crown Land and to claim title it had to be "Proved Up" ie broke. What the owner did after that was up to him but most incentives came from government to keep breaking land. Wonder if we would be having this conversation if you had to fence your quarter and dig a well to Prove up?
    I find it strange when someone mentions term of 25 years on a CE they are automatically against CE's.
    Since it was incentives that cause private manager to break native prairie maybe incentives to private managers to keep native prairie in good health would work. Novel approach Payment for Ecological Goods and Services.
    The Wildlife Habitat Protection Act has prevented native grass from being broken but it hasn't really assured that is is still suitable habitat for endangered species. Will a No Break, NO drain CE do the same?
    Maybe we need a NGO that is more interested in providing suitable Habitat for SAR then they are acquiring land. It is a pet peeve of mine when lands are acquired and idled like Wildlife Development Fund lands.
    Thanks for your offer, maybe when things slow up around here a bit we can talk.
    Michael Burgess

  6. Thanks for those additional comments, Michael. I see the three resolutions all carried at the SSGA meeting. I have to admit I like a new one they added--resolution #10 on species at risk. Yes, let's talk again when you have time.


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