Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Grasslands National Park--finding your "prairie eye"

Grasslands NP in October, image by Andy Goodson
What do you see when you head out on the prairie?

Bill Holm, the great poet of Minnesota prairies, wrote about the “horizontal grandeur” of prairie, that it “unfolds gradually, reveals itself a mile at a time, and only when you finish crossing it do you have any idea of what you’ve seen. Americans don’t like prairies as scenery or for national parks and preserves because they require patience and effort. We want instant gratification in scenic splendor as in most things, and simply will not look at them seriously.  . . .There are two eyes in the human head – the eye of mystery, and the eye of harsh truth – the hidden and the open – the woods eye and the prairie eye. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity, and darkness. . . . One eye is not superior to the other, but they are different. To some degree, like male and female, darkness and light, they exist in all human heads, but one or the other seems dominant.”[i]

[i] Bill Holm, The Music of Failure, Prairie Grass Press, 1990

If you have a minute and want to exercise your "prairie eye," take a look at this photo essay, with photos by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz and story by Goodson. At the end of last October, the two of them visited the West Block of Grasslands National Park with some friends and then posted a photo essay on a beautiful website they maintain, featuring landscapes and wildness in Saskatchewan--Saskborder.com.

These guys have a feel for how to photograph big landscapes. There are several terrific images of the bleak beauty and grandeur of the park as it settles in for winter.

Part of the charm of the story is Goodson's candour in relating their apprehension as they arrived at the park and got their first look at the landscapes and campground. People like Goodson, who have seen a wide range of native prairie landscapes in Saskatchewan, know that the west block of GNP does not have the immediate postcard appeal of some other places--Jones Peak, the Matador, Swift Current Creek, Wood Mountain, the Cypress Hills, and the Killdeer Badlands of the East Block, but, as the story attests, once you get away from the Ecotour and wander over a few buttes and coulees, the scale and sweep of the land, the sense of liberty it inspires, just overtakes you.

The secret is to spend at least two or three days. A three-hour tour won't do it. Luckily, their group stumbled on the North Gillespie range east and north of the campground where there are miles and miles of native grass and a powerful sense of prairie wildness.

If you plan to go to the West Block, that is the section with the best hiking and feel for prairie solitude and wildness. Here is a map with the best areas circled in RED.

Map from GNP West Block Brochure, showing in red some of the wildest landscapes (click to enlarge)

But do check in at the Park Centre in Val Marie to get access and road condition details and a good map--you'll need it. (Park Brochure here.)

An October ramble through the North Gillespie range at GNP, image by Sean Hootz

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Farmers hurt by Yancoal’s divide and conquer strategy: a guest post

Residents of the area surrounding the proposed Yancoal mine gathered Tuesday afternoon in Earl Grey to voice their opposition to the project. (image from CBC News site )

From an enthusiastic note in a Kijiji notice posted by someone in Ontario who wants to sell his mineral rights for $1000 per acre to cash in on the Yancoal potash interest in the region north of Regina:

"Saskatchewan is already well known for its potash mining and now another massive, multi-billion dollar project could soon be developed north of Regina.  
Chinese-based Yancoal has been exploring and studying a potential site about halfway between Southey and Strasbourg. The company recently carried on to the feasibility stage. 
"It looks pretty promising," said Strasbourg Mayor Ken Swanston. 
Swanston indicated Yancoal is getting pretty close to the start of construction. He figures shovels could be in the ground as soon as next year. The company's website confirms that plan, with the mine scheduled to be in operation by 2020. Their goal is to produce 2.8 million tonnes of potash annually. 
"The longevity of the mine, they figure it'll last anywhere between 65 and 100 years," said Swanston. "We're hopeful around here in Strasbourg that we get some spinoffs, and I'm sure Southey as well, whether it be for housing or shopping."

I don't know everything there is to know about Yancoal but many people in the Southey--Earl Grey region, especially those without land or mineral rights they want to sell, are upset and feel the Province is not listening. (See this CBC story when the Province approved the environmental assessment for Yancoal in August.)

Nearby, in Fort Qu'Appelle, the Qu’Appelle Valley Environmental Association has opposed the project citing concerns over the amount of water the mine will use and the likelihood of contamination to watersheds.

Living in a dry land with a vulnerable and limited water supply, everyone in Southern Saskatchewan should be worried about letting a Chinese company use 11 to 12 million cubic metres of water annually from the Buffalo Pound reservoir to dissolve potash. 

And a lot of people are worried. Last year the Province received more than 800 public submissions to their environmental assessment for the project--a huge number. No one will say how many of the submissions were opposed to the siting of the mine and its projected extraction of water from the Qu'Appelle system, but it seems likely that most were.

At the same time, town administrators in Southey and Earl Grey are boosters for the project and a small number of area farmers like the idea.

For some insight into the people who are in favour of the Yancoal project, take a look at the following guest post from Braden Schmidt, a farmer in the Earl Grey area who speaks to a common concern for wildlife and habitat that may be affected by the Yancoal project:

Yancoal Canada Resources Co. is a subsidiary mining company of Yanzhou Coal Mining Co., owned by the government of China. With the support of the Saskatchewan government, they are charging forward with plans to build a solution mine on top of local farmers north of Earl Grey in the Rural Municipality of Longlaketon #219. With world-wide operations in China, Australia, and South America, Yanzhou has the capital to bribe locals with enormous sums of money. And that is exactly what they have done.

One farming family sold several quarters of land to Yancoal for as high as $720,000 per quarter, well beyond what neighbors would be able or willing to pay. That is about five times the current market value of farmland for the area where a good quarter could fetch anywhere from $120,000 - $150,000. Any farmer can quickly confirm that commodity prices have not jumped in price by five times, nor have input costs dropped by this factor. This payout is certainly a boon for those who own the land desired by Yancoal, but what about the remaining landowners who want to continue their operation? Many of these are multi-generational family farms with a deep commitment to their rural lifestyle and community. For some it would not be so easy to take the cash, uproot their lives, and move away. For others it would be downright out of the question. Farmers stuck with the land in the surrounding area will have to contend with the air pollution, increased noise and traffic, and groundwater contamination.

"What happens when the cement drill casing fails and salty brine enters the pristine water table?"

Yancoal insists that their extraction methods will not endanger the integrity of the Hatfield aquifer, which provides drinking water for not only the community and several towns but also their livestock. What happens when the cement drill casing fails and salty brine enters the pristine water table?

Needless to say, the mining proposition has caused some contention among landowners as Yancoal continues to drive the community apart on this issue. Yancoal is not here for the good of the people of Earl Grey, Strasbourg and Southey. They don’t actually care about any of us despite what your gullible neighbor may be telling you. They are a large, faceless, foreign mining company and will do whatever it takes to get that potash on a train and send it to the Port of Vancouver. Despite increasing opposition to Yancoal from local landowners, the project seems poised to move forward.
three whooping cranes were spotted this past spring near the Yancoal site. (This lovely image courtesy of the ever-generous Kim Mann)

However, a sighting of whooping cranes near the proposed mine site last spring may provide yet another reason to stop Yancoal. The cranes were spotted in April 2016 resting on their route from their wintering grounds in Texas to Wood Buffalo National Park. They came very close to extinction in the 1940’s when only 20 individuals remained on the entire planet. The population has recovered with a rigorous captive breeding program but they are still considered critically endangered.

Unlike mining, grain and livestock production can still occur without completely wiping out the landscape and polluting aquifers. It is sad that locals need to seek out endangered species to provide a solid platform on which to argue their right to continue farming and uphold their rural lifestyle.

The farmers and locals of RM #219 don’t necessarily have to be bird enthusiasts or conservationists to appreciate what the occurrence of these critically endangered species might mean for their community as they continue to struggle with a foreign bully such as Yancoal. The protection of wildlife habitat may not be near the top of the list for reasons not to develop a mining project but it should be.

If there is something to learn from the visit of the whooping cranes, it is that the local people have maintained agricultural land that supports wildlife, even endangered species. Placing it in the hands of a Chinese mining company with a poor environmental record puts that agricultural land, and any habitat it provides, at risk.

another great photo courtesy of Kim Mann

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