Friday, March 3, 2017

Auctioning off the Farm: Satellite Views of Crown Land up for Auction

Saskatchewan's Provincial Bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse, is
 declining and needs the grassy habitats Crown lands provide

Ok, so the Ministry of Agriculture is saying that the 80 parcels of land it is auctioning off this month have little or no ecological value.

Let’s check that out with a little help from Google Maps satellite view and the Province’s Agricultural Crown Land Map Viewer.

The first parcel I searched for on the Crown Land Map Viewer was NW 12-28-3 W3rd, in the Rural Municipality of Rosedale, south of Kenaston and west of Bladworth. As you can see in the screen capture below, the parcel of 160 acres is part of a larger block of Crown land (marked in pink) totaling 800 acres, and only one mile east of an even larger block of Crown land totaling 2,560 acres. 

Click on image to see a larger view

Together the two discontinuous pieces of Crown land make up more than 3,300 acres.

Ok, that is a lot of land but maybe it’s all cultivated land with no natural cover of any kind, no habitat or ecological value.

To figure that out, we have to go to Google’s satellite view and see what is there. Here it is, with red marking the Crown land and yellow indicating the Crown quarter up for auction.

Click on the image to get a bigger view. And then look at this view from higher up to see the surrounding area.

You don’t need a lot of experience reading satellite images to see that the Crown land appears to be grassland of some kind, and most of the surrounding privately-owned parcels have been cultivated to grow annual crops.

It has a small ephemeral stream running through it and appears to be under permanent cover—which means, whether it is native grass or partly tame grass, it sequesters more carbon, provides natural habitat for prairie creatures like the Sharp-tailed Grouse, protects biodiversity, and does a better job of conserving soil and water, and handling the extremes of drought and flood, than the surrounding private land under cultivation.

But there is one more way to see if it is native grassland or not.

The quarter up for sale (marked in yellow) is listed by the Province in its Crown Land Search feature online, which tells you what condition the land is in, using a category they call "Production State". Here is the results when I searched for this quarter near Kenaston up for auction:

Ok, it is native grassland, but as you can see in the satellite image the quarter not just an isolated fragment; it is attached to hundreds of acres of habitat and in close association with thousands.

I did some more digging and found that the remaining 640 acres (four quarters), which are also native grassland, are also for sale--not in this public auction but to the current lessee if they choose to buy.

What's more, there are no restrictions preventing sale or requiring conservation easements for the quarter section of native prairie up for auction nor the adjoining four quarters of Crown native grassland.

The Ministry of Agriculture has been telling us that no native grass is being sold without an easement. Are they lying or just wreckless?

Let's look at another parcel.

Here is a screen capture from the Crown Land Map Viewer showing a parcel up for auction in the RM of Eagle Creek, whose legal description is NW 30-37-12 W3rd.
Click on image for a bigger view

This parcel is not connected to the main larger chunk of Crown land to the south but only a half mile away. Now let’s go to the Google Satellite View to see whether the parcel for sale has natural cover and if the intervening private land makes a natural corridor or is broken land.
Click image for larger view

Whoa--this is native grass, and a lot of it. Ok, yes, there are a few acres of plowed land just south of the quarter up for auction, but the parcel itself appears to be native grassland and it is nearly surrounded by more of it. This Crown land is part of a large block of native prairie—some of which is private but some is likely Wildlife Habitat Protection Act land. 

We have less than 20 per cent of our native prairie remaining in this province. It is the most endangered ecosystem on the continent. Why would the parcel rate as low or moderate ecological value?

Doing some more clicking on the Crown Land Map Viewer, I launched the “Search Crown Land” feature in the green box pointing at the parcel, then went one more layer into the data to find a small table indicating that the parcel has “Heritage Value,” which may “restrict or limit the sale, use or development of the land.” Hmmm. Are there archeological sites on the land? There may well be.

The Ministry of Agriculture, let’s assume, has deemed that this parcel is of “moderate ecological value,” and therefore it will be one of the few that will have a conservation easement when it is sold, but I have no confidence in the capacity of an underfunded and understaffed government agency like Agriculture to monitor or enforce its easements all over the countryside.

These parcels were placed in the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act for a good reason. De-listing them now has nothing to do with ecological science and everything to do with political ideology and the short-term thinking that is forcing ministries to help balance the books by selling off assets and cutting the hours of staff.

A couple of years ago the Wall Government called in its few remaining scientists and made them rank the ecological value of WHPA lands. The biologists and ecologists did what they were told and devised a system called the Crown Ecological Assessment Tool. But they did not sign off on or approve the Province’s choice of where to draw the line that would determine what can be sold and what must be retained. That was entirely a political choice, like a university professor marking his students on a curve.

A certain percentage is required to fail and the line is drawn at an arbitrary place to make sure that happens. In this case, the Wall Government decided it wanted to hit a certain revenue target so they drew the line just above the place that would allow them to sell roughly 1.8 million acres. Arbitrary, political, and ideological—the placement of that line had nothing to do with the science of determining which land is worthy of protection under the Crown.

It is a strategy that sells well in the board rooms of industry and land developers because it removes government oversight and environmental regulations from a lot of land. 

It might even please farmers who have the financial support to buy the land, but it does nothing for the majority of farmers faced with escalating costs amid increasing pressure for them to steward ecological services that the rest of us benefit from.

What about the rest of us? Are we going to sit by and watch even more Aspen bluffs bulldozed, wetlands drained, and grass plowed under: the province’s rural landscapes sacrificed to produce high yield crops and country estates for people with out-of-province money?
The Common Pintail, no longer common, needs the kind of habitat our
Crown farm lands have always provided

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