Saturday, April 22, 2017

Road Allowances: Restoring the Lost Kingdom of Monarchs and Lady's Slippers

Every scrap of public land is precious in a province that has privatized 85% of its prairie ecozone (and is working hard to sell off the rest). One type of public land that gets little attention is the undeveloped road allowance, a strip of natural landscape that is supposed to run along the edge of many sections of farmland in Saskatchewan.

Our road allowances—surrounding all land south of the forest in a grid every mile east and west and every two miles north and south—are often used to provide and maintain transportation and utility access through the landscape, serving the public interest. They form a network of commons upon the land that connects us to services and to one another. But road allowances that are not used for roads and other infrastructure have also historically provided refuge and connectivity for nature in agricultural landscapes—supporting the commons of healthy, diverse ecosystems we depend upon for our own health and wellbeing.

All told, these strips of public land only a generation ago protected hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat in this province. At sixty-six feet wide, each mile of undeveloped road allowance provides eight acres of habitat for an array of plants and animals. When they are left alone, they support a mix of native and introduced grasses and forbs, shrubs and trees in moister areas, and small wetlands. Here and there, scraps of native prairie will persist if no one has put them to the plow.

Historically, road allowances formed ribbons of nature around cultivated land, a wild kingdom belonging to no man where anyone was free to hunt, walk, camp, pick berries; where badgers, meadowlarks, and burrowing owls thrived, and where the lady slipper and the monarch butterfly took refuge.
Yellow Lady's Slipper in a road allowance in the RM of Indian Head

What happened? Farmers got scarce and farms got huge as the drive for efficiency took over. Now our few remaining farmers, using larger equipment and satellite guidance systems to seed, spray, and harvest tens of thousands of acres, have begun to look upon undeveloped road allowances as obstacles that can often be eliminated and converted into tax-free acres to bring under production. It’s just waste land—why not use it to feed the world with the cheap food it seems to want?

In some cases farmers go to their local Rural Municipality (RM) to request authorization to include the road allowance into their operation, but often they proceed without permission. A few hours on the right piece of heavy equipment, and any modern farmer can easily remove the natural cover, break the soil, and start treating the public land like it is theirs to seed and spray. In short order, the meadowlarks lose their nest sites, Monarch butterflies lose the milkweed they need to lay eggs, and the lady slippers and anenomes are replaced with canola and wheat.
a road allowance filled with Canada Anenome in the RM of Indian Head

What needs to be done? For thirty years or more, the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, with 25,000 members spread across the province, has been trying to work with RMs to conserve undeveloped road allowances. They urge RMs to voluntarily protect their undeveloped road allowances as habitat, by leaving them natural, discouraging unnecessary traffic, and posting them with signs.

But voluntary programs work better when the public gets involved and supports the effort. If you live in the country, talk to your RM and ask what they are doing to protect road allowances that do not have roads. See if they might consider instituting the Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife for Tomorrow program for road allowances. If your RM is already signed up, make sure you thank the reeve and let them know you support the protection of road allowances.

We will not be returning vast stretches of the native prairie to their former grandeur any time soon, but we do have it within our reach to surround our farm fields with strips of land that are sanctuaries and corridors for wildlife and carbon storage, natural protection against wind and water erosion, and places for the public to hike, ride horseback, pick berries, and let nature restore our senses.

[This post owes much to the work and insights of the great and gracious Lorne Scott, former Reeve of the RM of Indian Head, and a farmer-conservationist of wide reknown.)

Monarch butterflies, an endangered species in steep decline, depends
 on marginal habitat like road allowances where milkweed does not
get poisoned by roundup


  1. Aren't these what we used to call ditches? At least that was how I thought them in the 1950s when my parents drove us out to the family farm, and in the 1980s when I owned a quarter section and waited for the joy of the June-blooming wild rose bushes in the "ditches" outside the fences. Their perfume was intoxicating. But jsut a couple of years ago I was driving around tht same countryside (NE of Edmonton) and all the ditches were gone along with the fences, with crops seeded growing right up to the edge of the road. Because there are now so few farm houses, the whole landscape looked like a Soviet-style kolkhoz. There was something really chilling about that. I am therefore pleased to learn that at least in SK there is pushback....O another topic: Metis have been called, historically, the road-allowance people. In spire of your descriptiona nd photographs, I can't see how entire families and their goods can comfortably "settle" in a ditch. Please help me visualize this.

  2. Hi Myrna: I am mostly talking about undeveloped road allowances--i.e. those without roads and ditches. A road allowance is 66 feet wide. If there is no road in the middle there is lots of room for a cabin that is say 30' by 20'. Entire Metis communities once lived along road allowances. Now of course even ditches in developed road allowances with roads do provide some habitat--but they are sometimes plowed and almost always hayed before the birds can finish nesting these days.

  3. Hi. Is there a map of SK road allowances at all?

    1. Actually there certainly used to be a "grid road map" but it focused mostly on the roads of course. And even that map was really just a grid pattern thrown down on the Sask highways map. To find undeveloped road allowances you just go east-west on a gravel road in farm land and look every mile. If there is no road at the one mile mark, then there should be a 66 foot wide strip separating the cropped land. Does that make sense? They are not hard to find except that now farmers are just cultivating them often and that makes them more or less invisible.

  4. Makes complete sense as I grew up in the Rural south SK. We used the road allowances for quicker access to our land but the neighbor tilled it every year and thus my education on road allowances from my *fist in the air* grumbling of my dad. I actually had thought it would be an interesting trek on a plated motorcycle to map out the road allowances and see how far you could go on them. Alas, I dont think it would be possible (at least not without getting chased off with a shotgun). Thanks for the reply!

    1. Thanks Ian--that still might be possible in some areas but you would have to choose carefully. I certainly walk road allowances from time to time...


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