By Trevor Herriot
Long before the PFRA pastures issue arose, the Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture had already begun looking for ways to sell off Crown lands, including native grasslands. In 2009 they began trying to sell the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands (WHPA) by seeing if they could justify removing their designation as wildlife habitat. Conservationists spoke out against the privatization and WHPA lands are still in limbo today. Meanwhile, Sask Ag. has begun selling non-WHPA Crown land, including some native grassland that supports species at risk. Many of these properties are as valuable ecologically as WHPA lands but simply were not designated. Because they were not WHPA lands the sales happened without any conservation easements to prevent the new owner from ploughing the ancient prairie.
Well, the inevitable is starting to happen. Yesterday (Aug. 30) I received news that an Alberta farmer who purchased a large block of Crown land in the far Southwest has a hired man running a 24 foot breaking plough through the sod, destroying the habitat once and for all. The land in question adjoins the west flank of the Govenlock PFRA pasture and therefore supports its ecological integrity as a single block of intact native grass.
As I write this, the destruction continues and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. The rumour is the Alberta man bought the land from a Saskatchewan resident who had originally purchased it and then flipped it for a profit--not sure if that is true.
This is why Public Pastures--Public Interest and prairie conservationists in general believe that the best way to protect our largest pieces of Crown grassland is to keep them under the Crown. Easements or no easements, once they are sold to a rancher the land can be re-sold to someone who wants to plough it and plant crops or destroy it in other ways for profit.
Our cattlemen in the Southwest will tell you that there are areas where virtually all of the land is being bought up by Albertans--farmers and ranchers flush with oil and cattle money from just over the border where their Province gives them better terms on Crown lease rates, as well as a bigger share of the oil and gas income extracted off their land. This leads to an uneven playing field that is virtually guaranteeing that our cattlemen are not as competitive as their Albertan counterparts and will be out-bid for land time after time.
And with our aging ranchers in the Southwest and few of their children able to afford the costs of getting into cattle (again in part because our Animal Unit Month rates on lease land are much higher than Alberta's, Montana's or Manitoba's), our lands are going to go to out of province land lords--some of whom many not have the same conservation ethics that have always kept our native grass intact as habitat for species at risk.
And yet I meet cattlemen who say they like to have the option to purchase outright the land they lease from the Crown so they have more control over it. Well, folks, the down side of having that right and control is that the purchaser also has the right to re-sell and when he does the new land owner might do exactly what is happening now on the West side of the Govenlock PFRA pasture.
This province is long overdue for a thorough public review of all of our Crown native grasslands--co-op pastures, Provincial and Federal community pastures, and the seven million acres of Crown grassland leased to private cattlemen. First, to find out what we have remaining, and then to determine its ecological value (biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil and water conservation), its heritage resources (Metis and First Nations' ancestral sites), and its food security values, and then to decide in a full consultation with all stakeholders, how we want these incredibly valuable and endangered landscapes to be managed for the good of all and generations to come.