Pasture Puzzle

Public grasslands could soon be private

by Lisa Johnson

The clock is ticking on the fate of soon-to-be former public lands in Saskatchewan.

In less than nine months, the provincial government plans to break up and sell off Saskatchewan’s 1.6 million acre  community pasture network. The land was part of the federal Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Program (PFRA), which was created in the 1930s to revive and conserve land battered by drought and wind erosion, thus adding some stability and diversification to the Prairie economy.

Last year, Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority government announced plans to hand control of the lands to the provinces (claiming it would save money). Saskatchewan’s response: hammering a schwack of “for sale” signs into the pastures.

Smaller scale ranchers who currently rent the land for their cattle to graze on are worried the move marks the beginning of the end of their small operations, while First Nations groups and environmentalists worry that this privatization will result in irreparable damage to the sensitive ecosystems no longer overseen by government.

“The ship is sailing and there’s no direction,” said Ian McCreary of the Community Pasture Patron’s Association at a recent public forum in Saskatoon organized by Public Pastures — Public Interest, a non-profit group that wants to conserve public grasslands.

Public Pastures — Public Interest isn’t happy with the provincial government’s proposal to only deal the land out to its previous patrons, one pasture at a time, starting as early as this November.

According to Suren Kulshreshtha, a professor of business and economics at the University of Saskatchewan who spoke at the forum, PFRA’s work returned $2.65 to taxpayers for every dollar invested. Because the PFRA collected user fees from cattle ranchers, it wasn’t costly for the government to run.

The program also helped sustain Saskatchewan watersheds, conserve soil, protect biodiversity, drought-proof rural areas and keep native grasslands from being destroyed.

Sound economics combined with environmental stewardship: what’s not to like? And yet, judging by their decision to divest themselves of the PFRA, the federal government seems to think that the job of Prairie conservation is done.

But declining bird populations suggest the opposite, says Candace Savage, another forum speaker and the award-winning author of A Geography of Blood and Prairie: A Natural History.

“The prairie ecosystem is dying,” Savage says.

It can all be a bit confounding — particularly since there seems to be no explicit public policy objective behind the plan and many stakeholders say they haven’t been properly consulted.

Provincial Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart has disagreed. ”We have been clear from the beginning that pasture patrons are the top priority for the provincial government,” he told Prairie Dog last fall. “We have no intention of selling or leasing this land to any entity other than the patron groups themselves.”

But McCreary says that members of his association believe they are being set up by the government to fail.

“This business package is not viable,” he says, since patrons would have to pay higher fees than they did with the PFRA. “The market’s already telling us that it can’t do the same service [that the PFRA did] for the same price.”

The worry is that the high capital expenses of leasing the land will squeeze out small producers in favour of those with access to major capital.

“Very big cattle interests would take over — packing plants like XL Foods, for example. It’s an extremely concentrated industry, and these resources are worth a lot more to large operators than my family can pay,” says McCreary.

There’s another potential problem. This is a lot of land, and no institution will be left to monitor it. Conservation is incredibly important. Who’s going to pay for a third party public watchdog to protect the public environmental interests at risk? The market? Attendees at the forum argued that the proposed conservation easements would be too weak to ensure the land is managed properly — especially if some patrons decide to re-sell to third or fourth parties.

“This land is a place that sustains us — this might not be obvious, especially to city dwellers, but it feeds us. The first and most obvious point is the oxygen that it creates for us to breathe,” says Savage.

There may be a glimmer of hope, however. Former Chief of the FSIN Roland Crowe has teamed up with Carl Neggers, former director of the PFRA, to offer another option: converting the pasture land from government management to a model that makes business sense, but doing it with the help of a steering committee led by seven First Nations chiefs.

The group’s mandate would focus on a triple bottom line: make money, help sustain environmental assets, and be socially responsible so that the pasture’s benefits are carried forward for future generations.

“Canada is better served by incorporating our First Nations,” Neggers says.

Neggers says the proposal has gotten “pushback” from some stakeholders adamant against First Nations involvement.

The business plan, which is still in the draft stages, has been in the works since he began meeting with government officials and stakeholders last fall.

The sustainable land management joint venture would be in charge of all 62 pastures, and First Nations groups could help influence land use without having to fight the government in court over the 1992 Treaty Land Entitlement agreement.

Whether the Wall government would consider approving such a plan is currently anyone’s guess.

FUTURE PROFITS?

There’s an interesting footnote to this story: those 1.6 million acres provide a massive amount of carbon sequestration. That has no monetary value right now but Neggers believes it could offer a huge money-making opportunity for whoever takes over the pastures — depending on the political powers-that-be and the likelihood of a carbon cap-and-trade system.

It’ll be tricky, since the whole endeavour will require cooperation between groups with varied interests. Still, it needs to be done, says Neggers. “Government disinterest should not negate 80 years of public investment.”