Wednesday, 21 November 2012 15:33

Campaign highlights concerns over future of federal community pastures

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
Rate this item
(0 votes)

A new era for the 60 federal community pastures in Saskatchewan has dawned with the recent announcement by the provincial government that 10 of these pastures will be transferred to patron-controlled operations for the 2014 grazing season.

But not everyone believes this is the start of a bright future for these community pastures, which have been under federal stewardship since the Great Depression as a key focus of Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) efforts to promote soil conservation on the prairies.
The Protect the Prairie campaign has been launched to highlight the need for protection of the native prairie grassland. It is calling for conservation and environmental protection guarantees on these community pastures before decisions are made on its future use.
The campaign is sponsored by the Agriculture Union – PSCA with support from the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. Milton Dyck, the Agriculture Union's regional vice-president for southern Saskatchewan, hopes there will be a little more thought put into it.
“We’re hoping the devolution of the community pastures is given a little bit thought than it was when it was announced,” he said. “There was very little input requested before the decision by the federal government and from appearances, there has been very little real questioning by the provincial government for input as well.”
According to Dyck, there has already been a positive response to the petition and several thousand people have signed it. Their intention is to continue with the campaign for as long as it is necessary.
“I can’t see us not getting rid of the petition as long there’s still questions about what’s going to happen to the pastures,” he said.
A significant number of federal community pastures are located in southwest Saskatchewan. Five are situated in the Val Marie area and another five are in the remote southwest corner in the Rural Municipality of Reno No. 51.
There are also federal community pastures near Swift Current, Gull Lake and Maple Creek.
The Lone Tree pasture south of Val Marie is one of the 10 pastures earmarked for transfer to a patron-controlled operation by 2014.
The Prairie Post spoke to the manager of one of these federal pastures in southwest Saskatchewan, who only agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. The experienced and well-trained community pasture staff receive input from range management and other specialists and he does not believe patrons will be able to manage these pastures in a similar way.
“These guys drop their cattle off at the corrals in the spring and that’s where they pick them up in the fall,” he said. “They have no clue where they go from there. They don’t want to know, they don’t want to be burdened with the business of checking on them or doctoring them or moving them around.”
His concern is that these pastures will deteriorate and be overgrazed under a patron-controlled operation. Patrons do not have the time or specialized skills to manage the pastures in a balanced way and their activities are production driven.
“One out of every 10 cows in the province is summered at a PFRA pasture, this is not including co-op or provincial pastures,” he said. “If these are changed over and they go totally patron group control there’s going to be a reduction just because of the management and the carrying capacity.”
According to this pasture manager, a significant portion of their work involves activities to maintain and conserve the native prairie ecosystem, including invasive weed control and complying with the federal Species at Risk Act. He has also seen a significant increase in oil and gas exploration on these pastures.
“I would say 30 per cent of my time is taken up with monitoring oil and gas activity,” he noted. “Every time they do an exploration, the ground has to be reclaimed.”
He said the accountability required from the oil and gas industry on PFRA pastures has made it easier for adjacent private landowners to insist on a similar level of reclamation.
He felt there are still many unanswered questions about the future of the PFRA pastures, including the ability of patron groups to sell their shares.
He is also concerned over the potential impact on the local economy.
“We buy all our materials, parts, labour, anything we get done with tractors or if we got some contract work for a dam or something like that, that’s all done locally,” he said.
Dyck has similar concerns over the capacity of patron groups to manage the pastures in a sustainable way, how to turn the pastures over to the next generation and the impact on smaller communities.
“Every time I talk to different patrons, they bring up a different question,” he said. “What I’ve heard from a lot of patrons is we had something that wasn’t broken. ... When you’re cutting the budget, you think you would cut something that was costing a lot of money. The pastures bring in almost as much money as they cost to run them.”
Regina-based naturalist and author Trevor Herriot has been speaking with a number of pasture managers and patrons since the federal government's announcement that the 60 PFRA pastures in Saskatchewan will be transferred to the province. He does not understand the provincial government's rush to turn over the pastures to patrons.
“Why don't we wait until we've heard from all the people,” he suggested. “There's a couple of thousand patrons to these pastures. Have we asked them what they would like to see, have we asked the folks owning the stores in towns and running the schools in local communities what they would like to see happen to these community pastures?”
He felt it is not too late to slow down the process and to consult with the various role players, including conservation groups, hunters, cattle producers and First Nations.
“Then together look at some kind of business model and a management system that could conserve the PFRA pastures in a manner that's worthy of the long term investment Canadians and prairie people have made over such a long period in these ecologically-critical landscapes,” he said.
To coincide with Canadian Western Agribition in Regina, an open forum on the PFRA community pastures with key stakeholders will take place at the Orr Centre Nov. 23 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
For more information, contact Herriot at 306-777-2395.

Read 10644 times

More Ag News...