Alternative Land Use Services | Officials disagree on what measures are needed to encourage farmers to maintain landscape
Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative party says all farmers in the province should receive payments for retaining water on their land, but Ducks Unlimited isn’t completely sold on the concept.
Brian Pallister, Manitoba PC leader, said the province should adopt the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) model to mitigate the risk of flooding.
“By working with local landowners and providing a financial incentive to offset the costs of maintaining wetland and grasslands through the Alternative Land Use Services program, we can enhance our environment and reduce flooding downstream in the watershed,” Pallister said in an early August news release.
The Keystone Agricultural Producers and Delta Waterfowl have long championed the concept of paying landowners for ecosystems services. Manitoba was the first province to run a pilot ALUS project in the rural municipality of Blanshard.
Ian Wishart, former KAP president and PC MLA for Portage la Prairie, who has been promoting ALUS for nearly 15 years, said the program is a proven entity in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario. Those provinces have conducted or are running pilot projects. Prince Edward Island has adopted ALUS for the entire province.
Implementing ALUS across Manitoba would cost between $20 and $30 million annually, said Wishart, who added the federal government likes the concept.
“Back when I ran it, we didn’t have a lot of federal support. Now I think that’s changed,” he said. “This is one of these things that has to be joint federal-provincial (funding) and needs an element of municipal too … I think everything has come together finally.”
Scott Stephens, Ducks Unlimited Canada director of regional operations for the Prairies, said payments to producers are an important component of preserving wetlands, but incentives alone will not work.
“To really be functional, it has to be both a combination of regulations that keep that base (of wetlands) in place. Then incentives that provide the impetus to put some of the basins that have been lost back,” said Stephens, who worked on wetland preservation in the U.S. before moving to Canada.
“That combination is where we’ll see the most effective solutions and progress made. Either one on its own, only incentives or only regulations, won’t be as effective in our opinion.”
Stephens said compensating all Manitoba farmers who retain wetlands would likely cost more than $30 million.
“I saw there was a $30 million price tag … I’m not sure how that math works out. I know there are a heck of a lot of basins across the province. That would mean pretty small payments for each basin,” he said. “If you’re going to go with only an incentive approach, that probably takes a lot of money…. You have to have a big chequebook.”
Policy-makers and some environmental groups have scoffed at the ALUS concept in the past, noting farmers shouldn’t be compensated for doing the right thing.
But the 2011 and 2014 Assiniboine River floods and the hundreds of millions spent to build dikes and reinforce infrastructure in Manitoba, have softened some of that criticism.
“I think we’ve finally come to the point where everybody has realized we need to deal with landscape management or we will pay the price,” Wishart said. “We pay the price on a number of fronts. Flooding is just one. Water quality is another one. Habitat loss is the third one and the whole carbon offset is another big factor.”
Wishart said landowners who provide ecosystem services, such as retaining wetlands or having a buffer next to a creek, are losing an opportunity to make money from that piece of land and should be compensated for their efforts.
“If a wetland can be drained and a farmer can grow a crop on it, why shouldn’t he have the right to do that?” he said.
“If you want the services that those wetlands (provide), you need to provide some recompense for the services.”
Stephens said paying farmers for ecosystem services can be effective if the programs are long term.
One of the weaknesses of the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program, where farmers were paid for taking marginal land out of crop production, was the 10-year agreement between landowners and the government.
When commodity prices rose in the late 2000s, many farmers walked away from the agreements and used the land to grow corn, wheat or soybeans.
“After tens of millions of dollars invested, today it (the land) doesn’t look much different than 20 years ago before these programs came along,” said Stephens.
He said agreements with landowners should be perpetual to maintain the environmental benefits over the long haul.
“If those ecosystem values are important, they’re probably important whether the price of canola is up or down.”