Easement ensures land will continue producing food

Ranchers eager to preserve countryside for future generations

COCHRANE, Alta. —The craggy face of Harvey Buckley may be that of the true environmentalist.

He and his wife, Margaret, have placed 800 acres of their historic southern Alberta ranch under a conservation easement to protect land that has more value to them than just its economic appraisal.

The undulating land north of their home near Cochrane is covered with bluebells, gaillardia, wild roses, cinquefoil and waving grasses. There are outcroppings of rock left behind from the last ice age. Natural springs feed into creeks that eventually flow into the Bow River. The Rocky Mountains are to the west, Calgary is to the east, a First Nations reserve is on the north and a gas plant on the south.

“It has never seen a plow and obviously it never will,” Harvey said.

A decision to place land under conservation easement is part of a succession plan for their family and society.

They worked with the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society (SALTS) and their adult children. Rancher John, lawyer Bruce and daughter Carolyn Walker were all in agreement when the couple sought protection for the operation, which has been in the family for more than 70 years.

“If Margaret had her way, she would put the whole ranch under a conservation easement,” Harvey said.

However, about one-third of their deeded land, or 1,000 acres, is farmed while the rest is grassland. Current laws do not allow cultivated land to go into easements.

“To us it was a matter of saving this beautiful country and the creek and riparian areas because for future generations there won’t be any left all the way to the Hudson Bay,” Margaret said.

Her family came to Calgary in 1884, and she grew up at the edge of the city with farms across the street. She shared a vision with Harvey to protect the land and water for food production and aesthetics.

A long-time warrior fighting to protect agriculture from urbanization, Harvey is head of Action for Agriculture, a small but dedicated group that supports planning to protect and conserve farmland.

The area west of Calgary is made up of land that was homesteaded and ranched more than 100 years ago. Farms and ranches were consolidated over time and other holdings were sold to developers eager to build golf courses and country residences.

“I don’t know if you are ever safe from development,” he said.

Visitors have suggested some of their land would be an ideal spot for a golf course.

“It just makes me shudder,” he said.

“People don’t realize how dependent each one of us is on this land, even the guy who is living in the 23rd storey of some condo in downtown Calgary. They don’t understand where their water or their groceries come from.”

Conservation easements are tailored to the landowner and are typically granted in perpetuity. They remain attached to the land title regardless of ownership. No subdivision or environmentally damaging forms of development are allowed.

Several land trusts operate in the province, but the Buckley’s selected SALTS because its board of directors consists of farmers and ranchers.

An independent baseline report was conducted for the Buckley agreement over five days to assess the land’s riparian areas and biodiversity. A market value appraisal and an environmental assessment were also conducted.

“We lost something like $3.5 million in value as soon as we put that conservation easement on it,” Harvey said. “People say, ‘how are you going to replace that if you wanted to develop it?’ If we wanted to break it into 20 acre acreages, that $3.5 million wouldn’t pay for all the infrastructure required.”

The Buckleys retain their title to the ranch, and the agreement sets out what can and cannot be done.

There are no plans to change the management of 70 years.

The six quarters will be grazed in the fall and next spring until the middle of June. No cattle will be back until the fall of 2016.

“Next spring, it will be just like your mowed lawn, then we give it a rest,” he said. “We wanted to preserve that and let it function as it has been doing and let it produce food and water. The food happens to be beef,” he said.

Harvey and Margaret are dedicated conservationists who joined the Society for Range Management. As well, Harvey started to travel to land trust conferences in the 1990s to learn more.

The next step is learning how to make new land use laws in Alberta work for them. He is concerned about political arguments over the Alberta Land Stewardship Act, which he sees as enabling legislation to help landowners protect property. It includes regulations on how that may be done.

He and his family want society to appreciate what the land has to offer and the importance of saving it for future generations.

“There is no place in the world we have been where you can drive out and you can see the mountains with landscape in front,” Margaret said.

“It is the most beautiful site there is, and they are ruining it because they are developing it.”

They hope that what they have done may influence their neighbours to consider a similar plan.

“People have to learn you are not independent anymore,” Harvey said.

“You are interdependent, and they haven’t made that distinction yet.”

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