SARM coming around on pasture issues

Delegates confident SARM directors will push province on returning federal pastures to rural municipalities

Saskatchewan’s rural municipalities are going to try the diplomacy route with the province rather than the courts to resolve a simmering dispute over pastureland.

The RM of Reno withdrew its resolution calling on the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities to launch a class action lawsuit against the province for failing to return federal pastures to RMs after the community pasture program ended.

The lawsuit resolution was originally passed at the 2014 annual convention, when SARM was instructed to lobby the province on the issue and to initiate a class action lawsuit if the province didn’t take the necessary action by Aug. 31, 2014.

Paul Heglund, councillor with the RM of Reno, said SARM didn’t come close to following the intent of that resolution, but he believes it is now fully committed to lobbying the government.

“We’ll back off for a while and see if they’re going to be helpful,” he said.

The turning point was a meeting about the pastureland issue at last week’s convention that attracted about 60 RMs and a few SARM directors.

It became clear at that meeting that SARM would now be taking the issue seriously and would be lobbying the province to come to some sort of agreement with the affected RMs.

“We were really amazed at the support we had there,” said Heglund.

“It sounded like SARM had got the message that this was a very important matter. It sounded like they’re going to begin to co-operate with us, so we thought that we don’t really need this irritating resolution.”

The pastureland issue was also raised during a bear pit session with the provincial cabinet.

Fred Baran, councillor for the RM of Dundurn, urged the province to reconsider its stance to sell or lease to pasture patrons the 62 Saskatchewan pastures comprising 1.7 million acres of farmland.

He said the pastureland in the former Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration program came from the RMs and should be returned to them as originally agreed upon.

Saskatchewan agriculture minister Lyle Stewart said the department’s legal council has reviewed the minutes of Land Utilization Board meetings from 1936-63.

“They found no contractual agreements or evidence of them between the Land Utilization Board and RMs for land to be reverted back to the RMs,” he said.

“While there are hints in some of the minutes that some RMs believe that was maybe going to be the case, there has been no evidence of any actual agreements that were made.”

Baran said the RMs can’t provide a formal agreement because a lot of deals were done by handshake in the 1930s.

“I would certainly like to see the government take the high road and do what Manitoba did,” he said.

Manitoba Agriculture helped fund the creation of the Association of Manitoba Community Pastures and is providing the pastureland to the association lease-free.

Heglund said the RMs are not looking for a land grab. They simply want to ensure that the pastures continue to exist to support cow-calf operations.

“What we want to do is to allow the cattle industry to continue. If they close these pastures, a lot of ranches will have to fold up,” he said.

However, he doesn’t think the province will give up the pastureland without a fight, which is why the RMs want SARM’s financial assistance in case a class action lawsuit becomes necessary.

Four RMs have each contributed $25,000 to a legal fund.

“We’d prefer the province would sit down and talk. The court action may be the only way to get them to the table,” said Heglund.

The RMs will draft a new resolution for SARM’s midterm convention and hope to get unanimous support for it.

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