Peace land auctions become election issue

Opinions are mixed over a United Conservative Party plan to potentially auction crown land for agriculture in northern Alberta, garnering support from farmers but leaving wilderness groups unimpressed.

The UCP has pledged that, if elected, it would begin consultations on potentially auctioning 100,000 acres of crown land in Mackenzie County, with funds possibly used to lower the province’s deficit.

“I think this is about economic opportunity,” said UCP Peace River candidate Dan Williams.

“Yes, we want to do it in a thoughtful way, but a UCP government is going to consider all opportunities to put Albertans back to work and drive investment.”

Andre Harpe, a director with the Alberta Canola Producers Commission who farms in the Peace region, said the plan makes sense if it doesn’t have a huge impact on the environment.

“If you look at urban areas, we’re losing land everyday to urban encroachment and to cities,” he said.

“It’s hard to replace that land.”

However, opponents of the plan say environmental benefits from not developing the land outweigh any potential economic gains from the sale.

“We’re against the sale regardless of which political party is elected,” said Nissa Petterson, a conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association.

She said the untouched boreal forest in the county is environmentally productive, housing an array of wildlife species and providing fresh water for neighbouring and downstream communities.

“(UCP leader) Jason Kenney might see this as unproductive land, but we’re getting a lot of benefits having these areas of intact wilderness,” she said.

However, the county government has been advocating for the auction of more crown land in the area.

The former Progressive Conservative government had auctioned close to 120,000 acres in the La Crete area in the early 2010s.

The money that was generated from the auctions hasn’t been made public, but one parcel in 2014 had a reserve bid of $52,700, according to Mackenzie County council meeting minutes.

“This created a significant economic boost to our region, creating many jobs and allowing more of our young families to continue living in the region,” Reeve Josh Knelsen said in an email.

“The comments that Jason Kenney made regarding agricultural land expansion within the Peace Region are encouraging.”

Oneil Carlier, who was agriculture minister in the previous NDP government and running in the election, said there are opportunities to auction more land in the region, but consultations would need to occur to ensure it’s the right approach.

“This is very remote land in many ways. There is no infrastructure in place, so you have to have that consultation with the county and the First Nation for infrastructure, like roads in the area,” he said.

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