Sale of native prairie in Alberta causes alarm

Potato grower who bought the government-owned land says deal done by the rules, but groups decry loss of grassland

A quarter of publicly owned native prairie grassland near Taber, Alta., was sold to SLM Spud farms March 31 amid concerns voiced by various groups about the need to preserve such land and despite prior government assertions that it would not sell public land.

The quarter, located 29 kilometres east of the town near Sherburne Reservoir, appears to have been sold for $460,000 through CLHbid, an online agricultural real estate sales service.

Action for Agriculture, a group dedicated to preserving agricultural land, expressed concern about the sale when the land was initially posted.

“Native prairie is a threatened ecosystem in Alberta. Continued loss of those lands decreases drought resiliency, threatens the survival of more than 60 prairie species at risk and releases carbon to the atmosphere,” wrote Action for Agriculture chair Doug Wray in a letter to premier Jason Kenney and environment minister Jason Nixon.

“There is no record of public consultation about the sale. Selling crown native grassland is contrary to current public opinion,” the letter said.

“AFA is asking for an explanation of the decision-making process involved and who and how the assessment was made to put this quarter up for sale especially with no easement to protect the native grassland.”

Contacted after the sale took place, Wray said the AFA did not get a response to its letter from the premier or minister, and its request for a conservation easement preventing cultivation of the quarter was also unheeded.

Lyle Ypma of SLM Spud Farms confirmed purchase of the quarter on April 3. He said he has been working on buying the land for about 10 years and had followed all rules regarding its sale, which had been approved by the previous NDP government.

Though native grass, Ypma said crested wheat grass had taken over much of the quarter over time and surveys have shown there were no species at risk resident on the land.

“I did everything above board according to every rule in Alberta,” said Ypma, adding he applied three and half years ago to have the land put up for sale.

“I owned the grazing lease on it before. I had to give up all rights on that land.… I put it up for public auction with absolutely no guarantees that I would get it or anything else. I gave up $100,000 worth of lease.

“So it is very much blown out of proportion. All I’m trying to do is just farm, raise food for people. There is no such thing as a backroom deal in Alberta any more. You apply and it goes through all the checks and balances and it takes forever and it drives you nuts.”

The amount of native grassland in the province is slowly dwindling because of cultivation and urban encroachment. Various conservation groups have campaigns to preserve what is left.

Among those is the Alberta Wilderness Association, which had earlier called for a halt to the land sale and criticized the lack of transparency on the government’s part in offering it for sale.

“The most important thing is that there’s been no transparency about this. We get stonewalled when we ask questions of government,” said Cliff Wallis of the AWA.

“The other thing that bothers us is, the government is currently spending money to restore cultivated lands back to native prairie. Here we already have native prairie in government ownership. Why are they putting it on the auction block? Not a wise use of public funds at a time when we should be particularly concerned about it.”

Both the AFA and AWA now think the quarter section will be cultivated and likely used for potato production.

“I can totally see why those guys decided to put an offer in on it,” said Wray.

“The guys that surround it are the only ones that can make use of it very well. But the worry is that they’ll just end up cultivating it and we lose a little bit more prairie.”

In its promotion of the sale, CLHbid suggested the property could be used for raising cattle, grain or other crops.

“Although no water rights currently go with this quarter, it is deemed irrigable and who knows what the future might hold. Potatoes on the table may be a realistic option on the menu in years to come,” the auction company said.

“Never privately owned and always in pasture, the land offers up unlimited options for added value production to today’s discerning consumers.”

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