Large potato farm proposal withdrawn in Alta.

This story originally read, “A controversial plan to buy 160,000 acres of Crown land for potato farming in southeastern Alberta has been withdrawn.” The correct acreage is 16,000 acres of Crown land. – Correction added November 15, 2010.

A controversial plan to buy 16,000 acres of crown land for potato farming in southeastern Alberta has been withdrawn.

SLM Spud Farms owned by the Louis Ypma family of Taber, Alta., withdrew its offer to buy the provincially controlled land on Nov. 2 after environmental and ranching groups complained that a transaction of that size should have been open to the public.

The land is located near the confluence of the Oldman and Bow Rivers in southern Alberta. The plan was to break up most of the rangeland for potatoes. Calls to SLM Farms were not returned.

Mel Knight, minister of sustainable resource development, said the land is being used for agriculture.

“There are two dispositions there. The Ypma family has some of it under disposition now and the Bow Island Grazing Association has some of it under disposition where there are about 40 subscribers,” Knight said in an interview.

The province sells about 10,000 acres of public land each year, but some will never be for sale if the province deems them critical habitat or ecologically sensitive, said Knight.

“Alberta is growing at quite a rapid pace. The population is growing and there will be a requirement for food production, so we have to look at these possibilities and the options that are in front of us in terms of the value of land for conservation and habitat versus the value of the land for agricultural purposes,” he said.

The province had two independent appraisers evaluate the land. It also surveyed wildlife populations because endangered species are in the area.

Officials from the Alberta Wilderness Association said the lack of public notice was disturbing.

“The secrecy of it is a big deal. Public land belongs to Albertans and Albertans should have some say in what is going on,” said association spokesperson Nigel Douglas. Details of the sale were leaked to the association in October.

The AWA wants all sales of public land to be open, even if they involve small tracts attached to private farmland.

They also want to see native grassland preserved because it is an effective way to manage water storage and maintain wildlife populations that can coexist with livestock.

For members of the Western Stock Growers Association who rely on grazing leases, the sale threatened their tenure on provincial lands and raised the question about the value to society of ecological goods and services.

Bill Newton said he doesn’t object to small tracts of land being sold but the loss of such a large tract of land is different.

“To cancel the contract or let it expire and put the land up for tender for anyone to bid on ignores that property right and the rights associated with the contract,” said Newton.

Ranchers worry these kinds of deals could jeopardize other long-term agreements.

The western prairies were opened up with grazing agreements and many families have held leases on the same government land since before Alberta became a province.

“The fact of the matter is there is no more native prairie grass left so it is not something you create by spreading a few varieties of seeds. It is the result of thousands of years of evolution,” said Newton.

Ecological goods and services are a key point for the stock growers, who see value beyond the economic production of farm land.

“Water filtration and carbon sequestration is greatly overlooked as an important goal on grazing lands. That is a far greater value to society than historical value of it. Without clean air and clean water, how can society survive?” said Bill Hanson who ranches at Valleyview.

The ranchers said the time has come to place a dollar and cents value on grasslands.

“As long as society expects them to be free or that they should have those services without paying for them, we will continue to have situations like this where either owners say there is perhaps a higher dollar return in another venture than grasslands with some food production as well as production in ecological goods and services,” Newton said.

Recent legislation under Bill 36, the Alberta Land Stewardship Act, has a provision for payment of environmental goods and services that could be shared by government and private concerns.

The bill allows the land use framework to proceed and promises new conservation tools and protection of heritage landscapes and ecological systems within the seven regional plans.

Grazing leases are covered under the public lands act and ranchers like Ward believes the legislation has not caught up with what society wants.

“Alberta still hasn’t figured out what to do yet and maybe we’ll see some of that in the land use framework,” said rancher Norm Ward.

“It may be a process that takes 10 or 15 years but hopefully we can start down this other road and attach some values to property that are more than just these easy productive values,” he said.

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