Privatization could put grassland at risk

The Saskatchewan government announced the end of the Saskatchewan Pasture Program in its March 2017 budget.

Public Pastures-Public Interest (PPPI) wants the public to be aware and have its say on the future of these lands.

The province’s official position is that the pasture program has outlived its usefulness. The Ministry of Agriculture says the livestock community does not need community pastures anymore and the government should not be in the business of managing cattle.

Most cattle producers in the province seem to disagree, but even if the government position was true, cattle production is merely one public good among many that well-managed community pastures provide.

Light to moderate grazing keeps the land healthy. The other values that come from these lands — carbon sequestration, habitat for species at risk, protection of rare ecosystems in the province’s Representative Areas Network, sites for research — are often best served by a system of management influenced by a sustainable and long-term public agenda, rather than short-term private interests of lease-holding producers.

More than three-quarters of the 780,000 acres in Saskatchewan pastures, especially in the south, are still in native condition. This type of land can be home to many species at risk, and long-established stands of non-native grass often provide important habitat too.

The Ministry of Agriculture is looking at options, which could include leasing the land to corporations of farmers and ranchers with livestock operations, but initial communications from the ministry said that it will also look into the possibility of selling some of the lands.

PPPI sees the closure of the pasture program as another step in privatizing Saskatchewan’s grassland commons.

By removing public involvement and management of these lands, the province is giving up the infrastructure that could be used to do a better job of managing public grasslands for climate change mitigation and species recovery.

It is also exposing their carbon storage capacity, biodiversity and species at risk to the market forces and private interests that inevitably drive land-use decisions and lead to habitat erosion and fragmentation over time.

This can occur when good private stewards retire and are eventually superseded by managers who push the land harder for short-term gain.

A community pasture management system gives government the ability to protect the commons for the long-term public good.

The grazing on these lands must be monitored to ensure preservation of the natural habitat. But the Ministry of Agriculture is unlikely to replace the 130 pasture management staff who are losing their positions with enough range-ecologist staff to properly support the private management of these ecologically critical public lands.

These lands and the system that manages them are crown assets as much as crown corporations. The only difference is that if land is degraded or plowed, the native prairie can’t be restored.

Outside of the grazing season, they are accessed by hunters, naturalists, First Nations people, educators, writers and photographers. Keeping them publicly owned ensures this kind of access will be retained.

The government is conducting a consultation with stakeholder meetings and an online survey.

Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t ask the primary question: do people want the Saskatchewan Pasture Program to end?

The government could also take the opportunity to bring together for dialogue all those concerned about pastures: pasture patrons, environmentalists, First Nations and people who look forward to local, sustainably produced beef.

Public Pastures–Public Interest is a network of individuals and organizations supporting the preservation and sustainable use of crown pasturelands and grasslands in Saskatchewan and internationally.

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