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Drought conditions showing drifting soil along a fence between Cadillac and Kincaid, Sask. (Canadian Press)
Drought conditions showing drifting soil along a fence between Cadillac and Kincaid, Sask. (Canadian Press)

Why is Ottawa abandoning swaths of prairie grassland? Add to ...

When people questioned the decision, Mr. Ritz, who grew up on a Saskatchewan grain farm, wrote to the Regina Leader-Post saying that “because farmers expect us to work smarter with their tax dollars, we are winding down programs like community pastures … that have met their goals.”

But westerners know better: The PFRA has been a smart investment for Canadians, returning far more in public benefits than its meagre costs.

A study sponsored by Agriculture Canada in 2006 estimated those benefits at $55-million a year, compared with the $22-million required to administer the pastures, more than half which was covered by fees charged for grazing cattle.

As for the program having achieved its goals, the need for soil conservation and managing ecosystems in the public interest does not simply go away. Not only can healthy grassland become overgrazed and infested with invasive species within a few years, well-resourced management will be even more important should the prairie provinces receive the longer, more intense droughts widely predicted by climate-change models.

Over the years, the PFRA has become a model of sustainable agriculture, and its pastures a fixture of the farm economy in much of rural Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Phrases such as “food security” seldom arise at the coffee shop or rink, but many farmers know the PFRA is a bulwark against the forces now consolidating and globalizing the beef industry. With large feeder cattle operations and foreign-owned meat processors tilting the marketplace their way, community pastures have helped to sustain smaller operators, keeping our national livestock herd connected to local economies.

When that other icon of prairie farm economy, the Canadian Wheat Board, was stripped of its collective bargaining power last year, urban people, even in the grain-growing provinces, found it hard to grasp the significance. The PFRA controversy, by contrast, has cowboys sitting in rooms talking to aboriginal people, and farmers breaking bread with urban environmentalists and hunters.

The difference is in the common ground represented by the services that healthy native grassland has to offer all of us, town and country.

If well managed, grassland can flourish when subjected to grazing, but once it is plowed to grow crops, biologists say it has been “converted” because more than just the crocuses disappear; the appropriation is total. The public values and natural capital found in the prairie – its capacity to store carbon, foster biodiversity, stabilize fragile soils, filter and hold water, and provide recreation for hunters, hikers and naturalists, and stirring beauty for the rest of us – do not survive.

Some people raised in a grain-dependent culture will continue to consider all land that is treeless as “arable,” but the pasture debate is an opportunity to show them that native range is no more “agricultural land” than a forest is a tree farm.

Yes, the buffalo are all but gone, but community pastures remain an essential component of a biome that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) calls the most endangered and least protected of any on earth.

The Amazon Basin has lost 20 per cent of its rain forest, but 20 per cent is all that is left of the original prairie, most of it in fragments too small to support creatures that need it to survive.

In contrast, not only are PFRA pastures often large enough to function ecologically, they protect ecosystems that go back as far as 8,000 years, “old growth” by any definition.

As well, many of the creatures they contain are endangered – mammals such as the swift fox and 16 birds, including the greater sage grouse, long-billed curlew and Sprague’s pipit.

Their well-being, under the Species at Risk Act, is Ottawa’s responsibility, but the current administration has been criticized for not enforcing the act, adopted just over three years before Stephen Harper took power.

A former pasture manager resigned in frustration after watching the oil and gas industry damage the environment on his pasture, and now says he believes the decision to cut the PFRA was a gift to the resource industry because the federal legislation is not enforced on land that is private or provincially managed.

Whatever their motivation, Ottawa’s policy-makers dropped the pastures into the laps of two provinces, neither of which seems to have any intention of paying for the independent supervision that has kept the land from being overgrazed and stripped of its plants and wildlife.

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