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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 ...

Manitoba decided to keep its 400,000 acres and just rent them out. Last August, the New Democratic Party government of Premier Greg Selinger announced a plan to work out a fair agreement with a new organization representing the “pasture patrons,” whose cattle graze the land.

Handed a much bigger responsibility – 1.6 million acres – Saskatchewan initially took the opposite approach, saying it would sell off the pastures – instantly alarming nearly 2,000 cattle operators who depend on them but aren’t necessarily willing or able to buy them.

Last week, after months of debate and increasing pressure, the government of Premier Brad Wall adopted a leasing arrangement similar to that of Manitoba, with one important difference: Patron groups still have the option to buy the land outright, removing it entirely from the public domain.

This upsets conservationists because, in a rapacious market, with everyone from investment groups to Chinese corporations sizing up Saskatchewan property, what is to stop the cattlemen from deciding that the real-estate market offers a better return, if raising livestock loses its appeal?

Also, a subsequent buyer may ask the courts to lift such restrictions. If crop prices go high enough, future owners could bring in the tractors no matter what the land title says.

The fact that prosecution for ignoring an easement is all but unheard of makes any penalty for breaking the prairie a risk worth taking.

All the talk of who should own or control these vast holdings overlooks a wild card held by the province’s First Nations: Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE), a framework established in 1992 to recognize that native communities did not always receive all the land they were entitled to when they signed their original treaties.

Now, a legal mechanism intended to make up that shortfall comes into play whenever Crown land is offered for sale, and the day after the decision to cut the pasture program was announced, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) contacted Ottawa to express interest.

TLE applications can be contentious in southern Saskatchewan, where land title is often complicated by mineral rights (be it oil, gas and coal or merely sand and gravel), but they could hold up the sale of PFRA pastures for some time.

Meanwhile, a smaller group of First Nations led by former FSIN chief Roland Crowe is taking another approach and trying to build bridges with both grazing patrons and the conservation community. That’s a tall order in a province where Indian leadership is stereotypically associated with nepotism and fraud, but this group has committed itself to a multi-stakeholder governance system that would bring the First Nations’ voice to a table of equals.

They say their aim is to develop a business model and management regime that builds on the successes of the existing program, while leaving the land under the Crown. On-the-ground management of the pastures would remain with the current staff.

So what does the future hold?

The dialogue now under way between farmers and conservationists, policy-makers and aboriginal people is a fascinating second look at our history in this landscape.

When I sit at meetings and listen to a presentation from someone representing the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation or a First Nations group, I wonder if we may yet get this right.

Last month, a new advocacy group called Public Pastures-Public Interest invited Saskatoon writer Candace Savage, the author of Prairie: A Natural History, to lecture on the plight of the pastures. She finished with a thought worth repeating:

The rich legacy of the PFRA lies in its public policy designed to try something else with the land, see what results and then adapt as necessary.

The program arose in response to an ecological crisis caused by misguided government programs, the ones that enticed Georgiaday Hall’s ancestors and many others to take up homesteads on the poorest prairie soils.

If nothing else, those origins should give us pause as we decide how to treat the land that our dust-bowl forebears learned was best left to grow grass for the public good.

In our rush to harness the prairie to our desire, can we find the courage and imagination to seek a solution that is mindful of every displacement suffered in this world of grass, from buffalo and birds to its lost ways of life – indigenous and settler alike?

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