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

In the next few weeks, if the deep snows of this winter ever recede, prairie dwellers such as Georgiaday Hall may find themselves enacting a common rite of spring. Strolling through a hilltop scrap of native grass, they may stop above the first velvety crocus blooms emerging from the earth and crouch in wonderment, even gratitude. Despite all forces aligned against it, a piece of old prairie sod is coming to life again as it has for 7,000 years.

The crocuses, moss phlox and other spring flowers stir memories of Ms. Hall's grandfather, who arrived with his four small children 100 years ago this summer. Advertisements placed by the new Dominion of Canada in British papers had said there was fertile land for the taking on the virgin prairies of Saskatchewan, where grain flourished even in the driest regions.

Unable to resist, the recently widowed greengrocer in a Derbyshire coal town took up a piece of that promised land southwest of Swift Current on the edge of the Great Sand Hills, planting his first crop in 1915 in some of the province's poorest soils.

They got by, but when the Dust Bowl drought hit in the 1930s, Ms. Hall says, the government moved the family and its neighbours off the land. Their homesteads had been deemed unfit for farming and were to become part of a large communal pasture under a new federal program.

Created in April, 1935, that program, the Regina-based Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), set about stopping the erosion before it turned the southern Prairies into a desert. Once the soil was stabilized and the emergency over, its mandate shifted to managing the pastures, to provide grazing for local cattlemen while conserving soil, waterways and prairie ecosystems.

Last November, when Ms. Hall sent me her family's sad narrative – withered crops, blowing soil, children scattered, her 12-year old father labouring for one abusive farmer after another – she was worried about those pastures. She wrote to me because I was worried too. I keep a blog that focuses on the birds and natural history of the Great Plains. These days, however, almost every post tries to shed some light on the legacy of the PFRA, which, like many other federal environmental programs, fell under the shadow of Bill C-38, the 452-page omnibus budget bill introduced a year ago.

Ottawa had decided after 77 years that it was time to close the agency and hand responsibility for the 9,300 square kilometres it administers – an area nearly twice the size of Prince Edward Island – to the provinces where the land is located.

Rural and urban people were alarmed. Farmers worried about access to grazing; conservationists worried about losing the ancient prairie and protection for its many endangered species.

The memory of the Dirty Thirties runs deep in prairie dwellers. Even in wet years, they know the big dry will come again, and when it does, the PFRA will not be there to help.

The PFRA story is about land, big pieces of it. We call them pastures, but this isn't your uncle's weed-filled back forty. The Val Marie pasture spans 100,000 acres and is just one of 62 the PFRA manages in Saskatchewan, along with 22 in Manitoba and one in Alberta.

The vast majority of all that acreage is native grass, the ancient buffalo prairie that has never felt the plow. Failed farms account for just 20 per cent.

As rare and ecologically important as coastal old-growth forest, the PFRA grasslands are listed by the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) as lands that Canada has made a commitment to protect.

The federal government abandoned that commitment when it discontinued the PFRA.

No policy study, no rationale; in fact, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz did not even bother to trot out the usual austerity arguments. He simply announced that the program had done its work, and could stand down. "The pastures are now well-established in the Prairies," he explained in a news release last April 18. "This change will create a great opportunity for provinces, stakeholders or those who use the land to take over pasture management."

The transition is to take place over the next three years and, unless there is a delay, this season will be the last for the first 10 pastures scheduled to leave the federal fold.

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.

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?