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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 ...

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.

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