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The Alberta land in question is home to endangered species, such as the ferruginous hawk.

Cleve Wershler

Having gone 187 days without a chance to directly grill the government during Alberta's heated Question Period, two opposition parties seized the opportunity Monday to address a pressing issue: potatoes.

Liberal Bridget Pastoor led the critique of an application to government, by a potato company with ties to the ruling Progressive Conservatives, to buy a whopping 16,000 acres of Crown prairie grassland near Taber, Alta. (In an average year, the province sells a total of about 10,000 acres).

With the legislature sitting so rarely, Ms. Pastoor raised the alarm over Alberta's dwindling tracts of grassland, which is essential for over a dozen endangered species.

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"If this has to happen, lease it," she said, calling the preservation of such land "hugely important."

Proposed as a farm expansion by SLM Spud Farms, the would-be sale has been draped in secrecy. The application was made under what the Liberals call a "loophole," allowing companies to buy a right-to-purchase from stakeholders and make a private bid. No financial figures have been released.

SLM owner Louis Ypma was called a "friend of the government" by Liberal Leader David Swann, though Mr. Ypma has given a total of only $3,800 to the PC party since 2004. The decision on a sale rests with the minister, leaving opposition parties fearing favouritism.

"These things just happen behind closed doors. The problem is there needs to be a public open bid," Wildrose Alliance MLA Paul Hinman said.

Minister of Sustainable Resource Development Mel Knight dismissed the complaint, stressing it's not a done deal.

"It's a proposal that has not been, and may never be, concluded," Mr. Knight said Monday, adding allegations of possible favouritism were "a load of poppycock" and that the proposal, which included 800 acres of new wetland, isn't entirely for a potato farm.

A call to Mr. Ypma was not returned Monday.

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The land lies in a part of the province where fresh water is over-allocated, leaving no surplus for any new potato irrigation systems. Mr. Knight quipped Monday that "God himself may provide the water - I don't know."

A handful of conservation groups are trying to block any sale. They are concerned about endangered species, such as burrowing owls, that use the land, which is also used for livestock grazing.

"This is the family jewellery being sold off here, and we're having no say in it," said Nigel Douglas of the Alberta Wilderness Association.

The proposal, dubbed "potatogate" by the Liberals, and questions about health care dominated debate Monday, first day of a brief fall session at the provincial legislature. The government has planned only a handful of bills, including a controversial overarching Alberta Healthcare Act.

Justice Minister Alison Redford announced Monday that the province is preparing to sue tobacco makers to recover health-care costs stemming from tobacco-related illnesses. Alberta would be the fourth Canadian province to do so.

Monday also was the first day the upstart Wildrose Alliance was granted official party status. It has four of the province's 83 seats.

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