Earlier this week the regina mom and her friend, Cherie Westmoreland, had a conversation about the prairie grasslands in anticipation of tonight's talk, Grasslands in Peril, by Candace Savage*. Cherie said that for her, the grasslands are "a quantity of grief that's difficult to hold." And tonight, after having spent almost two hours listening to Candace's presentation, "Fifty Shades of Green," the regina mom has a deeper understanding of that grief. Candace opened her lecture with a reference to her friend, Lille, who lives on a First Nations reserve south of Maple Creek. Lille once told her that in order to get to know someone you ought to ask, "Who is your grandmother?" and "Who is your grandfather?"
When we talk about land on the prairies we are talking about the people... When we talk about people on the prairies we are talking about the land... The prairie land and people are part of the same thing.
Candace then offered us stories about her grandparents and the lands they "settled," some of which, she said, should never have been turned. She cited Vernon Fowke and his assessment of the Dominion Lands Act, that being "a colossal failure of public policy."
From there, she launched into details about the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA), established in 1935, in the midst of the Dirty Thirties, and given five years to address emergency water issues. In 1937, the Act which established PFRA was amended to allow for the permanent management of lands. The community pastures program, 85 federal pastures consisting of 2.3 million acres of lands were set up across the prairie provinces as means to arrest soil drifting on the prairies.
Of these pastures, or public ranches, 60 exist in Saskatchewan. That's 1.8 million acres, 2,800 sections of land, an area larger than Prince Edward Island. The vast majority of this land is ancient land which has never been tilled. It comprises part of the less than 20 per cent of the original grasslands that once existed in North America.
The community pastures were established for management of local economies, i.e. to assist farmers and communities, as well as for conservation management, "to manage a productive, biodiverse rangeland." The practices in the pastures are state-of-the-art and include considerations for "all the creatures that make a living prairie." But with the federal government pulling out its commitment, the living laboratories may be lost. Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has said that the job of PFRA is done, the community pastures have achieved their goal.
Candace Savage disagrees. She noted that for an $8-million investment, the pasture program created $58 million in benefits to local rural communities, "a darn good deal." She also noted that despite all the community pasture program has achieved, the prairie ecosystem is dying all around us -- plants, animals and birds special to our piece of the northern grasslands are dying off. Thirty-one endangered and threatened species live on the community pastures.
Citing a national report, The State of Canada's Birds, which draws on 40 years of research, Candace said that no one knows why these insectivore birds are dying off. It could be because of climate change or the loss of grassland habitat. She spoke of the whooping cranes that used to nest at Shallow Lake, near Luseland in RM 351 and RM 350, in what is now a community pasture. The community wants to bring the cranes back but if the land is sold, "the whooping crane will not be re-introduced to the Luseland/Kerrobert area." The community needs the expertise of PFRA to do it.
Candace also noted some positive developments since the federal government's announcement. Communities of interest are coming together. Protect the Prairie began a petition campaign which more than 8,500 individuals from Saskatchewan and beyond have signed. The provincial government has vowed to place conservation easements on the pastures if they are sold. A ranchers/stewards alliance has formed to create a new management team for the pastures in southwestern Saskatchewan. The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) passed a resolution calling on the province to "retain ownership" of the pasture lands.
Still, it all seems too little to hold the grief. As Candace concluded, "There is wonderful life all around us, and we are its last best hope." the regina mom hopes we are up to the task.
Tomorrow, communities of interest are gathering in a public forum at the Orr Centre, 4400 4th Ave in Regina from 8:30 to 4:30 p.m. to assess the situation and develop a plan of action. The event will be recorded and placed online. the regina mom will provide that link when it is available.
The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations also released an excellent backgrounder on the community pasture lands.
Candace Savage is the best-selling author of Prairie: A Natural History and the 2012 recipient of the Hilary Weston Writers Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her latest book, A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory in a Prairie Landscape.
With thanks to John Klein for his live-tweeting of the event which helped trm with this post.