Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Hon. Lyle Stewart responds to concerns about native prairie being destroyed

Chestnut-collared longspur, a species that continues to decline, even faster than the rate of native grassland being converted to crops

Today on CBC Blue Sky, the Hon. Lyle Stewart, Saskatchewan's Agriculture Minister, responded to concerns about native grassland and aspen bush being destroyed in the province. You can hear his remarks here on the Blue Sky web page.

I believe that Mr. Stewart is an honest man who genuinely wants to do what is best, but I can't help thinking he is just not getting good counsel on the ecological value of our native prairie and the forces that can degrade it or destroy it despite our best intentions.

In the interview, Mr. Stewart unfortunately repeats two common myths about Saskatchewan's native prairie that are very easy to disprove:

1. that plowing native grass is something from our distant past and very little native grassland has been converted to cropland in recent years, and

2. that all the native grass that remains is simply not suitable for cropping so there is nothing to worry about. 

In the interview he says that all the breaking of native grass occurred before 1930, "with a few exceptions. . . guys trimming around edges and squaring off corners and so on. . . . It is not happening in any substantive quantity anymore."

That is simply not true. I suppose the good folks who work at the Department of Agriculture might actually believe that there are just a few corners being squared off. Minister Stewart, however, inadvertently puts his finger on the problem when the interviewer, Garth Materie, asks him about a recent incident where someone who owns a piece of former Crown land has started plowing some of its native grass. "Before this story came along," Minister Stewart admits, "we just didn't hear about it at all." That might be the problem--they are not hearing about it so as far as they are concerned it isn't happening.

Well, I'd suggest the folks in his department need to get out of the office a little more and out into the real world.  Or if they can't do that, all they need to do is ask our government biologists and ecologists who study native grassland. Even better, ask people who live in the grassland regions of the province. They will tell you. There are new and old landowners deciding to plow up their native pastures and it is a lot more than "trimming around edges". In addition to last week's story of the small piece of native prairie being destroyed near Govenlock, I have had people contact me to say that they know of many other recent examples. One concerned landowner near Leader said "it is happening all around us. Lots of acres sprayed, plowed and planted. Some just sprayed dead, and in various stages de-construction. Some are large corporate farms, a few smaller farmers." This is not necessarily former Crown land but it is native grassland being destroyed to plant annual cash crops and it is happening today. That is why all Crown grassland needs a conservation easement if it is to be sold.

As for the notion that our remaining native grass is simply not suitable for cropping and therefore in little danger of being plowed, a report by the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, based on Provincial Government research, says the following:

"Over 24% of native grassland is still at medium or high risk of being broken (Soil classes I to 3). With advances in crop development, crop varieties that can grow under drier conditions and on infertile soil may soon become available. While these advancements may be very beneficial to producers, it may also increase the threat of further cultivation of native prairie on poor agricultural land."
Later in the interview, Garth Materie asks the Minister about aspen bush being destroyed to make room for crops. Here is the reply:

"In the driving and traveling I have done around the province, I haven't seen very many instances of bush being pushed in east-central Saskatchewan. I'm sure it happens in little corners that are being squared up and tidied up, as far as it being a major issue it's just not." 

Really? Not a major issue? There are people out there who make a living by bulldozing bush. It is rampant in some parts of the Aspen Parkland ecoregion, where the native grassland remnants are already down to a mere 13%, and the poplar bush remnants and sloughs will soon be just as rare. "Pushing bush" would not be a common phrase every rural person knows if it were not a common practice. Anyone who lives in the Aspen Parkland can tell you that people are pushing bush and filling sloughs every year more and more. Can anyone provide figures to prove it? No, because the Province is not monitoring this activity and has cut back staff and travel allowances necessary for such environmental monitoring.

aspen bush bulldozed in east-central Sask.

At one point, Minister Stewart defends the property owner's right to destroy native grassland:

"The right to make business decisions is part of the deal of owning property in our society and I don't think we should be prescribing exactly how a farmer or a rancher should operate on his grassland any more than we should be telling you what colour you should paint your house, which is built on former grassland. We have certain rights as individuals as a society, and unless or until individuals are abusing the environment, I think that we should let them exercise the rights." 

That pretty well gets to the core of the issue here. Minister Stewart, who apparently does not recognize plowing native prairie as "abuse," knows exactly how the world works: private property rights trump the public trust. Someone who owns a piece of ancient rainforest or ancient prairie is fully entitled to destroy it. And that is exactly why it is vital that we keep our biggest pieces of native grass entirely under public ownership as Crown land. If any is sold it is incumbent upon our public representatives to ensure that there is a conservation easement on the land to protect it in perpetuity--and to provide sufficient monitoring and enforcement staffing to ensure that the easements are respected to the letter of the law.

Toward the end, Mr. Stewart says something that has to make you wonder if his advisors even know the facts: "We have 6 million acres in grassland roughly in Agriculture and Environment has many times more than that." I don't have the exact figures but there is only about 12.7 million acres of native grass left in Saskatchewan in total, including private land, and regardless I doubt Environment has responsibility for more than Agriculture.

As for the incident near Govenlock being overblown, yes the landowner only destroyed 40 acres of native grass, so far—but he may plow more under and as the minister points out, it is his right to do so. Worse than that, there are many perverse incentives in the market and agricultural policy that urge him to destroy the ancient grassland and seed it to crops. We need not only regulations and easements to prevent the plowing of native prairie, but agricultural policy that in a time of rising land prices make it possible for our ranchers to continue making a living by grazing native grass, without having to overstock OR convert it to cropland. The rates our cattlemen pay for leasing crown grassland are higher than those across the border in Alberta and Montana and that puts our cattlemen in a position that over the long run is going to lead to degradation and loss of native grass. We need to give them lower rates both on the new PFRA lands that will be up for lease soon and for the rest of our Crown grasslands, but that break in their land costs should be tied to some minimal best management practices and stocking rates that will ensure the long term ecological integrity of the grassland while allowing our cattlemen to make a living and pass on the tradition to the next generation.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Privatized Crown grassland being ploughed up this week

cultivating sage brush prairie in Montana
Long before the PFRA pastures issue arose, the Saskatchewan Department of Agriculture had already begun looking for ways to sell off Crown lands, including native grasslands. In 2009 they began trying to sell the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act lands (WHPA) by seeing if they could justify removing their designation as wildlife habitat. Conservationists spoke out against the privatization and WHPA lands are still in limbo today. Meanwhile, Sask Ag. has begun selling non-WHPA Crown land, including some native grassland that supports species at risk. Many of these properties are as valuable ecologically as WHPA lands but simply were not designated. Because they were not WHPA lands the sales happened without any conservation easements to prevent the new owner from ploughing the ancient prairie.

Well, the inevitable is starting to happen. Yesterday I received news that someone in the southwest of the province is plowing land that until recently was protected under the Crown. Apparently, an Alberta farmer bought the land from a Saskatchewan resident who had originally purchased title for it from the Province and then flipped it for a profit. Local people reported that the new owner has a hired man running a 24 foot breaking plough through the sod. So far, he has broken forty acres of native grass and 160 acres of crested wheatgrass. The land in question adjoins the west flank of the Govenlock PFRA pasture and therefore supports its ecological integrity as a single block of intact native grass.

The rumour is that the owner plans to break more native grass if the land produces well enough.
He is entirely within his rights as a landowner and there is nothing any of us can do to stop it, just as someone who owns title to tropical rainforest is entitled to log it.

This is why Public Pastures--Public Interest and prairie conservationists in general believe that the best way to protect our largest pieces of Crown grassland is to keep them under the Crown. Once they are sold to a rancher the land can be re-sold to someone who wants to plough it and plant crops or destroy it in other ways for profit. Conservation easements provide some protection but the legislation leaves room for the easement to be removed if a second buyer takes it to court and demonstrates undue hardship. Also, with no one monitoring the easements the government puts on Crown land before they sell it, there is little risk for a landowner who goes ahead and plows and then asks for forgiveness later. Still, if any Crown grasslands are sold--whether it is WHPA or not--it should have a conservation easement on it.

Our cattlemen in the southwest will tell you that there are areas where virtually all of the land is being bought up by Albertans--farmers and ranchers flush with oil and cattle money from just over the border where their Province gives them better terms on Crown lease rates, as well as a bigger share of the oil and gas income extracted off their land. This leads to an uneven playing field that is virtually guaranteeing that our cattlemen are not as competitive as their Albertan counterparts and will be out-bid for land time after time.

And with our aging ranchers in the South West and few of their children able to afford the costs of getting into cattle (again in part because our Animal Unit Month rates on lease land are much higher than Alberta's, Montana's or Manitoba's), our lands are going to go to out of province land lords--some of whom many not have the same conservation ethics that have always kept our native grass intact as habitat for species at risk.

And yet I meet cattlemen who say they like to have the option to purchase outright the land they lease from the Crown so they have more control over it. Well, folks, the down side of having that right and control is that the purchaser also has the right to re-sell and when he does the new land owner might do exactly what is happening now on the West side of the Govenlock PFRA pasture.

This province is long overdue for a thorough public review of all of our Crown native grasslands--co-op pastures, Provincial and Federal community pastures, and the 7 million acres of Crown grassland leased to private cattlemen. First, to find out what we have remaining,  and then to determine its ecological value (biodiversity, carbon sequestration, soil and water conservation), its heritage resources (Metis and First Nations' ancestral sites), and its food security values, and then to decide in a full consultation with all stakeholders, how we want these incredibly valuable and endangered landscapes to be managed for the good of all and generations to come.
Val Marie PFRA pasture, image courtesy of Colin Hubick of Redhat Studios

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Right Person, Right Time

The path of a freelance writer is not a straight or easy one. There are obstacles in our way and route to publication can be a long and winding one. But, if we want to succeed and be a regularly published freelance writer we have to be prepared for that journey.

It doesn't help when some magazines seemingly make it incredibly difficult for writers to contact them with potential feature ideas! They don't always print contact details in the magazine themselves. This is where a bit of lateral thinking comes in.

I had come up with a few ideas over the weekend to pitch to a certain magazine. Now, when I last tried to pitch to them I couldn't find any email addresses. I knew who the features editor was, but had no clue how to contact them. So I enlisted the help of a Facebook friend who had been recently published in that magazine and asked her. They very graciously obliged and I had that all important contact e-mail. I didn't get a commission that time.

So, I looked in a recent copy of the magazine and saw that the features editor had changed. So, using the same format of e-mail as last time, but with changing the name I sent my pitch off. But it bounced back. All the best laid plans and all that - that'll teach me for trying to be too clever. Any way, I decided that the best course of action was to actually phone the features writer for that magazine who was the only one listed as having a phone number.

It is always nerve racking phoning a magazine editor. But, it pays to remember that they too are human, just like you, and do want to hear your ideas - they need a constant supply of good content. Just remember to be prepared, though. They might want you to tell them a bit about yourself and your past publications. They might also want you to talk through your ideas there and then. On the other hand, they might just give you a contact name and e-mail address to send your pitches too. Sometimes they might not be that co-operative and say no thank you not to day! You have to be prepared for all eventualities.

This is your chance to sell your writing to that editor. Take your time to think about what you are going to say and listen intently to what the editor says to you. Either record their instructions or jot them down for reference later. Slow your breathing and speech down and try to relax. The editor doesn't want a jabbering, stuttering wreck they can't understand on the phone. Don't let your nerves get the better of you.

It takes time for an editor to get to know you and your work so don't expect miracles with your first few pitches. Your pitches might not be accepted initially, but keep trying. Make sure you have read several back copies of that magazine and the recent issue and you are pitching appropriate ideas. Having said that, I once pitched an idea to a magazine I hadn't tried before and got my first pitch ever accepted by them. On the other hand, with another magazine it took several attempts. KEEP TRYING!

Happy pitching and phoning!
Julie xx

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Patchy Ground Fog

                           Patchy Ground Fog      
Yesterday morning I took a last summer ride past Adirondack lakes, streams and meadows, which were all obscured by some patchy ground fog.  And today I am back in Las Vegas getting set to be a visiting professor at UNLV.  That fog was tricky – I could almost see through it, but not clearly enough to be certain what was really on the other side.  And that was how I felt making this trip from all that I've known before into the unknowns of academia.

I guess it’s always like that when you start something new – new house, new pets, new friends, new colleagues, new relationships, or a new job.  While I sort of know what’s coming, I can’t yet see everything clearly enough to feel competent or confident: academia is certainly different from my corporate past, and students are similar but different from children and employees.   And while I think I know what’s ahead, I can’t see things clearly enough to entirely alleviate the natural anxiety associated with trying or starting something new. It really is like peering through the fog.

So even though I’d driven those same roads many times and knew where they ultimately ended up, I was still uncertain about what was ahead through that fog. Similarly, I can see the connections between all I’ve done in the past and what I might teach in the classroom, but not having been at this school or on this faculty before I am uncertain what this will really be like. Isn’t that always the case when trying something new?  And isn’t something new, by its very nature, somewhat obscured (like looking through a fog)?

The answer is yes – but that should never stop us from taking on new challenges and opportunities, and striking out into the unknown.  Because if we never try something new we’ll never know how far we can really go; if we never walk into the fog, we’ll never know what’s really out there.  Those are the challenges, and blessings, of life.  I am thrilled, excited, and a little nervous about what it will all look or be like when the patchy ground fog of this transition burns off in the rays of tomorrow’s sun.

My message this week is about having the courage to try new things:

“You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Andre Gide

Discover anything new lately? Most of us spend our days and nights reliving and repeating the same lessons we learned long ago, but if we’re lucky something new and exciting sometimes comes along.  When that happens, we have a chance to learn new lessons and practice new techniques.  You have to be open to these new lessons, and not afraid to admit what you don’t know: the only chance you’ll ever have to create and discover new opportunities is when you leave the known behind and strike out in search of the unknown.   So learn something new today, and then use that new-found knowledge to do something great!

Stay well!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Make it a habit

To make any kind of headway as a freelance writer you have to be coming up with ideas and pitching several of them a day. It's no good sending a pitch out when the mood takes you, once in a blue moon. By sending out your pitches regularly to the same magazines you are making an impression on that editor and getting your name known. They know you are not just a one trick pony and that you are a serious writer.

But you want to make the right kind of impression. You don't want to bombard them with article ideas that are so far off the mark they are left wondering if you actually know what magazine they are features editor for!  And that takes time, preparation and research.

You have to read back copies of your chosen magazines as well as the latest issue. And don't forget to look at the 'what's coming up next' section so you don't pitch an article idea they are already covering next month. Notice the tone of the articles they do publish. Is it chatty, or more formal - do they use lots of quotes from experts or more case studies from ordinary people?

Writing your pitch in the style of the magazine shows the editor you have bothered to read their magazine and can write in the style they favour. And don't forget to address your pitch to the right person, otherwise there's a risk it will get banded about for weeks before reaching the right person, or, worse case scenario, it just gets deleted. Look in the magazine as there is usually an e-mail address or phone number you can use to find out who the appropriate person to address and how, is.

But the most important thing is to try and make pitching articles a habit not a thing you do when you've got a spare five minutes or so. Regular pitching is your friend! The more wonderful, appropriately pitched article ideas you send out there, the better your chances of a hit.

Happy pitching!


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Who Will Manage for Species at Risk on the First Ten Pastures to be Transferred?

Sprague's Pipit, one of 32 Species at Risk that use the PFRA community pastures (image courtesy of Alan McKeigan)

Among all of the public goods that the PFRA community pasture system has delivered to Canadians for nearly 80 years--the soil and water conservation, the support for small to medium sized cattle producers, the biodiversity, carbon sequestration, the economic and social spinoffs for rural municipalities and small communities--the one good that may be most vulnerable to the changes in management and tenure underway is the fate of the grassland species at risk (SAR) that have benefited from management programs and planning that balances their habitat needs with grazing requirements.

The private cattle producers who end up buying or leasing the community pastures, no matter how well intentioned, will not have the means to continue the SAR programming that made the PFRA system a model in ecologically sustainable grassland management.

Buried in Agriculture Canada's science publications web pages is a news item on "Agricultural Biodiversity" that praises the Community Pastures Program (CPP), its Biodiversity Extension Specialists, and its protection of species at risk. Not sure why it is still online but this is part of what it says:
"CPP encompasses - and here's where the harmonious co-existence part comes in - the grazing of 210,000 cows, calves, bulls and horses on lands containing fragile grassland ecosystems and many SAR. The grazing of cattle is symbiotically tied to the survival of many SAR. For example, the Burrowing Owl chooses habitat that is grazed low enough to spot predators and depends on the dung of large herbivores such as cattle to line its nest. Tools developed for the CPP include a calendar that lists the periods of the year when SAR are most sensitive to disturbance, factsheets on various species, interactive maps, and recommendations for setbacks for infrastructure. The unit (part of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Agri-Environment Services Branch) also works with provincial conservation data centres and other specialists to ensure they are using the best information available."
So, what about the first ten community pastures scheduled to be transferred to Saskatchewan this fall and placed in the hands of cattle producers? Do any of them have species at risk? Yes, they do. In fact, nine of the first ten have recorded SAR as the following table shows:

Species at Risk
North Battleford
None found
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit
Lone Tree
Swift Current
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit, Swift Fox
Short-eared Owl, Sprague’s Pipit
Common Nighthawk, Whip-poor-will
Ituna Bon Accord
Foam Lake
Monarch, Peregrine Falcon
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Piping Plover, Sprague’s Pipit
Burrowing Owl, Piping Plover, Sprague’s Pipit
Burrowing Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Sprague’s Pipit (F.Hawk successful nest in 2012)

Burrowing Owl, also by Alan McKeigan

How will the grazing patrons who take over responsibility for these pastures maintain the SAR protection and planning done by the PFRA? Is it fair to expect them to look after endangered species on these pastures without giving them the wherewithal to do it? If a species at risk on their pastures begins to decline rapidly or disappears, will the Species at Risk Act apply, will conservation organizations begin to pressure them to adjust stocking rates or protect den or nest sites? Will the Province take responsibility even though there is no provincial legislation protecting SAR on provincial lands?

Lyle Stewart, Saskatchewan's Minister of Agriculture, has said repeatedly that the SAR will continue to be protected, but he has not said how that will happen. Stewart's own web site shows the Hansard pages where he makes this astounding claim, saying "Species at risk will continue to be protected on these lands as it is on all privately or publicly owned land in Saskatchewan". Here is SAR expert Andrea Olive responding in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix to Stewart's repeated assurances that SAR will be protected.

I know the pasture patrons are asking how that will happen, and folks in Nature Saskatchewan, Nature Canada, and other conservation NGOs are asking the same thing.

If you care about the Burrowing Owl, Swift Fox, Loggerhead Shrike, Ferruginous Hawk and the many other rare and endangered animals and plants on these lands, you should be asking too.

Long-billed Curlew in stipa grass (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Article on the PFRA pastures in "Country Guide"

Auvergne--Wise Creek PFRA Pasture south of Swift Current

When we did the tour in June hosting BirdLife International dignitaries Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Ian Davidson and Alberto Yanosky (of Paraguay), a writer from Country Guide magazine came along and took notes. Anne Lazurko, a farmer and writer from southeastern Saskatchewan, finished the article and had it published last week in Country Guide. She and her editor were kind enough to give me permission to provide a link to the piece. Here is a quote from the middle of the article:

The Community Pasture Patrons Association of Saskatchewan, chaired by rancher Ian McCreary, joined forces with PPPI to bring attention to the issue. It’s a smart strategy. If Canadians care about saving burrowing owls, swainson’s hawks and prairie dog colonies, and they understand that managed grazing ensures habitat for these species, it might go a long way in convincing the federal government to slow down the process and listen to patron concerns over the business end of things.

CPPAS Chair Ian McCreary talking to Graeme Gibson on the tour (image courtesy of Branimir Gjetvaj--see
McCreary is convinced a solution can be found if government is willing to back off on its timeline. Patron groups are to have business plans for ownership in place by this fall in order to keep the pastures out of the hands of third parties. But McCreary says the government has failed to provide those groups with the information they require to go forward.
Meanwhile, Sheri Monk, a journalist from southwestern Saskatchewan, has written a powerful editorial on the PFRA community pastures and posted it on her site. She called it "How the Cookie Crumbles." Here is a quote:

Everybody benefits from the PFRA projects, and to suddenly expect a handful of people to completely finance them is akin to asking the village of Piapot to take over all costs associated with the TransCanada Highway between Maple Creek and Tompkins. It’s utterly reprehensible, and this attack on rural Saskatchewan cannot be tolerated and make no mistake – dismantling the PFRA is precisely what this is – an attack.

Common Nighthawk, one of 31 species at risk on the pastures that the Federal government is washing its hands of by cutting the PFRA Community Pastures and its endangered species programming