A group led by former Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations chief Roland Crowe is proposing a new co-op that could manage millions of acres of community pasture in the province.

The question of what to do with the land arose when the federal government decided to end its oversight of a community pasture program, through the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration, putting the province in charge of dealing with the land.

Crowe's group, the First Nations Sustainable Land Management Joint Venture, wants the federal and provincial governments to consider ways of keeping PFRA pastureland available, through a First Nations entity, before selling the estimated 1.6 million acres to the private sector.

He pointed out his proposal would allow existing users to continue to have access to the PFRA pastures.

"We're prepared, on behalf of our Indian bands, to have long-term lease agreements with the patrons that are there now," Crowe said, addressing a key element of his proposal.

The proposed co-op would involve a management board with representation from all interested parties.

Crowe added the arrangement would be temporary until it's determined if First Nations have first rights to buy the land outright.

Until then, title to the land would remain with the province.

Crowe said he is concerned the provincial minister responsible, Lyle Stewart, has already determined who should have the first opportunity to acquire the pastures.

"Minister Stewart said that the patrons — kind of led us to believe that the patrons would have first dibs, or the only ones who would have dibs on [the lands]," Crowe said.

Ranchers are priority, minister says

Agriculture Minister Stewart, however, is confirming his position that ranchers currently using the PFRA pastures will have the first opportunity to acquire that land or hold it as a lease.

"There's no question about that," Steward told CBC News. "We've said that all along that the patrons are our priority. And it's our priority to ensure that this land remains available to them and their successors."

Steward also said he wants to see groups of ranchers put in charge of managing the community pastures.

Cattle ranchers, meanwhile, were non-committal about the First Nations management plan.

Ryan Thompson is vice-chair of the Saskatchewan Cattlemen's Association

"We realize that there may not be one perfect solution for all the community pastures," Thompson said. "We want to maintain that. We can be flexible with how that's done."

Thompson said ranchers currently using the pastures should be allowed to keep using them no matter what oversight plan is put in place.

The land under discussion is PFRA community pasture land which the federal government wants to turn back to the province. Saskatchewan also oversees its own network of community pastures, not affected by the federal government's move.


With files from CBC's Kathy Fitzpatrick