The public needs to know more about the sale of Crown grasslands, a Saskatchewan activist says, after the provincial government put more public land parcels up for auction last week.

"We're losing our hold on the legacy of Saskatchewan as people, as Prairie people," said Trevor Herriot, co-chair of Public Pastures - Public Interest, a grasslands conservation organization.

"This government has been participating in a rapid erosional process, removing our prairie heritage of Crown grasslands from public oversight."

Last week, the government of Saskatchewan put 75 public land parcels up for auction to private buyers. Last spring, 92 parcels were auctioned. 

Herriot said of the land south of the boreal forest, only 15 per cent is Crown land and a lot of that is old-growth natural grassland. He said there are some small scraps of natural prairie in private hands, but most of the 85 per cent of land that is privately owned has been cultivated.

That's why he wants people to get involved. 

"Saskatchewan's native prairie is one of the most endangered and yet least protected ecosystems in North America."

Crown land sales not new

"We've always sold land," said Wally Hoehn, executive director of the Ministry of Agriculture Lands Branch.

Formerly, the ministry sold land through tenders but last year it began using an online auction format.

The government uses a Crown Land Ecological Assessment Tool to determine if a piece should be sold with an easement. That's a legal agreement that makes sure a private owner will preserve natural features and resources and can mean the natural cover won't be plowed.

Of the 75 parcels put up for auction last week, 21 have a Crown Conservation Easement, representing about 3,300 acres out of 11,000.

 In the previous auction, 92 parcels were for sale and 17 had CCEs.

Land that's classified as being of moderate ecological and environmental importance must be sold with an easement; land classified as low doesn't need one and land classified as high importance can't be sold.

But Herriot said all grassland must be considered important. 

"The elimination of natural cover on the landscape to produce crops has driven us to the place where all land that has permanent cover on it has ecological value," Herriot said. 

Crown Conservation Easements

The low numbers of CCEs raised alarm bells for Herriot as he thinks destruction is inevitable. 

"If it gets into private hands, and there's not a good solid Crown Conservation Easement on it, it will be plowed," Herriot said.

"If not [by] the current landowner, then whoever it gets sold to later."

Herriot is calling for more CCEs and regulation so public policy can guide private owners.

Natural cover helps with climate change adaptability and maintains a healthy ecosystem, Herriot said. Furthermore, he said maintaining public ownership allows Indigenous people access. 

But Hoehn said he hasn't seen large scale development on land sold through auction, so far.

"I think the ranchers and farmers that buy this land are awesome stewards," Hoehn said.

"To just generalize and say whoever buys this land is going to rip it up and start seeding it, I don't think that's fair."

grasslands

Grasslands National Park features Saskatchewan's prairie land. (Jay Brown/saskhiker.com)

Conservation organizations respond

In a blog post, Herriot said conservation organizations have been silent on this matter, but a number of them say they're aware of the issue and doing what they can.

The latest auction caught Nature Saskatchewan by surprise, said conservation director Lorne Scott. The Ministry of Agriculture only notifies the public about sales through a link on its website.

Since learning about the auction, Nature Saskatchewan will try to meet with government officials about retaining public ownership, said conservation director Lorne Scott.

"In southern Saskatchewan we've lost 80 per cent of our natural landscape and we continue to lose more every year. Bulldozers, breaking plows," he said.

He said prairie grasslands in their natural state are at more risk than rain forests or coral reefs or any other type of biome.

"The more people that are aware of it and expressing their concerns, the better."

"We have been letter writing, encouraging citizens to make their voices heard, meeting with farmers and government officials," said executive director of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society Allyson Brady in an email.

A Nature Conservancy of Canada spokesperson said the organization's focus is to conserve ecologically sensitive lands that are privately-owned, through land donations, purchases and conservation agreements.

"We do collaborate extensively with other conservation organizations and with government on landscape level conservation."

Michael Champion, a spokesperson for Ducks Unlimited, said the organization will continue to work with ministries to protect the land.

"They are important areas for water quality, for habitat, for biodiversity. They help protect us in flood and drought."

Many meetings have been happening behind closed doors, he said, adding Ducks Unlimited has programming dollars available for residents to put conservation easement on land.

Not all native grasslands fall in the Ducks Unlimited jurisdiction, so it's important conservation organizations work together, he said.

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story said 15 per cent of native grassland remaining in southern Saskatchewan is still public. In fact, 15 per cent of land in southern Saskatchewan remains Crown land, and most of that is native grassland.
    Oct 06, 2017 2:35 PM CT