Calgary

A family legacy: Third-generation Alberta ranchland protected from development

Otto Hansen was a teenager when he arrived in the remote wild of southern Alberta in the 1920s. The Danish immigrant had come from Saskatchewan where he had heard cheaper land was on offer if he travelled farther west.

Hansen family reaches deal with Nature Conservancy to preserve 3.7 square kilometres of Alberta prairie

Shane Hansen and Laurel Hansen raised their family on Hansen Ranch. Now, they're ensuring it will be conserved for generations to come. (Brent Calver)

Otto Hansen was a teenager when he arrived in the remote wild of southern Alberta in the 1920s. The Danish immigrant had come from Saskatchewan where he had heard cheaper land was on offer if he travelled farther west.

The prairie land, east of what is now Waterton Lakes National Park, with its high elevation and brutal winters was undesirable for settlers with means. Hansen came with next to nothing. He worked as a labourer and began carving out a life with the woman he married, Laura Peterson.

"They were just squatters; they were renting land wherever they could, or if a family moved out of a property, they'd move in, because they had nothing," said Shane Hansen, Otto's grandson.

"Over time they were able to scratch enough money together to buy their first quarter of land in 1935."

Otto and his family would eventually expand that parcel to encompass a stunning 3.7 square kilometres, which is bigger than some small Alberta towns, from Irricana to Picture Butte.

The land has been in the Hansen family for three generations. (River Run Photography)

Now the family's third generation to live there has ensured the breathtaking swath of rolling hills and cattle ranchland will remain intact for generations to come.

Under a deal with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Hansens have agreed to preserve their property as a cattle ranch, having registered a caveat on the land title that prevents them and future owners from developing or subdividing it.

The Nature Conservancy compensated the family with a little more than $800,000 in cash, while the Hansens can claim additional tax receipts.

They can't drain the wetlands; they can't cultivate the grasslands, and they'll continue to use it, if they wish, for ranching.- Larry Simpson, Nature Conservancy

Shane Hansen said he started looking into a conservation pact a couple of years ago, when he and his wife Laurel were redrafting their wills and talking to their children about what they should do with the property.

"We just wanted to preserve our agricultural land, keep it intact, mainly because we wanted to preserve a legacy for our ancestors in the farm," Hansen said. "But also ... we just wanted to make sure our land didn't become a campground or a large development because we are in a pristine area as far as viewscapes and wildlife go."

Located in the County of Cardston, the Hansen ranch adds to a network of conservation lands that form a buffer around Waterton Lakes National Park to protect important habitats for grey wolves, wolverines, lynx, grizzly bears and other species.

The ranch is also in the headwaters region of southern Alberta, which provides fresh drinking water to 45 per cent of Albertans. Its wetlands and streams are home to birds, amphibians and fish.

The ranch is located just outside of Waterton Lake National Park. (Brent Calver)

"[The Hansens] and future owners of the land can't change its use; it will stay as ranchland," said Larry Simpson, director of strategic philanthropy and conservation at the Nature Conservancy.

"They can't drain the wetlands; they can't cultivate the grasslands, and they'll continue to use it, if they wish, for ranching purposes, which is the intent of this agreement."

Simpson said a stretch of land along the edge of the Rockies is a final vestige of the northern plains that's "big enough and wild enough" for roaming wolves, bears and cougars.

Sustainable ranching in the area has allowed many species to thrive. (River Run Photography)

"It's the ranch economy that keeps that space open and available," he said.  

"We from time to time have discussions and we hear them, that if you love the world, don't eat beef. Well, if we don't have that [beef production], then we don't have millions of acres of grasslands in Western Canada. It'll be converted to some other use.

"That's why this is an important step in the direction of conserving biodiversity in Alberta and in Canada."

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