Premier Cancels “Potatogate” Sale

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The Alberta government has cancelled the request for proposals that would have seen 16,000 acres of native rangeland sold for irrigation development.

The cancellation fulfilled a promise Premier Alison Redford made during her campaign for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party. According to a press release from Alberta Sustainable Resource Development (SRD), People raised concerns that there was no public input& and that there might be an impact on water and on the ranching community.

The cancellation was welcomed by Alberta Wilderness Association, a vocal critic of the proposed development of native range into irrigated farmland. The group issued an open letter to Premier Redford, congratulating her on the decision to cancel the proposed potatogate land sale. It also called for a rethink of the fundamentally flawed process which came so close to allowing this important environmental land, endangered species habitat and leased grazing land to be sold off and plowed up.

The land is part of the grazing lease of the Bow Island Grazing Association, west of Medicine Hat in Cypress County. A bid to irrigate the land in the 1920s came to nothing, leading to farms being abandoned and the area returning to something close to native rangeland. It is now home to several species at risk, including burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks and Sprague s pipits, and is a calving ground for antelope. During the intervening years, it has been surveyed at least once for its irrigation potential.

In 2010, the grazing lease was part of a proposed land swap that would have seen public rangeland owned by SLM Spuds used for grazing and the grazing lease lands irrigated for potato production. Local cattle producers rejected the swap, saying they were being offered poorer land, with no compensation for their improvements or legal work. SLM Spuds walked away from the proposal last fall because of the opposition of the grazing association and a widespread outcry from environmentalists and others.

The RFP (request for proposals), which included a requirement for an irrigation plan as well as a bid for the land, was issued just before the Labour Day holiday and had a closing date of October 31. The Alberta Wilderness Association opposed the proposal and put in a Freedom of Information Request for correspondence related to the proposed sale.

Much of the information was withheld, said Nigel Douglas, conservation specialist with the association.

But the documents showed SRD staff in the Fish and Wildlife and Lands Divisions did not support the sale of this land. They said it was high-quality habitat for wildlife and had too many other values to be sold for irrigated farming. SRD s own experts said the parcel should not be sold. But, SRD seems to regard wildlife as a nuisance.

Douglas said his group would like to see a change in the legislation that currently allows the minister to sell off public land without public input.

Premier Redford committed to suspend the sale of ecologically sensitive Crown land near Bow Island and wait for the South Saskatchewan Basin Regional Advisory Council to present its final report on the best use of that parcel. That s quite a change from the position of former minister of sustainable resource development, Mel Knight, who focused on the jobs and investment irrigation farming would create and stated, Development can t be held in abeyance while regional plans are developed.

The issue is now under review.

We are back in the situation we had before the RFP, said Alberta SRD spokesperson Duncan Mac-Donnell.

There is no sale pending and no discussions on the Bow Island grazing lease. Premier Redford has made public consultation a priority issue.

He noted that the department is in transition with a new minister and, at present, no public body is doing regional planning. But there is a period for public comment on the report of the South Saskatchewan Regional Advisory Council that is open until the latter part of December.

We don t know where the premier is going with this, but the business of government will go on while planning is underway, said MacDonnell.


Wedon tknowwhere thepremierisgoingwith this,butthebusiness ofgovernmentwillgo onwhileplanningis underway.



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