Will it be negotiation or more alienation?

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It would be safe to assume that with the election over we are in for at least four (or 40 more — depending on your political perspective) years of steady government in Alberta.

It means that the Land Use Framework (LUF) legislation can now be implemented and enforced by the ruling PC government. By all accounts that matter, better known as the property rights issue, is what drove the Wildrose Party victories in central and southern Alberta. Politically, that issue can now be approached by the re-elected government in different ways; will it be through mitigation, negotiation and perhaps reconciliation, or will it be through retribution, compliance and more alienation?

It will be up to the government to determine what political outcome it want by the next election. I expect the Wildrose opposition party knows what outcome it wants.

I would suggest rising above the issue and making some linkages that would actually help the agricultural land we so cherish. I would suggest a direct linkage between the overarching principle of land use with ecological goods and services, and conservation. Firstly, except maybe for any positive effects of climate change, it’s unlikely vast new acres of arable and grazable land will be coming available in the near future.

That means we need to conserve and use the land we have for food production and not for fun, industrialization or trendy lifestyle philosophies. Having said that, common sense needs to be in play, muskeg, forests and oilsands cannot be farmed obviously.

For some time now, a number of conservation organizations have been instrumental in the permanent preservation of ecologically significant agricultural properties. They have done this either by purchase, or through conservation easements. In Alberta, they have been prominent in preserving rangelands on large ranches in the foothills. It’s estimated that over 200,000 acres of ranchlands in Alberta have been conserved in such ways. Such preservation is to be commended; it stops industrial and development encroachment on irreplaceable ranch and farmlands. In almost all the cases, the rangelands continue to be used for their original purpose, that being grazing by animals.

The conservation groups take an active part in seeing that the land is used and managed properly.

I expect the landowners are satisfied with the arrangements they have made with conservation groups to conserve their land, and that their “property rights” have been respected, compensated and preserved. However, it would seem that sooner or later, the easily preserved land will run out and conservation groups may have to take a different approach to conserving more such land. In addition not all landowners accept the present approach that conservation organizations use, there may have to be different methods to achieve the same purpose.

A first step would be to change the definition of “ecologically significant” land to include land that produces food — a more practical designation that will have a lot more significance as the world population increases.

That would instantly increase land eligible for conservation purposes. It’s not a new concept; many countries in Europe have taken this approach and provide financial incentives to either keep their land in food production or treat it as part of their rural culture.

Sure, one could see this as an indirect subsidy, but that’s the real world we compete in. Besides, maybe this is a way to be more honest about our on-the-sly AgriEverything support programs. The point is to conserve land both for food production and ecological significance. We can have both with some insight, daring and courage.

Perhaps in an expanded role, conservation groups could get involved with government in providing landowners with a financial or tax incentive to actively renovate their farmland from brush encroachment back to its original purpose and condition. That could be just part of a larger ecological goods and services (EGS) program. It would be bringing back land from the dead, so to speak.

If the idea was considered for the whole province could 100,000 acres of land be brought back to productive use and preserved? I’d say that was the least considering up to 40 per cent of foothills’ open rangeland has been lost over the past 100 years. I would suggest that conservation groups continue to be involved in monitoring renovated land to make sure it is not lost again. More land to conserve, and more food production — or is this too much common sense?

My point is, that there should be a way to mitigate landowners’ concerns with property rights. Clearly, they don’t trust government intentions. But many landowners seem to trust the motives of conservation groups. Perhaps thought should be given to at least use some of the LUF legislation in a constructive way with conservation groups’ oversight and supported by an EGS program to begin to protect and conserve our precious agricultural lands. It just might change landowners and the agricultural community’s perception of “property rights.”

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