Agriculture

Conservation projects approved . . . looks like lobbying overcomes cutbacks

AHEAD OF THE HEARD -- A grant by the Alberta government to conservation organizations raises some concerns during times of financial cutbacks to many government support programs. The Minister of Environment and Parks announced that $9 million was being given to the Southern Alberta Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, and the Foothills Land Trust to preserve over 6,000 acres of ecologically-sensitive land in the foothills of southern Alberta. Included were three large ranches. The government money is matched by $2 in value from the conservation groups; some of that value can be in kind or for services by the organizations. The money is used to purchase land or place conservation easements; it is also used to administer and manage the land the trust groups have acquired. It has been suggested that these grants have become a regular source of revenue and support to the groups involved.

Firstly, there are few indeed who oppose the principle of conserving land in its natural state in perpetuity. Preserving ranch lands is particularly important near urban centres to block the voracious expansion of suburban and industrial development. Loss of productive ranch lands has a long-term negative impact on livestock production, the overall agriculture industry and the economic wellbeing of the province.

To assist land conservation, the Alberta government created the Alberta Land Trust Grant Program (ALTGP) which, over the past six years, has provided $48 million to conservation groups to preserve almost 94,000 acres. That’s a good thing particularly compared to the millions of tax dollars the NDP government regularly squanders on advertising propaganda. On the other hand, I suggest the government does not always get the credit it deserves when it gives millions to conservation groups. Some groups seem to neglect to adequately mention the direct government support for their activities.

But there is another side to this recent announcement, particularly when the Alberta government had to go out and borrow the $9 million in order to give it to the trust groups for their projects. One would hope that governments only borrow money to cover ongoing services and entitlement programs urgently needed by citizens. From that perspective, the land trust grant program does not meet such criteria. I would suggest that postponing these types of grant programs for a few years would be more fiscally prudent and would not jeopardize the long-term goals of land preservation. The question might be was there any urgency in conserving the land that is being acquired? There is no indication of that need. Even if urgency was the concern, I expect the government has other legal and regulatory tools to freeze the loss of ecologically sensitive land probably for years. So how come some non-urgent discretionary grant programs are provided with millions of scarce government dollars, while other seemingly more important agricultural programs are cut back and even eliminated to save government tax dollars in these dire times?

If it’s not urgency or some other critical need, one can only attribute the continuing generosity of the ALTGP to extensive and successful lobbying by the conservation groups. Of all the groups, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has one of the most sophisticated and effective lobbying machines in the country. Their success in extracting huge donations (some call it guilt money) from energy companies for various conservation projects is legendary it is literally in the millions annually. The NCC should be commended for that effort, but I would suggest that perhaps such high-level lobbying efforts have also succeeded at continuing the flow of government grant money to the NCC and other groups - even during these times of massive government deficits. One also notes that one of the conservation projects is near the new Castle Park is there maybe a political/strategic connection? Will grazing be cut back near the new park?

But here is the real exasperation that $9 million, or a chunk of it, could have been used to preserve the Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency which the NDP government arbitrarily terminated to supposedly save money. That agency carried out development projects that created jobs, increased livestock production, improved processing and supported marketing opportunities all of which have real urgency for the ag sector and could have provided a return to taxpayer investment.

I would suggest that as noble as land conservation is the ALTGP could have been suspended for a few years in favour of investing and supporting programs and agencies that have a more immediate impact on the well-being of the agriculture industry and the taxpayers of Alberta.

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