Land leases and another controversy brewing

It looks like we may be heading into another major controversy involving the agricultural establishment...

It looks like we may be heading into another major controversy involving the agricultural establishment, this time focusing on mainly the cattle business.

Leader of the Alberta’s smaller opposition party, David Swann of the Liberals issued a statement calling on the provincial government to better manage province’s pastures by holding leaseholder ranchers to account.

“This past summer the Auditor General was unequivocal in his position that Alberta’s lease system was outdated and unfair. Today, we have another report that Alberta taxpayers are losing out on millions of dollars,” said Swann in his statement. “The previous government was supposed to take action in 1999 – how long will Albertans have to wait?”

With economy in dire straits and revenues shrinking rapidly in many forms, royalties, taxes and whatever one can think of, Swann’s appeal will likely find friendly ears among the government quarters. Although not much, additional $40 to $50 million revenue per year can help the government to plug some holes in this environment of scarcity.

The question is whether Ms. Notley and her cabinet will dare to take on the ranchers on another agricultural issue that may easily turn into a conflict and make it even more difficult for the provincial government to recover from the bashing it has received from the rural communities after Bill 6 was introduced and passed.

Here it looks like we are facing another situation whereby an issue left undisturbed by successive Progressive Conservative governments now comes to haunt the NDP government.

The conclusions reached by the Land Institute of the University of Alberta at the end of their review of the lease arrangements do appear to support immediate action aimed at reviewing the current regulations governing the leases held by ranchers.

One important factor that needs to be taken into account is that some leaseholders themselves agree that the existing model of leasing grazing land to ranchers creates “haves and have-nots” among them, with the luckier ones generating revenues from the oil and gas produced in the area they lease.

One of the stakeholders in the debate, Alberta Wilderness Association concurs. Cliff Wallis, speaking for the organization has reportedly described the current system “super flawed.”

The Alberta Grazing Leaseholders Association admits the program isn’t perfect, but they don’t completely agree with auditor general’s conclusions that an immediate and thorough review is required.

The government has launched its own review of the land leasing process and among the parties they have been consulting is the Land Institute of University of Alberta, which is suggesting that Alberta’s Surface Rights Board should also be involved in the shaping of new regulations for land leases.

We have yet to see how this debate will shape up in the coming days and weeks, but one can be certain that no opportunity will be missed by politicians to extract some political capital out of this debate as well.

Under the current circumstances, whereby Ms. Notley and her cabinet are widely regarded as hostile by the rural population while at the same time they have the responsibility of governing the province to the best of their ability and in the interests of all the people of Alberta, there is likely to be some acrimonious debates over the issue.

And there is yet another complicating factor, the weather.

With El Nino phenomenon having so far caused a drier than average winter, unless the spring comes with satisfactory precipitation levels to add much needed moisture to soil, pastures might well be degraded substantially if overgrazed, a situation that might require a centrally controlled process of intervention to maintain the health of the grazing land.

It is admittedly a very complex problem and one would hope that, unlike with earlier legislative initiatives, the government and other stakeholders could find a way of addressing various aspects of an issue that apparently has been left alone more than it was supposed to. And it would help a lot if all the parties would agree to listen to the voice of science in tackling this problem.