Leaseholder meeting proves informative

One never ceases to be amazed at what comes out at ag organization meetings, particularly from the lesser known groups.

AHEAD OF THE HEARD

One never ceases to be amazed at what comes out at ag organization meetings, particularly from the lesser known groups. So it was at the AGM of the Alberta Grazing Leaseholders Association (AGLA) held recently in Red Deer in conjunction with the Alberta Beef industry Conference. This group represents the interests of those holding leases on government owned grazing land. The group was formed about 15 years ago in response to the government of the day planning significant changes to grazing lease fees, royalties, rules and regulations. The goal of leaseholders was to be consulted and respected in regards to those changes and related issues. It wasn’t always smooth sailing between the leaseholders and the government particularly when outside entities insisted their interests be considered. That saw vested sectors and lobby groups from energy companies, to hunters, to recreationists and the usual cabal of green groups all wanting some concession or change to lease fees and regulations. Almost none of all that was favourable to leaseholders, hence the need for an organization representing their specific interests.

The other confounding factor with grazing leases is that responsibility has been shifted from the department of Agriculture to the department of Environment and Sustainable development. This change has proven a bit problematic as the environment department did not have the agricultural expertise to manage their new responsibility, nor did they seem to have the philosophical perspective to understand the grazing lease concept. Although there were some comments that progress has been made as bureaucrats became more comfortable with the file.

Over the years there have been setbacks but also some victories for leaseholders. An ongoing process has been to establish a credible grazing lease royalty formula and process. The fee structure has been frozen since 1994 and it’s taken some time to revamp the structure in a viable and fair manner – that has now occurred. The new formulas have been finalized and are supported by the AGLA and related groups like Alberta Beef Producers and the Western Stock Growers. It’s an example of honest cooperation between stakeholder groups and government bureaucrats. The result is a proposal everyone can live with. An additional positive outcome was the establishment of a Range Sustainability Fund with 40 per cent of rental rates being used to run the fund. The intent would be to use funds to restore and renovate rangelands – this is a very useful and enlightened approach and has considerable environmental benefits. The proposal also recommended that the assignment fee be eliminated, it was agreed that this was nothing more than a tax on transfers involving grazing leases. With the agreement of the groups on the advisory committee the royalty proposal will now go forth through the government legislative approval process. It is to be phased in over a five year period once the legislation has been passed.

Another matter that came up for discussion at the AGLA was the environmental goods and services (EGS) issue. It’s a long running concern that involves government compensation to land owners for providing goods and services that preserve and enhance the ecology of land in Alberta. It was noted that research is ongoing on how to value EGS, but that government support and public perception of EGS remains a real stumbling block. Other discussion involved the Sage grouse issue in southeast Alberta. It’s progressed to the government strategy stage but there is still much apprehension from land owners and grazing leaseholders about the process and grouse preservation tactics. A common sense approach has yet to evolve. A bigger concern to a number of livestock groups is the expansion of federal environmental protection orders to other obscure endangered species like the Short-Eared lizard and a plant called the Smooth Goosefoot. It’s suspected that busybody lawyers working for green lobby groups like the notorious Ecojustice are looking for ways to force the government to issue more protection orders much to the detriment of grazing leaseholders.

Another bit of information that came forth at the meeting was the role of government grants to land trusts. That support helps the trusts to acquire and administer conservation easements on environmentally significant land in the province. The concern is that due to the open-ended and generous financing provisions of the program that they inflate the value of easements and cause land values to artificially increase. That makes it difficult for those wanting to purchase land for agricultural and grazing purposes as they are forced to compete against their own tax dollars being used by land trusts in acquiring easements. A most interesting annual meeting indeed.