Day 15, 16 & 17: Bozeman and, yes, that is my arm reaching into a cow's stomach

With all the furore surrounding the London Olympic trip I feel compelled to say again that we in the Wildrose do not oppose the Premier and minister going on international trips. These trips can be of great value. I am on one myself, hosted by the US State Department under their International Visitor Leadership Program, learning about how government works in our neighbour and largest trading partner. I’m posting on my meetings so you can judge for yourself the value of it. I also post my expenses at the end of each blog post, because even though Alberta taxpayers aren’t paying for this trip, US taxpayers are – and regardless of who is footing the bill, taxpayer dollars should be treated with respect. You can judge the reasonableness of my expenses for yourself – they are listed at the end. One thing I would say is I am not staying in any five-star $850-a-night hotels.

As I mentioned before, the IVLP program does not schedule meetings on the weekend. We arrived in Bozeman on Saturday and set out to find a rally for Democratic Senate candidate Jon Tester. I have been desperately trying to find evidence that there is a campaign going on in the United States, to little avail. All the places we’ve been show little sign of a classic “ground war”. Very few campaign signs, not many campaign events, almost all the battle seems to be taking place on TV – particularly the talk shows.  We ended up showing up late to the rally and the crowd had completely dispersed. We’ll keep trying. We spent Sunday at Yellowstone National Park, which really is a marvel. It is literally a full day affair – from 7 in the morning until 9 at night – to be able to see the Mammoth Falls, Paint Pots, Old Faithful and a few other major sites. If you think it is like Banff or Jasper or Waterton, like I did, well, it isn’t. You are aware at every moment that you are walking on the top of an active volcano. It is surreal – see the Grand Prismatic below.

Our first meeting on Monday was with a rangeland management specialist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a department of the federal government that works with private landowners to develop improvement plans to manage rangeland, to improve biodiversity among other goals. The person we met with had also been instrumental in developing a policy for managing wild horse habitat on 60,000 acres of federal land back in 2004 and the solution to this contentious issue appears to have held up to today. This is an issue that has been raised with me recently by some constituents who are involved with a group trying to protect wild horse herds in Alberta. I’ll be taking a closer look at the issue when I get home. I would welcome your thoughts on it.

We had two meetings with researchers connected to Montana State University. One researcher is a microbiologist doing research into biofuels using algae as an alternative source for hydrocarbon fuels – potentially even jet fuel for US military aircraft. As with any form of energy, there are environmental considerations. Finding fresh water to grow it in is one problem – existing fresh water sources can’t be used because it would destroy fish habitat, so it would require the creation of shallow settling ponds. The second problem is scalability. They can make a great product in a beaker, but getting to 200 litres of usable fuel is the next big hurdle, and scaling up to 10,000 litres is necessary to have a product that is commercially viable. I asked for a best guess on when this biofuel might be ready for the market and he suggested 5-10 years from now, which isn’t that long all things considered. To give an idea of the relative advantage of algae over other biofuels consider this: to replace 50% of transportation fuel with biofuel using corn based ethanol would require using 1/3 of the land base of the entire United States. Using soybean based biofuel would require using a land base the size of Colorado. Using algae would require a land base equivalent to 10% of Colorado. So you can see, this is research to keep an eye on.

We also visited the Bozeman Agricultural Research and Teaching farm, where I learned about the sheep industry – a surprisingly booming business – and got a lesson in pre-gastric fermentation in cattle.  Yes, my hand really is in the stomach of that cow.

We also had a great discussion about rangeland management and the philosophy of the school which is teaching, research and extension into the agricultural community – if their students go into the regulatory field, they think it’s important that they actually spend some time working for a producer so they know the business they are regulating. That sounds like a pretty good rule of thumb to me. I wonder how many dumb rules we could eliminate for our primary producers if every person in Agriculture and SRD had a farming or ranching background. Lots I suspect.

Lastly, we had a meeting with R-CALF which has been a thorn in the side of the Canadian beef producers since they started in 1998 by lodging a trade dispute against Canada and Mexico alleging dumping in the US market. Since then they were an outspoken voice to close the border to Canadian cattle during the BSE crisis and have been an outspoken proponent of country-of-origin labelling (another protectionist measure by another means). After disagreeing with each other for about an hour, we did finally agree on one thing. The loss of slaughterhouse capacity in both the US and Canada has not been good for the industry or food safety. As we’ve seen with the XL Foods recall, when you have a huge packing plant it can take a long time to initiate a food recall when there is a problem, and by the time the recall order is issued the product has been distributed far and wide. Small and mid-sized packing plants, by contrast, have a more localized market. So, in theory, when problems arise they would be found and corrected more quickly. Worse, when a major plant like XL Foods temporarily shuts down, it has an immediate and painful effect on cattle prices, which is borne by the producer who has few other options to sell his cattle. In the wake of this crisis we need to have a serious look at how we can create more competition in the packing industry, not only to protect our industry but also to improve food safety. We need big packers like XL Foods, but we need more small and mid-sized slaughterhouses too.

Expenses: If you didn’t read the press  release for this trip, no doubt you might be wondering, who’s paying for  this trip? Here’s the answer. The costs are covered by the US Department of  State, and they estimate the expense at $9,080 US for the 21-day program. It  looks like it will turn out to be a bit less than that. With politicians’  travel expenses very much in the news lately, I thought you’d be interested in  knowing my expenses as we go.

I have always said that international travel is  an important part of the Premier’s job and, as Official Opposition Leader and  International and Intergovernmental Affairs and Aboriginal Relations Critic, I  think it is a necessary part of my job too. Knowing how the political system  works in the US in particular – our biggest customer and trading partner – is  increasingly important as we watch the Keystone pipeline project grind its way through the approval process. Knowing how this process works, including the  interplay between federal, state and local jurisdictions, and the impact of  NGOs on the entire process is vital information for an Alberta political leader  to have.

My criticism has not been about the fact that  the Premier and her ministers are taking international trips, it’s the  eye-popping price tag associated with them. You’ll notice this trip budgets out  at about $432/day, whereas most ministerial trips lately have been costing in  the range of $2000/person/day (or more). The London Olympics trip cost $2,400/person/day.

Here are my expenses for Bozeman, MT:

Day 15 (Saturday)

$356.07     Holdiay Inn (average night $110+tax)

$12.00      Breafast at No Sweat Cafe

$30.00     Dry Fly Saloon

Day 16 (Sunday)

$10.00     Breakfast

$19.00      Late lunch at Old Faithful Inn

Day 17 (Monday)

$4.50     Breakfast at Rockford Coffee

$13.00      Lunch at Mackenzie River Pizza Co

$28.00     Dinner at Sweet Chili – Asian Bistro

$472.07    Total for Days 15, 16, & 17

*Transportation to and admittance to Yellowstone Park was paid for by IVLP leader Josh. The cost is a flat rate of $25 for a 6-day pass and covers admittance for up to 2 vehicles.