Danielle In The House, November 5: Public Lands (Grasslands Preservation) Amendment Act, 2012

Ms Smith: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I’m delighted to rise today to speak to the issue of Bill 202, the Public Lands (Grasslands Preservation) Amendment Act, 2012. I won’t be supporting this legislation, and I’ll go through a few of the reasons why. I share the hon. member’s appreciation for the work that our ranching families have done over the last hundred years or so of managing our public lands on our behalf, and I would remind the hon. member and the hon. members in the Chamber that it is because of these ranching families that we have such incredible, beautiful scenic vistas in southern Alberta.

When our ranching families are doing their jobs well, they’re not only managing it for their own benefit, because they’re able to provide healthy grassland for their own animals, but they’re also able to provide healthy landscapes for a whole range of various species. The diversity that the hon. member talks about comes in large part from the incredible job that our grassland managers, our ranchers, are doing in managing these landscapes. I would note that there is a whole range of endangered species that appear on these lands. The burrowing owl, the short-eared owl, the ferruginous hawk, the long-billed curlew, Sprague’s pipit, McCown’s longspur, and the rusty blackbird all depend on native shortgrass prairie. I would put it to the hon. members that it is because of the actions of our landowners that these endangered species exist on these lands. They’re clearly doing something right, so why would we want to step in and change the way they’re managing landscapes, which could potentially impair their ability to continue managing the lands properly for the benefit of us all?

[Mrs. Jablonski in the chair]

I can tell you about the landowners I speak to. When you ask them what they think about ESRD coming in with the power of this bill, telling them how to manage landscapes, saying, “Hey, I’m here from ESRD, and I’m here to help,” I can tell you: that is not the way our landowners are feeling. Maybe the hon. Member might have had a bit more support for this bill if the issue of the ferruginous hawks in the special areas had not been so badly mismanaged by the Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development. It was the landowners who came to our hon. member who represents Drumheller-Stettler outraged – outraged – that it was members of that minister’s department that gave ATCO the go-ahead to tear down 16 nesting areas for ferruginous hawks, and then in this Chamber she has not chosen to be forthright in the circumstances surrounding that, first blaming ATCO, then saying that a mistake was made.

Let’s be very clear – and I’m glad that the hon. Member for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre is going to be able to table the proof of this matter – that this is an error that was made on behalf of the department officials. So why would you then punish landowners by telling them that we’re going to create a piece of legislation that will bring in a bunch of department officials to tell you how to manage your landscapes, to tell you how to manage your habitat for endangered species?

I, quite frankly, put my trust in the land managers who’ve been doing this on our behalf for over a hundred years. Let’s remember: they are doing this at their expense. They are paying us to manage these landscapes, yes, for their benefit but also for the benefit of all Albertans. I can’t imagine the kind of requisition the Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development would put

forward before this Chamber to hire a team of bureaucrats to try to manage the landscapes and endangered species habitat to have the same effect, the same positive outcomes that our landowners and ranchers do every single day.

Now, let me just go through a couple of the reasons why our landowners would not support this legislation and why I am speaking against it. The hon. member mentioned poorly managed landscapes. He mentioned the pressure of ranchers on the land as being part of poorly managed landscapes. Maybe he misspoke, because he did speak later about how important cattle are on these landscapes.

Let me just reinforce that point. When you look at the landscapes in southern Alberta with this native fescue – and I’ve seen some of the root systems in cross-sections and analyses that have been done by biologists – some of these root systems go several metres deep. Part of the reason why this fescue is so special is not because we build a fence around it and we allow it to rest. Rest is only one way in which these landscapes are managed properly. Rest and fire we know from the history of the prairies; fire is also a way in which our landscapes are managed.  Animal impact is absolutely essential to being able to keep these landscapes strong. It’s when you have the cattle wandering on them. It’s when you have the dung beetles working away at the land. These are the things that keep the landscapes healthy, and this is the reason why we need to continue to have strong ranching families managing these landscapes on our behalf for the benefit of all Albertans.

One of the other concerns that I think has caused so many landowners to be in opposition to these bills and I do recognize that the hon. member is intending to make a couple of changes.

Under section 82.3(1) he talks about: “Before a disposition or grant of public grassland is made, the Minister shall conduct an assessment to determine if the grassland that is the subject of the proposed disposition or grant contains significant wildlife habitat.” That’s one section. And then further on the next page, 82.5(1): “At least 90 days prior to the date proposed for a disposition or grant of public grassland under this Part, the Minister shall provide public notice.”

Well, when I went and spoke with the folks from special areas, they attempted to try to illustrate to me the difficulty they would have in being able to abide by these kinds of regulations. In the special areas we have a board that manages the tax recovery land on our behalf. They are making decisions every single day on access for energy companies. One of the concerns they have in the reading of this legislation is how it might be interpreted, that every time they go to make a disposition of an oil and gas lease, they would have to put that up for a 90-day review period before they would be allowed to let anybody on that land and be able to use that disposition. In the special areas alone they approve 1,500 such dispositions in a given year, and most of the time they’re able to do these dispositions within four days. This would completely stop their ability to be able to provide the access to oil and gas development that their citizens want, that is being done in a responsible way, and that we’ve charged them to do.

Again, I do recognize that the hon. member recognized this concern and is intending to come back with language that clarifies that he is speaking about sale. Even still, we also have charged the Special Areas Board with the ability to undertake those sales on our behalf as well. I think that even with that change, the Special Areas Board is not going to be one hundred per cent happy. The problem now is that out there in the rural areas there is this concern that that is the implication of this bill. Trying to now communicate that it means something completely different than what is written in these pages I think would be very difficult, and I think the hon. member would have to go back to the drawing board and tighten up the language if, indeed, he is trying to get to that more narrow purpose.

The other concern that you hear about from our landowner stewards – and I think that the hon. member talked about this when he was introducing the bill – is the concern that this would be used to take land that is currently under grazing, build a fence around it, and build a public park out of it. I’ve already mentioned that these landscapes are as beautiful as they are, are as pristine as they are, and are as environmentally diverse as they are because they are being actively managed by our land stewards. They’re being actively managed by our ranchers. The concern that I’ve heard from landowners is that this legislation would enable the creation of public parks and that that would be to the detriment of the landscapes.

I will also, then, just quickly go through some of the issues that we see with the regulations under 82.7. They’re incredibly, incredibly broad powers that are given to the Lieutenant Governor in Council to be able to make regulations

(a) establishing criteria for determining whether wildlife habitat is significant wildlife habitat;

(b) respecting the manner in which an assessment under section 82.3(1) must be conducted;

(c) designating the types of assessments . . .

(d) specifying permitted uses . . .

(e) respecting what constitutes adequate protections . . .

(f) specifying the criteria [for private land] . . .

(g) respecting the requirement for public notice.

There’s an awful lot that the member is asking us to sign off on here that will ultimately be determined by the Lieutenant Governor in Council, which I think would put our landowners at great risk of not knowing exactly what is being agreed to in this bill.

This is a reason why I don’t support it.

Now, let’s go back to, I think, the reason why this came about in the first place. I would invite the hon. member – if he wants to come back with a piece of legislation that actually narrows the scope rather than broadening it the way this does to deal with the singular issue that we had back in 2010, which the hon. Members from the Liberal caucus raised to great effect under the name Potatogate, they might find that the hon. members on this side would be in support of closing the loopholes to prevent this situation from happening again. Of course, what I’m referring to – and I’ll table a document that does go through and explain – is that in the October 25, 2010, version of albertafarmexpress.ca they talked about SLM Spud Farms receiving a 16,000-acre parcel of grassland to turn into cultivated land for potatoes.

The problem that the landowners and, I think, the hon. Members in other caucuses had at the time was that it was developed in secrecy. Nobody knew what the provisions were around the nature of this disposition. Nobody knew what the terms of the public bid actually were. It wasn’t an open public bid. The decision on whether or not to approve it rested with the minister. At the same time we know that in southern Albertan we have a freshwater system that is overloaded, and this would have required additional irrigation. We also know the whole range of endangered species that would have been impacted by it.

One of the things that was expressed in this article, which was of great concern to the general public as well, was that cattlemen were upset over what they saw as special treatment for this particular farming operation and fear that they would be forced to give up grazing land for the potato farm’s expansion. It continues:

Although leaseholders in northern Alberta can buy their lease land without tender or auction, that’s not the standard procedure south of Highway 16. In southern Alberta, a request to buy public land is reviewed by Sustainable Resource Development to determine if the parcel is suitable for sale and is in excess of the department’s needs. If a sale is recommended, it is sold to the highest bidder through auction or public tender.

Local ranchers are questioning why that procedure [was not] followed in this case.

I quote the president of the Bow Island Grazing Association:

Why should one person be favoured over [all the] others? Why is this deal not open to tender?

Now, if the hon. member wanted to address this issue, I think that there would probably be quite a different bill before this Chamber to be able to debate this issue. This is an issue we expressed concern about. I know that there are other hon. members who expressed concern about it. We’re still concerned that this kind of approach can take place in the future, that we have not closed these loopholes, that we have not established a practice of public tender, that we have not established a practice that would allow all people to participate in the potential sale of public land. As a result, I think that there is still a hole in the legislation that does need to be filled, but I can tell you, Madam Speaker, that the hole in that legislation does not get filled through Bill 202.

This is a piece of legislation that has created great concern among our landowners, great concern among those who are  stewarding our public lands, gives way too much power to the cabinet, is way too open ended, and for those reasons, I cannot support it.

Thank you, Madam Speaker.