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Reading Atwood

When author Margaret Atwood gets invited to tour western ranchland, some farmers see her as a lifesaver, others as a crackpot. From there, the plot thickens.


“Ranchers have been given a Cinderella plot,” Margaret Atwood tells us. “The wicked stepmother says, ‘Sure, you can go to the party, but first you must complete these impossible tasks.'”

I watched the Cinderella analogy bloom on Margaret Atwood’s face as she listened to a group of Saskatchewan ranchers talk about the community pastures where they have grazed their cattle for generations.

They want the Toronto-based author to know about the difficult situation they’ve been put in by the federal government’s decision to drop its Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) pasture program.

In turn, Atwood wants to help save Prairie bird habitat, and to support farmers who will help achieve that goal.

But which farmers are those?

Besides the obvious ability of her name to draw a crowd, it’s clear that Atwood brings a shrewd eye for the kind of details that will garner the attention of other Canadians. In this case, she’s primed to ask questions about the environment, and to expose the unfairness she sees in how ranchers are being treated by government.

“(Ranchers) have been given a scenario that makes it impossible for them,” Atwood says. “The government is setting this up to achieve a failed result.”

Ottawa, Atwood says is “either inept or malicious… This is a test case in how people should be treated by a government that is employed by them.”

Along with scientists from BirdLife International and Nature Canada, Atwood was part of a recent tour of Grasslands National Park and surrounding community pastures near Val Marie, Sask., population 350. The tour was organized by Public Pastures-Public Interest (PPPI), an independent group of ranchers, First Nations people, scientists, hunters, and naturalists.

Ottawa has managed these pastures for decades, leasing them out to ranchers at rates that other cattlemen sometimes see as subsidies. In return, professional managers run the cattle in ways that protect what can be a fragile environment.

Now, Ottawa is turning the pastures back to the province, and the province is proposing to sell the pastures to the highest bidders.

The PPPI group believes they should stay publicly managed because it says that’s the best way to ensure the survival of both the ranchers and the 32 at-risk wild species that call these pastures home.

To anyone from Saskatchewan, the group seems an odd sort of mix, considering the history of mistrust amongst them, but if you understand their goals, there’s also an odd kind of synergy here too.

They’re also smart. Tour organizers knew Atwood’s profile was certain to draw attention to the issue. And it did. After all, she has 400,000 Twitter followers, and the fundraising banquet in Regina for PPPI at the end of the tour was sold out at $100 a plate.

But her welcome wasn’t universally warm.

In fact, in the words of the president of the provincial cattlemen’s association Mark Elford, representing the province’s core of commercial beef producers, Atwood and fellow author Graeme Gibson seemed “crackpots coming out of the woodwork” and “environmental extremists.”

Conservation concerns

To be fair, the people I met on the tour were neither crackpots, nor extreme. Atwood and Gibson have been longtime conservationists and are honorary joint presidents of BirdLife International’s rare bird club. Atwood grew up in the woods of northern Quebec and understands the effects of landscape and weather patterns as well as any farmer.

“Because this land was grazed, because it’s native and pristine, invasive species (of plants) can’t get in,” Atwood says. “The ecological niches are taken up.”

Adds Atwood: “It’s like a skin… once it’s wounded the invasive species are like a bacteria and become a threat to the rest of the ecosystem.”

Still, the federal government has spent enormous amounts of time and money on research into native grass ecology on the pastures, and the pasture managers have that information at their fingertips. Now, there is talk that all those binders of research will just be put on a shelf somewhere if the pasturage program is opened up.

On top of that, the managers on pastures slated for sale have been given their pink slips with retraining as their only option.

“Why are we throwing away the medical records of the land and taking away the land doctors?” Atwood asks. And later, “These extremely well-managed pastures are under threat of going to a management system that is less knowledgeable and aware of these issues and also one that would cause the loss of a great deal of traditional hands-on knowledge.”

Such pronouncements make ranchers who are not part of the PFRA system go wild. They imply the only people really taking care of the native grasses are the pasture managers on public land. But every rancher thinks he is doing the exact same thing on his private pastures.

Trevor Herriot is co-chair of PPPI and a well-known Saskatchewan bird expert and naturalist. He is author of Grass, Sky, Song, an award-winning book on the sometimes precarious relationship between modern agriculture and bird species. He clarifies the group’s position.

“If we believe in the land ethic and stewardship, we need to take measures to reward, foster and recognize it,” Herriot says.

“Conservation benefits on private land happen because the rancher needs to steward the land for the future of his operation. The conservation is a side benefit. We want to keep these (community pastures) in public hands because conservation on them is a first priority.”

The fact is, conservationists and naturalists have legitimate concerns about the grass and the birds, plus a load of scientific research about the benefits of cattle grazing to back them up. So for many, it’s a no-brainer: preserve the ecological integrity of the pastures under government management and all will be well with ranchers and birds.

But when you give the ranchers outside the PFRA system a chance to speak, you find the issue is anything but simple.

Thus the unfortunate name-calling, and the more subtle, yet equally dismissive, “I’m sure their intentions are good, but…”

But why such rhetoric? Why be dismissive? Perhaps it’s because complex questions shake people’s long-held beliefs. They encourage solutions that might force changes to how things are done. And they very often don’t fit any preconceived notions.

It appears Atwood and company walked onto the grasslands and into a debate that’s dividing cattle producers along a variety of lines, some of them ideological, some of them related to size of operation, and some of them borne of concern about community and neighbour.

The great divide

The importance of the grasslands in terms of ecological goods and services — species preservation, hundreds of First Nations archeological and historical sites, recreational opportunities — is not lost on the 1,100 rancher patrons of the PFRA pastures who support their retention as publicly owned land.

The Community Pasture Patrons Association of Saskatchewan, chaired by rancher Ian McCreary, joined forces with PPPI to bring attention to the issue. It’s a smart strategy. If Canadians care about saving burrowing owls, swainson’s hawks and prairie dog colonies, and they understand that managed grazing ensures habitat for these species, it might go a long way in convincing the federal government to slow down the process and listen to patron concerns over the business end of things.

McCreary is convinced a solution can be found if government is willing to back off on its timeline. Patron groups are to have business plans for ownership in place by this fall in order to keep the pastures out of the hands of third parties. But McCreary says the government has failed to provide those groups with the information they require to go forward.

As you’d expect, there are more questions than answers, but some of the questions are hardly about details. There is no indication of what will happen to non-reversionary lands (those acres owned by the federal government and not part of the PFRA agreement), whether the non-fixed assets such as bulls, machinery and equipment are included, and it’s unclear who will be responsible for adherence to species-at-risk legislation, which includes monitoring of oil and gas leases. If it’s the ranchers, that’s a huge cost and a big responsibility.

Thus Atwood’s Cinderella analogy: Is it fair to ask people who have never done business together to come up with a business plan without all the details required to do so?

McCreary doesn’t think it is, and his group has formally asked for a delay of one year to clear up all the cloudy areas.

McCreary believes neither governments nor ranchers understood the complexity of what happens on the pastures. “We thought this would be simple,” McCreary says. “We thought we would go to a co-operative pasture system. But then we received the 500-page binder of information used by the pasture managers and realized the scale and nature of the management required.”

A co-op system would end up dividing up the fields because paying for that kind of management would take the margin out of the business, McCreary says. And cattlemen should not be stuck paying for the ecological benefits enjoyed by the public.

Clint Christianson understands both sides of the debate. He worked for PFRA as a pasture manager in all three Prairie provinces and now ranches near Val Marie. He runs 5,000 head on 27 quarters, seven deeded and 20 leased.

We met Christianson on a grid road near the Val Marie community pasture where he spoke to the group about his lifelong relationship with native prairie and ranching. He’s middle-aged, wears a black cowboy hat, Wranglers and boots. He’s worried, asking the group to understand just how important this is to a family that has run cows on this land for three generations.

Christianson chokes up a little when he talks about what might be lost without central management of the pastures, their maintenance a source of pride, the fear of ever-growing ranches spelling doom for his small community, the post office, the school where kids already ride the bus an hour and a half each way.

“There will be no one left out here,” Christianson says with a catch in his throat. When you look out over the unbroken stretch of hills and valleys, it hardly seems there’s anyone out there now.

“The loss of the PFRA will push the monopolization of the cattle industry,” Christianson says. It’s clear he feels overwhelmed by events outside his control and welcomes the attention brought to the issue by the PPPI tour. “The big guys (cattle producers) can hire two guys to do their chores and then go to the meetings. I can’t do that.”

Many smaller cattle producers use the PFRA system. But CPPAS’s McCreary says, “to say this is an intentionally malicious decision to get rid of the producers with herds under 100 cow-calf pair is not fair. But would it be fair to say that it might be one of the implications of the decision? Yes.”

An ideological divide?

The patrons aren’t getting a lot of help from the province. Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart runs a small cattle operation himself and he seems wearied by the whole debate. PPPI members, he says, “are people with good intentions, but they are slightly misguided.”

And the patrons have had plenty of time to get ready, Stewart says. “These are people who don’t deal well with change. This (PFRA) was a subsidized program in the past, and it won’t be into the future. It’s not fair to others.”

Stewart blames the PFRA system as a whole for lease rates to patrons that lagged far behind the private sector.

But Trevor Herriot doesn’t buy the argument that the pastures are simply agricultural land. “There are more endangered species here than anywhere in Canada and 7,000-year-old native grass. This is not merely agricultural land any more than a northern forest is simply a woodlot.”

The province has no specific species-at-risk legislation and is, in fact, considered a laggard in this respect amongst the provinces, Herriot says, adding, “Federal legislation can only be enforced on federal lands and now the feds have washed their hands of the responsibility for the 32 species at risk.”

Harold Martens says his problem with the community pastures isn’t ideological. But, well, yes, it is.

In his early 70s, Martens has ranched northeast of Swift Current his whole life, running about 1,000 cows. He’s a former Conservative MLA and is now chair of the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, which has come out in favour of the government’s proposed sale of the pastures. He quickly launches into a defence of private ownership and the history of those who came here looking for freedom from government regulations.

Ranchers can steward the land as well as the PFRA managers, Martens says. “We are all environmentalists to a great degree. Maybe not David Suzuki or Al Gore, but living here all the time, we understand we can only establish good ranching practices by being good environmentalists.

“The City of Regina took 1,000 acres of marshland and turned it into a Wal-Mart and pavement and houses. And now they want me to let the government tell me how to deal with my back 40… I do get annoyed by that and I start to push back,” Martens says.

“The PFRA advisory committee is made up of individuals who are former NDP people,” Martens says. “They have a different philosophy and I don’t get irritated by that, but don’t tell me I don’t know how to run a ranch.”

Martens believes the current pasture patrons will be able to come to a consensus on how to manage the pastures. “You get a variety of opinion and then a consensus is built on what’s best for the pasture. Both ends will come to the middle.”

Martens is probably right. People usually find a middle ground, but sometimes it takes time to find it, time the patrons don’t feel they’re being given.

OK, so there’s the technical stuff. But really, you have to see these pastures. On horseback. Without getting lost, or losing your cows. They are quite incredibly vast tracts that stretch to fit the cliche, as far as the eye can see. Community and privately-owned pastures in the Val Marie area alone constitute 200,000 acres of native prairie in one block.

Who should manage them?

— Anne Lazurko is a contributing editor for Country Guide at Weyburn, Sask. This article appeared in the August 2013 issue of Country Guide (pages 25-29). Photos by Red Hat Studios.


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