Battle for public land can never be ‘won’

Potatogate has quietly closed, the great chipoff is off. Both terms refer to the government’s secretive effort to sell 16,000 acres of Alberta public land, priceless native grassland, to a Tory supporter, allegedly to be plowed under and used to grow spuds for potato chips.

The outdoors recreation of all Albertans flows from and on public land. It should not be sold or disposed of to government friends in secretive dealings.

The outdoors recreation of all Albertans flows from and on public land. It should not be sold or disposed of to government friends in secretive dealings.

Potatogate has quietly closed, the great chipoff is off.

Both terms refer to the government’s secretive effort to sell 16,000 acres of Alberta public land, priceless native grassland, to a Tory supporter, allegedly to be plowed under and used to grow spuds for potato chips.

When the Alberta Wilderness Association found out about this scheme and went public with it, public outrage was instant and massive. Now cyberspace buzzes with news of “having won one, for once.”

Those of us who have fought too many government giveaways of our public land over the years advise caution and continuing the pressure. You can win these battles over and over; lose once, and the war is lost, the land is forever lost as wildlife habitat.

It was the applicant, the potato farmer, and not the government, who gave in to the pressure; he withdrew his application to buy the land.

Sustainable Resource Development Minister Mel Knight, informed the Legislature that the government will continue dealing with our public land in the same way. In other words, it is monkey business as usual.

The applicant could re-submit his bid at any time, and he is sounding like he will, whining that the public was misinformed. He is partially right: the public was totally uninformed.

What did he propose to pay for this scarce and priceless land, and why, really, did he need so much of it? The AWA should find out these and other facts by continuing its Freedom of Information application.

Rewarding your friends with public land has a long and dishonorable history in Canada, starting with Sir John A., our first prime minister. The tradition is particularly alive and flourishing in Alberta.

Any government that can’t comprehend what is wrong with MLAs accepting gifts from lobbyists will never understand what is wrong with giving public property away to its supporters.

The AWA warns of complacency. “It is great news that this irreplaceable piece of native grassland isn’t going to be sold just yet,” says Nigel Douglas, AWA conservation specialist, “but the shameful system that encourages these sorts of deals to go on behind closed doors hasn’t changed.”

The system of administering and managing Alberta’s public land must change. The owners of that land, you, me, all the people of Alberta in common, have been demanding change at well-attended public hearings for more than two decades.

As a general rule, the public has said public land should never be sold; leased perhaps, occasionally, for specific purposes, but ensuring that all revenues earned from public land, other than from specific leased purposes (grazing cattle, for example), should come into the public coffers for the benefit of all Albertans.

But nothing happens.

The government will allow nothing to rock their good ship Patronage. We still seem to be unable even to find out how many multi-millions of dollars of oil and gas surface disturbance money have been doled over the years to grazing leaseholders of public land in a form of “cowboy welfare,” instead of being paid to us, the owners of that land, as would routinely happen with a grazing or farm lease on private land.

Public land is a public trust. Should a trustee be able to dispose of trust property without even notifying, let alone consulting those for whom the property is being held in trust? The answer is obvious, especially when the “trustee” is politically-motivated.

What we need is an independent board of trustees to administer and manage Alberta’s public land in the interest of the owners, the public, always bearing in mind that Albertans love their public land and generally do not want it to be sold.

My father, a Cockney immigrant back in the ’20’s, loved the concept of Alberta’s public land, and considered it made a rich man of a poor boy. He taught me that if you look after the land, it will look after you.

There is much time and inspiration lately to think such thoughts, as I sit for hours watching deer. This year I hold the antlered mule deer tag for the whole huge Wildlife Management Unit, and thus am revisiting old favorite haunts, huge tracts of public land that I can’t enjoy, wander in, and wonder at quite as long and hard as I used to.

Looking back, and considering that the beds and shores of rivers, lakes and streams are also public land, I estimate that Alberta’s public lands — including on native prairie grasslands — have given me three quarters of all my outdoors recreations over the years. Most Albertans could say the same.

There are more rigs drilling on “my” land than there have been in recent years. When the oil and gas is gone, the renewable resources of our public land will sustain us … if we protect and manage it properly and never sell it for a mess of potato chips.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.

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