Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman and sci-fi novelist Robert Heinlein one-liners combined to produce the saying: “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
If nothing else, the 82nd annual conference of the Alberta Fish and Game Association in Edmonton, Feb. 24 to 26, proved them wrong. Friday noon, two gents had a free lunch: me and Hon. Mel Knight, minister of sustainable resource development, aka “Mel the Moocher.”
My ticket for The Minister’s Luncheon, as it has been titled forever, was generously included by the AFGA with my media credentials. Traditionally, the minister’s department pays for Friday’s lunch for 200 or so delegates, plus spouses and other guests.
But this year, rather late in conference planning, the minister advised he could not afford to buy lunch this year, and a hurried search for an alternate sponsor resulted in the Fort McMurray Fish and Game Association, one of AFGA’s 91 affiliated clubs, picking up the $5,000 lunch tab.
Not only was it still called The Minister’s Luncheon, but the current incumbent was given the opportunity to “sing for his supper,” as usual, by addressing the delegates of AFGA’s 20,600 members for the half hour before lunch. After his speech Mr. Knight ate his meal at the media table and I clearly heard him thank a member of the AFGA executive for a good lunch.
This is high-ticket Alberta. I remember back when a colorful P.E.I. minister of lands and forests had to hitch-hike home after addressing a Canadian Wildlife Conference in Charlottetown.
After a record dismal ministerial performance last year, in fairness, just days after he was appointed SRD minister, Mr. Knight gave a good speech this time, indicating he has learned much about his portfolio that he did not know last year. He had no stunning announcements to make, especially anything that might cost money, except that he had received $1 million from Treasury which is all going into Alberta biodiversity monitoring.
Digression: one of the silent auction items was a plate commemorating the 1966 AFGA convention in Banff, the first I ever attended. I have attended every one since, and studied the minutes of every convention from 1908 to 1966. From all of them come requests to government for more enforcement officers in the field.
Last year, in response to those constant requests, Mr. Knight promised some new hirings and vowed “I want to see boots on the ground,” which would be the only way they’d get out there, considering departmental gas rationing. This year he admitted there would be no new officers hired, but, now that gasoline is really going up, there would be a “Mobile Office Initiative,” apparently involving officers and biologists using their trucks as offices, plus “partnering” with, or freeloading on the provincial sheriffs and the RCMP.
Mr. Knight angrily condemned the thousands of Albertans who fear that the new Alberta Land Stewardship Act confiscates and cancels private property rights without compensation or appeal, then announced he will be introducing 10 amendments to the act, which will no doubt clarify the sloppy wording in the original that gave rise to those fearful interpretations.
Some delegate groans were heard when Mr. Knight said “I can’t tell you what or where grants are going to flow from SRD,” but most of AFGA’s executive accepts that a department that can’t afford a $5,000 lunch tab will not soon be granting the usual $150,000 to the AFGA. The minister was fulsome in his praise for the AFGA, its affiliated clubs and individual members, for their passion, mentorship, stewardship, volunteer time and assistance to the SRD and the Alberta public, all things that grant was recognizing.
There was not one whisper about the controversial and cancelled government fire sale of priceless native prairie grasslands evidenced in the “Potatogate” affair and the more recently announced plan to give away 84,000 acres of grassland, so-called tax-recovery land, to 12 municipalities for $1 per acre. This issue may have been one reason the minister did not take questions.
During the Habitat Report on Thursday afternoon, Brad Fenson, the AFGA’s Habitat Development Co-ordinator, reported the association’s flagship Wildlife Trust Fund “had a really good year,” adding 1,400 acres, making the trust’s total now 35,520 acres of prime fish and wildlife habitat protected and preserved in various parts of the province. “We’d like to encourage all Albertans to get out and enjoy (that includes hunting, fishing, foraging, hiking, bird watching, etc) these properties; after all, they’re your properties.”
On Saturday, as part of the annual general meeting, delegates of many of the AFGA’s affiliated clubs and individual members lined up in the annual Parade of Donations, and this year took all of 10 minutes to give $41,720 to many of the association’s causes, but mostly to the Wildlife Trust Fund.
If the province suddenly offered those 84,000 acres of tax recovery land to the Wildlife Trust for $84,000, those donees would have done a smart U-turn and joined with a rush of new donees to make up the difference.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.