Albertans’ access to public lands decreasing

It has been written of our neighbours to the south, Montanans, that they will obey any law or policy with which they personally agree. Albertans are different: they will quietly obey any policy or law with which they personally disagree, provided you let them say so before you ignore them and cram it down their throats. That is why we elect bad governments, over and over; just so long as they do not increase taxes or otherwise affect our creature comforts.

It has been written of our neighbours to the south, Montanans, that they will obey any law or policy with which they personally agree.

Albertans are different: they will quietly obey any policy or law with which they personally disagree, provided you let them say so before you ignore them and cram it down their throats. That is why we elect bad governments, over and over; just so long as they do not increase taxes or otherwise affect our creature comforts.

On the last Saturday afternoon of September, hundreds of anglers, hunters, and other outdoors people demonstrated on the lawn of the Montana state capitol in Helena and, despite heavy rain, stayed to hear speakers against proposals that federal lands in the state be turned over to the state and local control. The unanimous message of the demonstration: keep public lands in the hands of the public.

The concern is that the state cannot afford to own, properly manage and administer the vast federal lands in Montana, and the state would sell them to developers, resulting in public access being cut off to much of the state’s best outdoors recreational areas.

Albertans should be able to tell Montanans all about the farce and tragedy of provincial ownership of formerly federal lands. When we became a province on Sept. 1, 1905, millions of acres of formerly federal land were transferred to “His Majesty the King in the Right of Alberta” and thus, by definition, became Alberta public land.

About half of the province remains Alberta public land to this day, but the acreage is diminishing rapidly as what Montanans worry about actually happens here: public lands are sold to governing party supporters, multimillions of dollars annually are lost to negligence and mismanagement of the earnings of our public land and, increasingly, energy developers are permitted to destroy far too much of the productive surface of public land to frack every last bit of the oil and gas out from under it.

At least three times in the fairly recent past, Albertans have flocked to public hearings concerning their public land. Three times the owners of that public land, Albertans, have told their pitiful Progressive Conservative governments the same things: public land should not be sold, it should be better protected and managed with a view to maximizing its earnings, and public access to our public lands for lawful purposes should be improved and guaranteed to the owners, the people of Alberta.

Three times, Alberta’s PC governments have ignored and neglected the reports of those hearings and carried on abusing, neglecting and mismanaging our public land as though they, rather than the people of Alberta, owned it.

And, true to their nature, Albertans have three times shrugged off their government’s blatant disregard for their wishes concerning their public land.

The government did act on access, producing a policy regarding access to public land under agricultural dispositions so farcical and cumbersome that Albertans now have far less access for lawful purposes to public land grazing leases, for example, than any time during the four decades I have studied and written about this issue.

Maybe it is three strikes and out.

In the past two years, there have been signs that even Albertans are becoming increasingly angry at the grazing lease access atrocities: gates that have never been locked before, demands for “parking fees” to fish certain lakes and get access to certain rivers and streams, even demands for fees for hunting access (illegal in Alberta, even on private land).

Albertans increasingly are emailing me pictures of unwelcoming signs and locked gates, often with subject lines such as “My Shrinking West Country.” I am even hearing of a class action lawsuit to open the gates and remove the signs, but I am not holding my breath.

After 30 years of holding my breath on the issue of what I believe to the $130 million to $150 million a year lost to Albertans by permitting public land grazing leaseholders to receive the oil and gas surface disturbance payments on the leases, the CBC is working on a feature on the issue.

But, despite unusual offers of anonymity, voice alteration, etc., the broadcaster is understandably having trouble finding people willing to tell the story of the thousands of dollars being received annually in surface disturbance by neighbours with public land grazing leases. The threat and intimidation factor on this issue is a story in itself.

Over the years I have reliably been told of public land grazing leaseholders receiving more than $100,000 annually in surface disturbance payments to land that we, not they, own. I have always been asked not to name my informant and I have always complied.

Surely, now, it is time for someone to tell me he is ready to stand up and be counted; a Montanan might, but then no jurisdiction I know of doles as sweet a deal to public land grazing leaseholders as Alberta does.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at bscam@telusplanet.net.

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