Cowboy Welfare article riles

The recent “Cowboy Welfare” column has drawn more reader response than any of the many other times I have written on the subject in the past 40 or so years. To be clear, I refer to the highly unusual practice of the Alberta government in permitting the oil, gas, etc., surface disturbance payments on Alberta public land grazing leases to be paid to the leaseholder, rather than to the owner of that land: we the people of Alberta. And trying to find out how much that costs us annually and in total over the years since it got started.

The recent “Cowboy Welfare” column has drawn more reader response than any of the many other times I have written on the subject in the past 40 or so years.

To be clear, I refer to the highly unusual practice of the Alberta government in permitting the oil, gas, etc., surface disturbance payments on Alberta public land grazing leases to be paid to the leaseholder, rather than to the owner of that land: we the people of Alberta. And trying to find out how much that costs us annually and in total over the years since it got started.

The column drew an interesting outraged letter to the editor of The Brooks Bulletin from rancher Simon Schoenefer and, touchingly, another on the same page from his loyal spouse. They made a familiar accusation: that I hate ranchers.

That takes me back to the early days of my marriage to Herself, the daughter of a rancher. She was also niece of another rancher who called me a communist for my views on public access to public land; of course, the uncle had a grazing lease.

My father-in-law did not have a grazing lease, but cherished a brittle and yellowing newspaper clipping advising that another way to succeed in ranching was to do what he had done: marry a school teacher with a public pension plan.

Suffice I do not hate ranchers. I do not even blame them for taking the windfall that a stupid, negligent government, sort of accidentally on purpose, has given them.

That comes straight from me, the only person I know to have been offered a public land grazing lease and refused it, simply because I do hate hypocrites, including, to paraphrase Gore Vidal, anyone who “believes in socialism for the idle rich and free enterprise for the undeserving poor.”

We’ll get back to the Schoenefers’ interesting letters. The more than a dozen others all conveyed thanks and encouragement to carry on this column’s long battle to get to the bottom, maybe even see the end of this boondoggle.

I’ll use few names, because several warn me to continue watching my own back “because they don’t like people bringing up this issue, even if it makes no difference.”

One reader decries retired oil and gas executives who don’t really ranch, but do have public land grazing leases, collect the surface disturbance revenues and stake their buddies, including politicians, to hunting and fishing on the “spread.”

“It is part of the climate of entitlement in Alberta,” he concludes.

Several readers allege there has to be an element of two-way political support in all this. Another concludes: “Ahh, the cowboy Petro State keeps rolling the people into the gutter.”

Several reader responses contained the serious misunderstanding that somehow the Eastern Irrigation District is a Cowboy Welfare recipient of the more than $20 million it receives annually for oil and gas industry payments for surface disturbances, etc., to its 550,000 acres. Let’s be clear. Those acres are not public land; they are deeded land, and the EID is the registered owner.

I do not believe, as the Schoenefers suggest I might, that the resource extractors should get a free ride: they must pay for the damage they do the land’s surface; in the case of damage to the surface of a public land grazing lease, they should be paying the public, the owner, rather than the mere renter of the grass.

As an aside, the EID uses some of its money to do great things for Alberta recreationists: it was the founding partner in Partners in Habitat Development, arguably Alberta’s top wildlife habitat program, and it allows public access to its wonderful 550,000 wild acres for hunting, fishing and other lawful outdoors recreations.

The EID’s performance raises the question of how much better off Alberta’s fish and wildlife and public lands would be if we had not been wasting millions of the earnings of our public land on Cowboy Welfare.

Old friend, former hunting buddy and worthy courtroom opponent, Hugh Landerkin, QC, checks in from Vancouver Island via Mesa, Ariz. Hugh and I hunted the Majestic Ranch many years ago as guests of Hugh’s client, owner Etienne Burris, when Simon Shoenefer was foreman.

At that time, there was some deeded land but most of the ranch was leased land, different from, Hugh suggests, “the usual Crown land,” probably Special Areas land.

In which case Simon and spouse may be protesting too much, and may not be recipients of Cowboy Welfare at all in the sense I define it, as receiving the surface disturbance payments from a public land grazing lease.

That said, I keep receiving complaints of yet another sweet deal where some people lease Special Areas land, then buy it with the surface disturbance payments they received while renting it.

But, no, I’m not being sicced onto, or sucked into that morass until I get answers, closure, whatever, on what I understand to be public land grazing leases and the fabulous perks that come with them.

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

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