Potatogate II adds to a too-old story

For as long as I can remember, a dirty little secret of life in Alberta has been the wheeling and dealing between politicians and their perceived rancher supporters for grazing leases on our public lands and, worse, the millions of dollars in surface rights revenues from the oil and gas industries attached to those leased lands which, rightly, should go to the owner, the public of Alberta.

Along the hard-pressed lower Red Deer River.

Along the hard-pressed lower Red Deer River.

For as long as I can remember, a dirty little secret of life in Alberta has been the wheeling and dealing between politicians and their perceived rancher supporters for grazing leases on our public lands and, worse, the millions of dollars in surface rights revenues from the oil and gas industries attached to those leased lands which, rightly, should go to the owner, the public of Alberta.

But Potatogate II adds new dimensions and smells to a too old story.

Potatogate is the name for the government’s persistent efforts to sell 16,000 acres of Alberta public land, priceless native grassland, habitat for several threatened and endangered wildlife species, to a Tory supporter, allegedly to be plowed under and used to grow spuds for potato chips.

The land is currently leased by Louis Ypma, CEO and owner of SLM Spud Farms, which seeks to buy the land, and two grazing associations that oppose the sale because they would be left out in the cold if SLM succeeds in its efforts to buy the land.

The attempted secretive, untendered sale of the land to SLM fell apart last November, largely owing to massive public opposition.

Now The Medicine Hat News reports that, within weeks of withdrawing SLM’s application to buy the land, Ypma hired national Toronto-based lobbyists, Hill & Knowlton, and that the provincial lobby registry shows the firm is actively lobbying MLAs and provincial agriculture and sustainable resource development officials on behalf of Ypma, concerning the sale of public lands in southern Alberta.

Well now, the plot thickens, the aroma sickens, and more and more questions arise, because something here just does not add up.

Nobody can potato-farm 16,000 acres.

Why not consider selling SLM the amount of land they really can farm for spuds and retain the vast majority as native prairie grassland for the priceless wildlife habitat it is, and, perhaps, some careful cattle grazing?

What is Ypma’s real agenda for such a vast tract of priceless native grassland? And, of course, and as an aside, what are the total annual oil and gas surface disturbance revenues?

Just asking, as they say.

(In 2007, for example, the surface disturbance revenues on the 5500 acre Antelope Creek Ranch — one-third the acreage SLM is after ∏ — were $135,000.)

The press and conservation organizations have been asking candidates for the provincial PC leadership about Potatogate II and, so far, Ted Morton, Gary Mar, Doug Griffiths and Alison Redford have all said, clearly, that they are against selling these 16,000 priceless acres of public land.

Does that mean that if any one of them becomes premier they will scrub the deal before the October 31 deadline for bids?

Is the public lobbying for its own land sufficient, or does it, too, need to hire a Toronto PR firm?

If Ted Morton becomes premier, I believe he would act quickly to retain priceless wildlife habitat in the south, based on his performance as SRD minister.

Or will another Stelmach come up the middle and stick to a flawed scheme to sell, apparently crafted by our lame-duck premier himself and his SRD minister, Mel Knight?

A condition of the proposed sale of the Potatogate II 16,000 acres is that they be plowed, farmed and irrigated.

Nobody is asking where the water will come from, and I wonder if it is expected to come from the Red Deer River as part of this government’s pipe dream of transferring water from the hard-pressed Red Deer, merely to ease the lives of the people of the arid Special Areas by filling stock ponds and ensuring a supply for domestic use, etc.

But anyone who has been in Arizona knows that, as soon as we get the water over there, the demand will rise and sprinklers will run night and day on hay, gardens and lawns.

The water and river worries of many ordinary Albertans are well-founded, it turns out.

It has recently been revealed that the federal government has “disassociated” itself from Alberta’s water conservation plan because its experts find the plan “insufficient” to keep rivers healthy.

In particular, the province’s plan, a federal consultant says, “fails to propose any meaningful measures” to protect aquatic environments, which, government scientists predict, would result in “significant” and “serious” degradation of fisheries.

The march continues relentlessly ever westward from Saskatchewan into Alberta of CWD, Chronic Wasting Disease infecting mule deer mostly, and always killing them.

Now Alberta’s deer and antelope are threatened from our southern neighbour.

Montana wildlife officials say dozens of white-tailed deer have been found dead or dying in northeastern Montana’s Milk River Valley and surrounding areas since the beginning of August, and suspect, subject to lab confirmation, EHD, or epizootic hemorrhagic disease, affecting deer, white tails primarily, but sometimes mule deer and antelope.

EHD symptoms are hemorrhaging, fever and an urge to be near fresh water to cool down.

Just across much of that cooling Milk River water is Alberta and our antelope, white tails, and some of the province’s best trophy mule deer.

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