Fire sale on Crown land?

The planned sale in southeastern Alberta of more than 100 sections (16,000 acres) of Crown-owned endangered species habitat to a potato operation should be re-examined.

The planned sale in southeastern Alberta of more than 100 sections (16,000 acres) of Crown-owned endangered species habitat to a potato operation should be re-examined.

Last week, Advocate outdoor columnist Bob Scammell protested the fact that the provincial government is discussing the sale behind closed doors and apparently has no intention of consulting Albertans through public hearings.

It is reasonable to ask if the government can competently manage public lands by putting the interests of businesses ahead of Albertans.

The controversial area, west of Medicine Hat, is a tract of native prairie grasslands. It’s an eggshell-fragile habitat to numerous wildlife species listed under the federal Species at Risk Act — including the burrowing owl and the ferruginous hawk.

Why the secrecy? The province, whose record in managing Crown lands has been less than forthright, doesn’t want to deal with the hassle of public input.

The Alberta Wilderness Association caught wind of the planned sale to SLM Spud Farms 1317748 Ltd., and fired off a letter to Premier Ed Stelmach requesting an urgent response to halt the process and hold public hearings.

Plans are to plow up much of the area to grow potatoes. Alberta’s native grasslands have already dwindled to a mere five per cent at the hands of human encroachment and at the blessing of the provincial government.

According to Scammell, Stelmach himself met on July 29 with Forty Mile Council to discuss the sale.

The Alberta Wilderness Association, a champion in demanding protection of public lands, was incensed when it learned of the secret sale.

“AWA is asking for an emergency response from the Alberta government to prevent the imminent destruction of public land, known to be habitat for a number of endangered species,” it said in its letter to Stelmach.

“AWA is very disturbed to learn that the sale . . . is going through without public knowledge or opportunity for comment.”

The Alberta Fish and Game Association, long known for its stand against the sale of public land — especially critical habitats such as the native prairie — has jumped into the controversy.

Fish and game executive member Andy Boyd said his organization should “get on this now!

“Public land such as this which provides critical habitat must not be considered for sale without a full public hearing.”

Scammell said the Alberta government has “frequently tried to alienate public land in private, in secret, in total breach of trust, government being the trustee of our public land for the benefit of us all.”

This latest example is “close to the most outrageous I can recall,” he said. “This one out-stinks most smell tests.”

Here’s the real stinky part. Sustainable Resource Development Minister Mel Knight said proceeds of the sale are to go to the Nature Conservancy of Canada to purchase land 10 times more environmentally value.

But, apparently, the conservancy has no knowledge of the planned sale, and Scammell doubts it would accept the proceeds: “ . . . if you’ve got environmentally important land, why not just protect it all, why do the Mai Lai thing and destroy any to save more,” he questioned.

Closer to home, near Rocky Mountain House, questions arose in May on the management of public lands when grazing leases on Crown-owned lands were advertised for sale. One seller asked $498,000 for a six-section lease. Another asked $79,500 for a 480-acre lease.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Those lands belong to Albertans. How dare these lease holders reap fortunes from land that doesn’t belong to them”

Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.