Crown grassland spared from ‘potatogate’

It appears the door has closed in Alberta on what critics called “potatogate”

EDMONTON — A controversial proposal — called “potatogate” by critics — to turn 6,475 hectares of southern Alberta grassland into a potato farm has been killed.

SLM Spud Farms’ offer to buy the Crown land would have privatized habitat for endangered species of birds and reptiles.

Opposition politicians labelled the deal rank patronage, noting that SLM Spud Farms contributed $2,000 to the Progressive Conservatives’ election campaign in 2008, and donated money to the Cardston-Taber-Warner Progressive Conservative riding association last year and in 2007.

Family spokesman Keith Ypma said Tuesday the offer had been withdrawn because of “public misinformation used again us.”

“We never expected the proposal to receive the negative attention it has,” he said.

“We followed government regulations during the four years we worked on this proposal.”

While praising the outcome, environmentalists and members of the Alberta legislature warned all the province’s Crown land remains in peril until the government writes legislation to protect it.

Opposition party members called for an open, transparent process when any government-owned land is for sale.

“The whole thing was just wrong from beginning to end,” said Alberta Wildrose MLA Paul Hinman. “Everything about it was shady and behind closed doors.”

The proposed sale “was going to set a terrible precedent,” he said, potentially putting all the province’s Crown land up for grabs.

The Ypma family declined comment when their proposal was questioned this fall, but on Tuesday, Keith Ypma insisted the proceedings “were not hush-hush.”

He said the family had also been in touch with area ranchers and the Alberta Wildlife Association.

Since moving to the Taber area in 1975, the Ypma family has become of the region’s biggest potato producers. But it needs to expand, he said.

“If you’re not going forward, you’re falling behind.”

Burrowing owls and Ferruginous hawks are nesting on the land, Ypma said, and plans to irrigate much of it could have brought waterfowl and other species there.

Water would have come from the Bow River Irrigation District, putting “excess spill water” into a reservoir on part of the new acreage.

Cattle grazing could also have continued.

“Grazing lands would have been traded to provide ranchers with riverfront lands, rather than the landlocked parcel in question,” he added.

Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann called on the government to complete work on provincewide land-use plans, which would include safeguards for public and endangered lands.

“This illustrates what the power of public outrage can do.”

Cliff Wallis, vice-president of the Alberta Wilderness Association, said he’d heard concerns about the project voiced by many Albertans, including other agricultural producers, not just environmental activists.

“And it looks like people in the Conservative caucus must have been equally upset.”