Public land boondoggles add to Alberta Tory woes

Politicians never learn: waste, give away, even steal millions, and the public wont care; do likewise with chickenfeed the public understands, and they’ll hound you from power.

Politicians never learn: waste, give away, even steal millions, and the public wont care; do likewise with chickenfeed the public understands, and they’ll hound you from power.

That thought was already churning in my mind with the current Alberta Tory crisis, when a “brown envelope” phone tip came from a well-connected Alberta environmentalist that a couple of Alberta cabinet ministers are deeply worried about the public land boondoggles this column has been trying to inform Albertans about for longer than the PCs have been in power.

The ministers are alleged to be Robin Campbell, new Environment-Sustainable Resource Development minister, and his predecessor, Diana McQueen, now Energy Minister, who “gets it,” but, “is afraid of the political fallout,” as she always is.

What took so long; why do these well-founded worries arise now?

I had retired from trying to wake Albertans up about this truly big ripoff.

But irate callers keep reminding me that Alberta public land grazing leases are no longer about grass for livestock at all, so much as for the mining of windfall, buckshee money: they have become a cash cow, to put it bluntly.

My callers claim it is continuing utter stupidity amounting to gross negligence that Alberta’s public land grazing leaseholders are permitted to keep the payments from oil and gas companies for surface disturbances to land they do not own and, further, to sell the lease on land we, not they, own when they are done with it.

No Alberta private landowner in his right mind permits either stupidity, nor does Saskatchewan with its public land grazing leases and permits.

I thank all callers, but suggest they should be directing their complaints to their and all our MLAs.

Some may have started doing that; maybe that is why the two ministers are allegedly worried.

They could even be terrified that the Wildroses will latch onto a real big money-wasting issue for a change, instead of just strafing Red Baroness Redford and her Royal Alberta Air Farce.

Don’t hold your breath: my reading of her words in the legislature of Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith is that she’d drink the bathwater of Alberta’s ranchers, with or without sheep dip.

Initially I got annoyed at government officials and publicists citing “privacy” when not answering my questions, but then it dawned on me that our government, shockingly, really has no idea how much money is lost annually to provincial coffers from paying cowboy welfare, and certainly doesn’t want the public to find out.

Obviously nobody knows the total cowboy welfare cost, since the practice accidentally, negligently, maybe even corruptly, got started, and nobody seems to remember when.

Alberta’s longtime environmental guru, the late Elmer Kure, couldn’t remember when cowboy welfare commenced, but told me “they wanted to compensate the lease holder for actual damage to the grass and just went too far.”

The Eastern Irrigation District, headquartered in Brooks, leases some of the 550,000 unirrigated rangeland acres it owns for grazing, too, but it does all the negotiations for and receives the surface disturbance payments directly from the oil, gas, and seismic companies.

The EID then compensates the leaseholder at a modest level (never more than the grazing bill) for any actual damage to grass on the lease, or disturbance to the grazing operation.

The shrewd EID runs and maintains its superb water distribution operation on what its annual financial statements designate “Compensation from Oil and Gas Operations.”

Its annual reports and financial statements for 2000-2010 show that the EID averaged $17,229, 844.00 annually for “Compensation from Oil and Gas Operations,” by far its largest revenue item (it was $22.5 million in 2011 and $23.7 million in 2012).

So, how much is the public of Alberta losing when government lets the sacred cowboys, the fat cats who merely rent the grass, lap up the cream of the grazing lease surface disturbance money?

There are other documented examples, but the largest, those 550,000 acres of EID land, bring the owner $31.33 per acre, per year.

Say $25 per acre for the 5.2 million acres of Alberta public land under grazing lease, and that could be $130 million we are losing annually.

Add in market value for the lease fees and lease sales ($125 per acre), and we could be losing-paying, between $130 million and $150 million annually in cowboy welfare; over, say, 40 years, untold billions of dollars for damage to our public land stuffed into the tight-arsed pockets of a relatively few big ranchers.

That money would work wonders for people who really need help, maybe even help prevent and heal the serious damage oil, gas, logging, etc. is doing to our public land.

I’m getting riled again; enough to accept the invitation of the Auditor-General of Alberta: “If you suspect fraud, or misuse of public assets, please contact us.” If, with all his powers and expertise, the AG finds out what cowboy welfare has cost Alberta, and the public still doesn’t care, then I’ll rest my longest case.

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

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