Public Lands Deal Behind Closed Doors — Native Prairie Threatened by Developer's Plough

Alberta Wilderness Association

Release Date: November 8, 2007

A large area of public land west of Medicine Hat comprising rare native prairie may feel the slice of the plough within a few months if a proposed land swap goes ahead behind closed doors. Alberta Wilderness Association believes that any decisions affecting public land trades or sales must include the opportunity for public participation.

"This is irreplaceable native prairie," says Joyce Hildebrand, AWA conservation specialist. "It is owned by all Albertans and under no circumstances should it be handed over to private interests without wide public consultation." Native prairie has almost disappeared from the Alberta landscape, largely due to agricultural expansion.

Developer Louis Ypma has approached the Hays Grazing Association with an offer to buy the lease for at least four sections (10 km2) of ecologically sensitive land so he can proceed with a land trade for potato production. Ypma is aiming to buy a total of 99 quarters of land in the area.

During his first meeting with the Grazing Association on September 25, Ypma made an offer which was rejected by the approximately 50 members of the group. He came back in October with an offer of an additional $25,000 for each member, which some are finding difficult to turn down. Ypma tried to force a vote at that second meeting, but Association members refused.

"This kind of transfer happens behind closed doors without due process," says AWA director and environmental consultant Cliff Wallis. "Species of concern get lost in the shuffle. That's been our experience with this same individual with sensitive lands in the same area."

In 2003 Ypma acquired a similar piece of native prairie, also public land. According to University of Alberta ecologist Dr. Mark Boyce, the exchange happened despite a wildlife survey that found four at-risk wildlife species on this land and despite professional wildlife biologists' assessment that the land being accepted in its place was degraded by oil and gas development, roads, and invasive species. Before the land exchange was completed, Ypma violated the Public Lands Act, the Alberta Wildlife Act, and the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act by ploughing the land before receiving the requisite disposition to do so during peak nesting season in mid-June.

Brian Laing, head of Range Management for the prairie area, says that the Government of Alberta has not yet received an application for the land trade and that when an application is received, it will go through the usual process. He stated that this process involves no public consultation.

In addition to the loss of habitat for many species, including some species-at-risk, developing this semi-arid land for potato production would require irrigation. "We know that of all the irrigation crops grown in Alberta, potatoes are one of the thirstiest," says AWA water economist Carolyn Campbell. "Without a comprehensive water conservation strategy in place in Alberta, this ad hoc approach to expanding irrigation acreage is short-sighted." Ypma has already approached the Bow River Irrigation District about the possibility of incorporating the land that he is interested in buying into the District.

An application can only be submitted after the Hays Grazing Association has agreed to the trade. Some members of the Association are concerned that if Ypma receives the go-ahead from the majority of members, the government will simply rubber-stamp the application and priceless native prairie will be lost.

For more information:

Joyce Hildebrand, Alberta Wilderness Assocation (403) 283-2025
Cliff Wallis, Alberta Wilderness Association (403) 271-1408