A year ago, he was hailed as a breath of fresh air for the conservation community, a government minister of the Alberta Department of Sustainable Resource Development (which currently houses the Fish and Wildlife Division) who actually hunted and fished, and who understood first-hand the problems our fish and wildlife face from the growing human footprint in Alberta. In his early speeches, Ted Morton outlined an aggressive agenda to move fish and wildlife conservation up the government priority list. At the 2007 Alberta Fish and Game Association annual conference in Medicine Hat, following his speech, Morton received a standing ovation and the delegates were abuzz with the possibilities this minister could deliver.
Of course, all this exuberance was tempered by the fact that Morton was a member of a new government that had not yet gone to the polls for a mandate. So, his time as minister was tenuous at best. That he has lasted one year in the job is more than many expected. However, Morton wasted no time. He rushed to get things done, most notably the Land Use Framework, which the premier had made the minister’s top priority. Morton, who had lost a leadership race to the new premier, Ed Stelmach, pushed and pulled with the other departments to get the framework on the table–and he almost pulled it off. The framework is due out in a few weeks, unfortunately after the election that is taking place March 3.
Another item on his agenda was hunting and fishing access on private land—a long standing issue with outdoors people. His solution was a program called “Open Spaces”, designed outside of public view by a hand-picked group of academics, landowners and well-healed members of the outdoor community. Of course, to go through a normal process of public consultation involving all stakeholders (not just those with an axe to grind) would have meant a delay of months before anything would have gotten off the ground. But Morton did not have that kind of time, so he pulled together these people to develop a pilot project. Unfortunately for Morton, information about the proposed pilot was leaked and soon the Minister was having to defend the indefensible.
The idea for Open Spaces is simple enough. In southern Alberta where the vast majority of wildlife habitat is on private land, landowners hold the keys to how much habitat there is and how much game is available for hunting or indeed watching. However, they are not paid for maintaining this habitat, either directly or through tax credits. Therefore, if it is more economical to plow a piece of habitat than leave it for wildlife, there is nothing to stop them from doing so. Thus, one component of Open Spaces would pay landowners for maintaining habitat while allowing hunters to access the land. This particular program has merit, although nowhere do I find information (as much of this information has yet to be released) about where such money would come. Would it come from hunting licensing fees, taking funds away from other programs? No one is talking.
The second component is the most controversial. It involves giving landowners 10 to 15 % of the resident hunter licence-tags available (for elk in the pilot) to sell to residents in return for increasing habitat and allowing the herd to grow. In other words, hunters seeking access to these private lands would have to pay for that access. No matter how Mr. Morton and his friends cut it, that is still paid hunting, and that is what is indefensible. He is bucking a long history of North American wildlife management where one of the guiding principles is that our wildlife is a public resource and no one should charge for access to that resource. It’s a principle that has a long history of being vigorously defended by outdoors people in this province.
Mr. Morton heard that message loud and clear at the 100th Anniversary conference of the Alberta Fish and Game Association held last weekend in Edmonton. A resolution to support the Open Spaces pilot program was rejected unanimously by the 250+ delegates there,.
Will the pilot project go ahead? That depends on how bull-headed Mr. Morton wishes to be. As he admitted in his speech to the conference, the public relations about the program was handled very poorly. But if he wins his election on Monday (likely) and gets his old portfolio back (maybe not so likely), he may just try to push Open Spaces through. That would be a big mistake. It’s time to bring Open Spaces out into the open for all to see and discuss, like what is supposed to happen in democracies. The opportunity to hunt is not just for the few who can afford to pay exorbitant access fees. It is for everyone.
So, what’s wrong with that?