It was an interesting presentation for a government minister to make at the Alberta Fish and Game Association’s annual conference in Edmonton last Friday. Just before the minister’s sponsored lunch, Ted Morton made the requisite speech to the delegates that is traditional for the minister of the day. The speech was reasonably short and covered his department’s accomplishments and plans for the future, as is normal fare for such a speech. What was remarkable was what occurred after lunch. He booked a couple of hours to make a presentation about the resurrection of his Open Spaces program that was unanimously rejected by the AFGA conference last year, also in Edmonton (see my blog entry, ‘Open Spaces’ Stumbles). That was the first time I had seen a minister take a significant portion of an AFGA conference to try to sell a program.
Now, to be fair, the Minister had dropped the most offensive part of the original Open Spaces proposal, that of allowing landowners to sell hunting tags and pocket a portion of the revenue. Instead, he was now promoting the less offensive part that would pay landowners for creating and maintaining habitat and allowing hunters access to the wild game on their land, or RAMP, the Recreational Access Management Program.
This he addressed by bringing to the AFGA conference, at I’m sure some considerable expense, a small platoon of people from Montana to explain the Block program in that State that RAMP is based on. The panel of presenters included the coordinator of Block, a landowner participant, a resident hunter/angler who uses Block property, and an Alberta supporter of RAMP who has used Block property when he visited Montana as a non-resident hunter. They each made well thought out presentations that were quite impressive. Then the coordinator for RAMP described the three-year pilot program in Alberta that apparently is going ahead despite what the delegates might think and indeed decide.
RAMP will compensate and assist volunteer landowners in Wildlife Management Units (WMUs) 108 and 300 (in southern Alberta) in developing access management plans to allow hunters/anglers on their lands. Landowners will be compensated based on the quality of habitat and the access allowed. Compensation payments will be a maximum of $10 per day per user to a maximum of $2,000 to $10,000 per year per landowner, depending on the amount of land available for access. Such compensation could be in the form of goods and services to enhance habitat or cash.
Where will the money come from? The three-year pilot program will be financed out of the department’s budget. When asked how he planned to fund the program in the future if the pilot was successful (however that will be determined), the Minister had a convoluted answer bringing in the Land Use Framework that is also just getting underway. Apparently, the local LUF Advisory Council (not yet established) would have to build payments to landowners into their program to conserve wildlife habitat, if that is indeed a priority for that particular council.
And for me that is the problem. Yes, there is a problem gaining access to publicly owned fish and wildlife on private land, and yes, it is particularly acute in southern Alberta where most land is held privately. But is the solution to pay landowners for such access? And who will pay?
In North America, and especially in Alberta, wildlife is considered to be a public resource that the public should not have to pay to access. Paying landowners to gain access is paid hunting and fishing, whether that access is paid by the user or the government (i.e., users’ tax dollars). To my mind, if this program expands and the demand for financing increases, I cannot see how hunters and anglers can avoid eventually paying for this access out of their pockets. And fundamentally, that is why the AFGA, at its conference on the day following the RAMP presentation, passed a motion continuing its previous rejection of Open Spaces, including RAMP.
However, the problem still remains without a solution. A proactive minister, with a genuine interest in his job, has attempted to find one, but he neglected to gain the support of the province’s primary conservation organization, or include it in the planning process where he would have learned about the passion behind this issue. That’s too bad, because an opportunity may have been lost. While we watch to see how long it takes RAMP to either succeed or fail (under its own weight), perhaps its time to develop an alternate plan to include private landowners in the conservation of fish and wildlife habitat that includes public access.
So, what’s wrong with that?