Public Land – Alberta’s Best Idea

Apology: For those of you who have been waiting for me (Don) to update my blog (a steadily decreasing number, I know), I must apologize. I know in this fast-paced world blogs are to be regularly updated with fresh content so that we don’t lose the interest of our dedicated readers. However, the simple reality is that I only have so much time in my day and other issues have taken priority. One of those issues is the writing of my memoirs about my experiences in wild places over the last 70+ years. I hope to post some of those memories here in the next few months. In the meantime…

Guest Blog: There is much debate in Alberta about how our public lands should be managed and whether or not they should be sold to private interests. In the following essay, biologist Lorne Fitch (a frequent guest blogger here) explains how Alberta came to have so much public land and the importance of those lands to our well being. The piece was first published in the June 2019 Alberta Outdoorsmen. Lorne’s previous essays posted here can be found by putting “Lorne Fitch” in the search box at the top of this page.

Public Land – Alberta’s Best Idea
by Lorne Fitch
Copyright © 2019

Sometimes, you need to be far from your mailbox to acknowledge a good idea in your own backyard. Such is the case with Alberta’s public lands. Public lands are those lands vested to us, the people of Alberta. In other words, these are our lands, in shared ownership, held in trust for us by the government of the day.

Lakeland Park

Public lands are a heritage we should not squander for short-term gains.

This good idea, public land, became clear to me while travelling through Texas, a place where a paltry 1.5% of the state is public. Imagine a jurisdiction with so little public land it hardly registers in the psyche of its citizens. In a recent issue of Texas Monthly, the state magazine, was an article on “75 Reasons to Love Texas”. Amid BBQ, cowboys and country and western music there were only two references to use of public land, and both were for federal parks.

Large portions of Texas seem like the land Cain was willed, where a cow has to pack a lunch to cross. Why it is in private hands is history, a perplexing conundrum in today’s world of expanding population, with recreational and ecological expectations to be met.
Contrast the Texas situation with Alberta where about 60% of the province is public land, private land is 28.5% and federally owned lands make up about 10%. What the remaining 1.5% are is unclear.

Alberta and Texas are roughly the same size. If we were to follow the example of Texas related to public land, as some politicians are suggesting, we, the Alberta public would be left with less than 10,000 km². That’s not much more than the current combined size of all First Nations reserves in the province, where the burgeoning population is stretching the limits.

We don’t have a Parthenon, an Acropolis or ancient palaces in Alberta. What we have is wild space, a natural heritage that has remained in public ownership and is bequeathed to us by past generations. This is an uncommon treasure, given the situation in much of the world. To say public land is part of our heritage is a point lost on some, especially those who see these lands as mere commodities, to be exploited for private or political gain. We might take pride in being Texas-sized but not in wholeheartedly embracing the Texas ideal of having all our land in private hands.

Some Albertans do propose converting the commons- public land- to private property, including newly elected politicians. The tug of war is repetitive between those who wish to maintain public land for the public good, and those who see sales as a get-rich-quick scheme. Sale of our natural heritage provides government a quick, one-time only influx of revenue. Selling public land, a continual generator of public revenue, means Albertans lose in the end.

Alberta’s public lands provide common space, particularly in densely-populated central Alberta where these lands are islands in a sea of private ownership. In the grasslands, the foothills and the boreal forest, public land provides big space. In conservation of native plants and animals big often trumps little, so the vast space afforded by public land is a bonus.

The story of the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is a cautionary tale about the loss of public land and the space it affords. This bird, a subspecies of the now extinct Heath Hen, historically ranged over the coastal plains of Louisiana and Texas, by the hundreds of thousands. Now the species teeters on the edge of extinction, with about a hundred birds left in the wild. Of the original six million acres of coastal plain that formed grouse habitat, less than one percent is left. Virtually none of that is public land and restoration efforts are stymied by the cost of acquiring private holdings and the reluctance of landowners to implement land use changes that favor grouse.

Contrast that situation with our own imperilled bird, the Sage Grouse. In our favor, and pivotal to restoration efforts for Sage Grouse is the vast swath of publicly owned native grasslands in southeastern Alberta, within the range of the grouse (and many more species we don’t want to see disappear). If we dial back industrial disturbance, Sage Grouse are likely to thrive here again. Public lands provide Alberta a unique option for recovering the species, quickly, at low cost, one unavailable in Texas.

Instead of asking what good are public lands to Albertans, economically, ecologically and socially, we might better ask where would we be without them? In the face of an uncertain future we don’t want to preclude options, to fail to have buffers and hedges against changes we can’t yet identify. Hanging onto public lands ensures we don’t sacrifice options for the future.

Sunset Lakeland Park

Perhaps instead of asking what good are public lands, we might better ask where we would be without them?

History shows how private ownership, even when tempered by public regulation falls short of keeping landscapes healthy. The capitalist tendency to privatize, as the answer to a question unasked, has stumbled badly, producing degraded lands, lost opportunity, and increased public costs to mitigate bad decisions.

History has locked us into a legacy of past decisions. The Canadian government, in a bid to thwart American expansion and expropriation of the west- the Prairie Provinces in particular- developed plans to dispose of great tracts of public land for settlement. This included the lands provided to railroad companies to underwrite the costs of transcontinental railway construction, a method of binding together the disparate parts of the nation.

Mostly this was successful. The exceptions included lands unsuitable for cultivation and those where inadequate rainfall precluded successful farming. The latter were taken back under the public domain as tax-recovery lands. Along the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the forests of the Eastern Slopes were also deemed to be more important as essential watersheds, rather than in private hands for logging, mining and ranching. Much of the boreal forest was unsuitable for settlement and remained public.

The massive conversion of public land, during the Homestead era and after, to private land, brought us settlement and economic progress. To a degree those former public lands, now farmed, have given us a foundation of wealth, as measured in stark ledger terms. However, the conversion of those lands also has given us declining soil fertility, increasing erosion (especially for cultivated lands), lost wetlands, degrading rivers and the transformation of landscapes with vegetative and wildlife diversity to vastly simplified ones.

Not all owners of land are rapacious, unfeeling miners of soil, vegetation and destroyers of wildlife. For many, there is an ethic of stewardship, an understanding that applying the brakes, rather than continuing to accelerate pressures on the land is beneficial. But, with the exception of some minor regulatory oversight, a land ethic on the part of landowners is a personal decision. It can be shifted by economic pressures, societal leanings and successional events. Short term economic gain often trumps long term care. There is little, or no cost, or approbation for failing to steward a piece of private land.

For users of public land for economic reasons, you abuse it at your peril. This is not to suggest all public land is free of abuse, at the hands of industry, recreationalists or lease holders. Legislation, policy and penalties are available, waiting only for the resolve to use the instruments designed to protect these lands. Arguments can be mounted, and are, that we need to take better care of public lands, resolve land use issues though effective planning and sort out public access to public lands. That these lands are still in the public domain enable us to have those debates.

Many of these public lands used to be labelled as “other unimproved lands”, as if they were somewhat deficient, wanting or inferior. As it turns out, public lands are the greatest bargain we never really planned for; somewhat by default we now have this tremendous resource.

One of the virtues of public lands is they create a benchmark, suitable to assess our judgement and decisions related to land use. How do we know who we are, if we don’t acknowledge our history? The mirror of understanding is the land, the water, the wildlife. An examination of the difference between public and private land tells us how we have treated this place called home and allows us to gauge our success at stewarding the resources of today for future generations.

Public lands may be the last frontier. In some ways what remains is an accident of history. We would be wise to view those lands as a heritage, as long as they remain public. Public ownership suggests stewardship, not exploitation and certainly not disposal.

Wallace Stegner, no stranger to public land conversion with his Saskatchewan homestead roots, made the point: “The trouble is that places work on people very slowly, but people work on places with the single- minded ruthlessness of a beaver at a cottonwood tree.” Given our continual nibbling away at the public land base in Alberta we may not yet have evolved the societal or political maturity to understand the virtues of public land.

Public land shouldn’t be viewed as a shiny bauble suitable for sale. Barring a major economic collapse, as in the 1930s, public land, once sold, is gone forever. Once you eat the cake, there’s no cake left.

When 60% of the province is in public ownership and, with some exceptions, available to Albertans, that empowers us as citizens, especially the 81% of us that live in urban areas. It is part of our heritage, a visceral part of our societal DNA. Any government that proposes a liquidation of what is ours should be viewed as rash and heavy handed, trammelling current rights and freedoms.

Progress, real progress isn’t measured solely with what we’ve acquired, with what we’ve sold, with what our economic status is, but also with what we have retained. Government, holding land in trust for the people of Alberta, needs to draw a line around public land and say, “This is public land and public land it shall stay.” Public land is surely one of Alberta’s best ideas; let’s keep it that way.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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