Aconservation easement has been inked to protect a portion of the 21,195 acres of native prairie at Langford Community Pasture.
That’s good news for the endangered Prairie Skink, Manitoba’s only native lizard; residents of Neepawa, who are in the process of tapping the local aquifer for their water supplies; and about two dozen local ranchers who use the pasture for grazing about 2,000 head of cattle.
The rural municipalities of Langford and Landsdowne donated a combined 9,822 acres that they own within the pasture to the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation. About 1,000 acres are federal Crown land, with the balance provincially owned, and a few hundred acres of undeeded land of indeterminate ownership thrown into the mix.
“This is pretty huge for us,” said Stephen Carlyle, program development manager for MHHC.
“It’s the biggest agreement in Manitoba by quite a bit.”
The federal land had been managed by the Agri- Environment Services branch (formerly known as the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration) for six decades. The deal ensures it will continue to be managed as a community pasture in the future, said Brandon-Souris MP Merv Tweed, who represented Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz at a signing ceremony in early October. A pocket of private land, currently owned by potato farmers, remains in the centre of the pasture.
Like typical deals MHHC signs with private landowners, the easement prevents current and future owners from plowing, draining, or otherwise altering the landscape. But since the land is a community pasture, the easement has special exceptions, such as allowing fence-lines to be maintained.
With cattle filling the grazing niche once held by plains bison, the sensitive land and native prairie grass species will be protected and maintained, said Carlyle, who estimated the conservation easement deal could be the fourth largest in Canada.
Without the agreement, the temptation to sell would have been huge. Pasture land is worth $450 to $500 per acre but if converted to potato cropping, it could fetch $3,200 to $4,000 per acre.
Although no more irrigation water is being allocated from that aquifer, potato farmers with water rights elsewhere had been piping in water, buying up land, and levelling it to establish potato farming operations, said Langford chief administrative officer Allison Bardsley.
Local municipalities and the town of Neepawa saw a need to protect the area’s sandy soils, and the Assiniboine Delta aquifer that lies underneath it, from encroachment by intensive agricultural development, she said.
“The R. M. of Langford wanted to make sure that future councils and the powers that be never sold the land that is currently the community pasture,” said Bardsley.
PRESSURE TO SELL
As more and more land switches over to intensive cultivation, area tax assessments tend to rise accordingly, putting enormous pressure on more ranchers to sell or rent their land to potato growers.
“People are feeling forced to sell to potato farmers and the R. M. doesn’t want them to,” said Bardsley. “We want to protect our land, right?”
One area potato farmer, who didn’t want to be named, said that he and others don’t like being cut off from further expansion, but accept that “it’s a done deal.”
The goal was to make sure that if the federal government ever decided to get out of the community pasture business and sell its portion of the land, some of it would still be protected, said Rick Donaldson, economic development officer for Neepawa and the R. M. of Langford.
Also, a major capital project that began last year will see wells and pipelines installed to tap the aquifer that lies underneath the pasture to bring groundwater to Neepawa residents and businesses, who are currently supplied by surface water from nearby Lake Irwin.
“Both municipalites are extremely happy with the way it has been managed, and over the years it has actually improved with that management,” said Donaldson.
Native pasture is also good for the Prairie Skink, which nests in burrows dug into sandy, uncultivated soils.
Langford R. M. approached the deal in three phases, said Donaldson. The first phase was to secure its own municipal lands via the MHHC easement, then negotiate for a similar conservation agreement on the roughly 9,000 acres of provincial Crown land, followed by a deal on the remaining 1,000 acres owned by the federal government.
The remaining 300 to 400 undeeded acres are in the process of being added to the MHHC agreement, said Donaldson. [email protected]
“It’sthebiggest agreementinManitoba byquiteabit.”
– STEPHEN CARLYLE