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Crown lands reclassification case raises concerns

“We’re treating it as the canary in the coal mine. “

– SHANE SADORSKI, MCPA

A cattle farmer in northwestern Manitoba is discovering that it can be cheaper to rent land than not to have it at all.

The farmer in the Rural Municipality of Mossey River north of Dauphin may have to spend thousands of dollars for a fence because provincial authorities turned down his application to lease a small parcel of Crown land adjoining his property.

The farmer, who does not want his name used, applied to lease the 42-acre parcel on the shore of Lake Winnipegosis after an elderly neighbour who had held the lease for years let it lapse.

Private landowners can get a virtual lifetime lease on provincial Crown land up to the age of 65 if they pay the annual fee and follow the rules. After 65, leases may be renewed for five-year periods.

The farmer said he received a notice last year that the land was up for lease. He applied and assumed he would get it, especially after a Crown lands representative came out to talk to him about it.

However, this spring he got a letter saying the land was being reclassified from agriculture to a “higher and better use” for cottage lots.

A Crown land lease agreement requires that cattle must be fenced in (or out). Technically, there should have been a fence on this land all along. But it was never an issue when the farmer’s neighbour had it. Because the two farms were adjacent, cattle wandered freely about and no one complained about a lack of fencing.

Now the farmer worries he’ll have to put up a mile-long fence to keep his cattle off the land being developed for other people’s cottages.

If that isn’t bad enough, part of the land contains a limestone outcrop. To run a fence through that would require drilling into stone. The farmer thinks the total cost could top $5,000.

All of this over a 42-parcel of bush, swamp and rock that, at best, might graze two cows.

The case was a topic of discussion at the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association’s recent annual district meetings.

Policy director Shane Sadorski said MCPA views the case, although small, as a precedent. If allowed to stand, it could establish a trend toward removing even more Crown land from agricultural use, he said.

“We’re treating it as the canary in the coal mine,” Sadorski said.

Manitoba has 14 million acres of provincial Crown land, including 1.4 million acres under agricultural lease. Nearly all of that is used to produce hay and graze cattle.

Jay Fox, who chairs MCPA’s Crown lands committee, said cattle producers are worried because, for some, Crown lands are their livelihood. If they can’t lease enough Crown land, they can’t maintain their herds, he said.

Fox, who leases 12,000 acres of Crown land near Eddystone for grazing and native hay, said municipalities won’t object to reclassifying Crown land as cottage country because it’ll mean more residents and more tax revenue.

Bill Barto, manager of resource planning and policy with Manitoba Conservation, said the province has a program to convert some agricultural Crown land to cottage development. An earlier initiative set a target of 1,000 cottage lots. Another 1,000 lots are being planned.

But Barto said there is no overall strategy to reduce agricultural use of Crown lands.

“We’re always trying, as a planning group, to meet the needs of the farming community,” he said.

Three government departments – agriculture, conservation and transportation – administer the classification of Crown land. Barto said the planning group sometimes reclassifies Crown land for agriculture from other uses.

Barto said the parcel of land was not allocated for agriculture because comments from the planning group that the land was required for cottage development were received after the land was advertised. Manitoba Conservation mailed an explanation to MCPA in June 2008.

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