“How do you put a dollar value on birds nesting, or deer, or rare plants? It’s like trying to put a dollar value on different members of your family.”
– AL ROGOSIN
Farmers support wetlands, but don’t believe they should carry the cost of preserving them alone, participants in a public consultation on the future of wetlands said last week.
About 30 people filled the room at Brandon’s Riverbank Discovery centre for the second-to-last opportunity to voice their concerns over wetland preservation.
“When I grew up, Dad farmed with horses and sloughs and wetlands provided feed and shelter for the livestock,” said Roy Greer, a retired western Manitoba farmer who has lived on the same land for 80 years. “Now the farms are bigger and the sloughs get in the way.”
Greer, who participated in the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) pilot program in the R. M. of Blanshard that ran for two years ending in 2008, said local farmers are eager to see the program continued.
“I had a neighbour ask me, ‘When is ALUS coming back? If I don’t get it I’m going to start draining,’” said Greer.
Farmers know that they shouldn’t drain, he added, but for many, the burden of preserving wetlands is too much to bear and existing regulations are generally ignored due to spotty enforcement.
STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Current programs paying for restoration of wetlands are a step in the right direction, but fundamentally flawed because they reward landowners who “did the wrong thing” in the past.
“In the 1960s, I drained. Now I’m being compensated. The neighbour who did not drain gets nothing,” said Greer.
Gordon Hammell, who farms
near Erickson, has made special efforts over the years to preserve potholes on his farm because he likes them.
“If you ever look in the water in the spring, it’s just alive with stuff going on in there,” he said.
But he noted that once a farmer pays a backhoe operator to come in and take out a beaver dam, the temptation to dig a drainage trench too, is just too great.
“When you get the hoe or the cat in, who worries about a permit?” he asked. “Rules aren’t a problem, you just go ahead and do it.”
Education and enforcement measures that targeted large equipment contractors who are willing to go along with landowners intent on breaking existing rules might be more effective.
Dave Marvin, who farms 6,000 acres north of Brandon, said that he has preserved 600 acres of uncultivated wetlands. Half of his acres are “moderately sloughy” and it costs him about $60,000 per year in fuel, seed, and fertilizer to drive around the headlands of the uncropped low spots.
Shallow drains installed over the past 50 years consolidate the run-off from shallow, seasonal wetlands into larger, deeper marshes and allow him to get more out of his land.
“Existing shallow drains should stay,” said Marvin. “If they were closed, my costs would go up to $120,000 a year, every year.”
James Battersville, of KAP, said farmers are caught in the vise of higher input costs and expenses and lower profit margins, and drain wetlands even though they know that they offer significant environmental benefits.
“Farmers are really forced to maximize their earning potential just to survive,” he said.
Rick Andrews, a “concerned citizen,” said that future wetland policy must take a “big picture, long-term view that recognizes the value of Manitoba’s abundant water as the “new oil.”
“We’re going to be fighting over water in the future – never mind the oil,” he said. “We can live without oil, but everybody here and everything on this planet needs water.”
Al Rogosin, a retired botany professor from Brandon University, noted that the “bean counters” tend to hold sway in all environmental discussions, even with regard to the value of biodiversity.
“How do you put a dollar value on birds nesting, or deer, or rare plants? It’s like trying to put a dollar value on members of your family,” said Rogosin.
Don Loewen, who operates a large intensive farm between Brandon and Rivers, pointed out that farmers like him grow food for everyone.
“I’m really worried about some of the talk and policies that might come into place that might see us go backwards in acres,” he said. “We’ve got about 75 per cent of the province already in forest, lakes, bogs and woodlands that will never be farmed. There is only so much land in the growing area.”
Urban sprawl, rising population and the need to grow more food to feed the world are increasing pressure on the farmland that is left, he added.
“Do we not need to increase our production? How are we going to do it? If you take away our ability to drain or clear land, we’re going to run out of food. That’s a big deal,” said Loewen. “I, too, love potholes.”
Former provincial minister of intergovernmental affairs Jean Friesen chaired the Manitoba Water Council Advisory Group’s consultation process, which made 11 stops around the province beginning in early June.
“Every region is different. We’ve had good, thoughtful input, and we’re continuing to get individual responses on the Internet, as well as formal, written presentations from producer organizations and municipalities,” she said.
A “What We Heard” document will be published and forwarded to the minister by late fall, she added.