A new voluntary program will offer financial incentives to encourage landowners to protect and restore the Manitoba Escarpment’s natural cover in perpetuity.
The goal is not only to conserve flora and fauna providing esthetic benefits, but improve downstream water quality and reduce flooding and costly damage to infrastructure, Cliff Greenfield, manager of the Pembina Valley Conservation District, told reporters gathered at the Alexander Ridge Park near Miami July 8 after announcing details of the three-year federal-provincial Escarpment Habitat Protection Program.
“It is a very special place in Manitoba,” he said. “We don’t have Rocky Mountains but this 600-foot drop is unique and at risk at this time.”
Rising crop and farmland values have resulted in more natural land converted to annual crop production.
“In this area the RM of Thompson was saying… ‘we have a problem with forested lands being converted to cultivation’ and there’s a real change in the water flow,” Greenfield said. “They experience real problems with roads and bridges washing out — sedimentation of their ditches — and they were wondering what they can do about it.”
“At these prices nowadays, all land has agricultural value,” added Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation chief executive officer Tim Sopuck. “Ten to 20 years ago you might have thought that’s going to stay in tree cover because it’s not good farmland. Well, now some of that land has been cleared because there is so much incentive to get every acre of land into production. That’s the reality of the agricultural marketplace.”
The Manitoba Escarpment — part of the western beach of prehistoric glacier Lake Agassiz that once covered much of central North America — runs in this province from the United States border to The Pas. The program will operate along a 15-km strip on either side of the escarpment from the border to Riding Mountain National Park, Greenfield said.
Key is $300,000 in funding — $100,000 a year for three years — from an Environment Canada program to protect habitat.
The escarpment is important to wildlife as habitat and a corridor. It’s home to many common birds, animals and fish from white-tailed deer and ruffed grouse to white sucker. They’re not currently at risk, but will be if their habitat disappears, Greenfield said.
About 75 per cent of the money will go to landowners through either direct payments or tax receipts in return for agreeing through a formal easement on their land title, to leave it in a natural state. Payments are based on a percentage of the land’s assessed value, Sopuck said.
Those who sign still own their land.
“You can graze it, you can hay it, you can cut firewood,” Greenfield said. “The majority of the rights is still with the landowners (and include hunting and trapping). They wouldn’t be allowed to burn, break or drain it basically.
“We are targeting forested lands, grasslands, wetlands — basically any lands that are in natural cover.”
There’s enough money to cover about 2,100 acres of which 1,100 will be preserved and 1,000 restored to a natural state, Greenfield said. However, it’s hoped double that will be saved thanks to landowners who sign agreements without compensation.
The Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation and three conservation districts — Pembina Valley, La Salle Redboine and Whitemud Watershed — all of which are funded provincially, are the other partners. They will contribute an estimated $564,000 through in-kind services.
The conservation districts will identify landowners interested in the program; the corporation will handle the agreements. The districts will also contribute by providing grassed waterways, small dams, gully stabilization and tree planting.
Interested landowners can contact their conservation district or municipality.
A similar program limited to the Pembina Valley Conservation District started in 2013.
“This (new funding) will really do new things,” Sopuck told Candice Bergen, MP for Portage Lisgar and minister of state for social development. “It will take work that has been going on in the past to a whole new level.”
About 60 escarpment landowners in the Pembina Valley Conservation District are being surveyed to understand their attitudes about protecting natural lands, Greenfield said. Results are expected this fall.
Greenfield hopes the program will eventually expand to the rest of the escarpment and other steeped-sloped areas.
“We have learned that protecting the environment isn’t just about fossil fuels and some of those more excitable topics,” Bergen said. “It is about protecting where we live and each of us, individually doing our part. I think it’s so easy to… point fingers… but we each have to look at ourselves and see what we’re doing.”
This project is another example of the Harper government’s strong environmental record, she said.
“(We’re) not placating to special-interest groups, or maybe the activists, but doing what actually makes a difference in terms of conservation and environmental protection.”
As for the government failing to meet Canada’s greenhouse emission reduction targets, Bergen said: “We have to balance having a strong economy and having a strong and protected environment. We believe there are ways we can do that. This is a great example. This protects the environment. This is good for the environment. It creates jobs. It creates opportunity for this area.”