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Province turns to ALUS for watershed conservation lessons

The provincially announced endowment fund will produce about $2.5 million every year to pay landowners for conservation projects on their land

It’s not quite door to door, but the province’s next watershed investments will still look more to the individual landowner.

The province has promised a $52-million endowment fund for the Growing Outcomes in Watersheds (GROW) program, a program the province says will be based around the ALUS, or alternative land use services, model.

Why it matters: Western Manitoba has played the only host to ALUS programs until recently. Now, the province is using the same model for projects backed by a $52-million endowment fund.

Current ALUS programs in Manitoba focus on individual agreements with landowners. A landowner may apply for a specific project (such as enhancing wetlands for better flood control on their fields) and, if approved, sign a land use agreement with the ALUS program. The landowner will then receive annual payment every year they host that conservation project.

The GROW program will mimic many of those priorities, according to the province. The province says small-scale water retention projects, enhancements to riparian areas, habitat restoration, soil health improvement, shelterbelts and “eco-buffer establishment,” will all be included.

“Our government understands and values the significant benefit that ecological goods and services provide to climate change resiliency,” Manitoba Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said. “By supporting a made-in-Manitoba GROW program, this fund will help recognize the critical role that local producers play in protecting and strengthening our environment, and supporting our best-in-Canada, made-in-Manitoba Climate and Green Plan.”

The funds are on top of the $102-million Conservation Trust Fund set up last year.

Waiting on details

The Winnipeg Foundation will manage the endowment fund, while the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation (MHHC) will handle day-to-day operation, evaluation and tracking, a similar role to its existing work with the Conservation Trust Fund.

Tim Sopuck, CEO for the MHHC, says his group and the province are still working out the details of the project, including how much the GROW program will mimic existing ALUS programs in the province.

“The GROW program, in essence, will adopt many aspects of the ALUS program, but going forward, in essence, Manitoba will have its own EGS (ecological goods and services) program under the GROW banner,” he said.

Lara Ellis, ALUS Canada vice-president of policy and partnerships, praised the recent announcement. The GROW program and conservation trust represent the most buy-in from any province so far, she said.

“We are happy to work with the government of Manitoba and all of our other conservation partners in Manitoba around implementation and making sure that we’re all working as efficiently together as possible,” she said.

ALUS’s existing presence in Manitoba will adapt according to the province’s plans, she said, although Sopuck expects that the GROW program and existing ALUS projects will one day merge.

ALUS has had a permanent foothold in the Little Saskatchewan River Conservation District since 2014, following a pilot project in RM of Blanshard. From 2015-18, the program grew from 10 landowners to 21 and, in 2018, had projects on 1,800 acres. This year, the Conservation Trust Fund helped launch a second ALUS project in the Seine-Rat River Conservation District.

Agreements in the Little Saskatchewan River Conservation District span 10 years, and include restoring or establishing wetland, establishing perennial forage as flood protection and increasing biodiversity.

Sopuck says their own agreement terms are still up in the air, as are payment details.

“Fundamentally, GROW is a payment for ecosystem services program and I think we will want to look at what has been done under ALUS and what are the lessons learned,” he said.

The existing ALUS project tries to keep payments in line with rent values, ALUS Little Saskatchewan River co-ordinator Colleen Cuvelier told the Manitoba Co-operator last year, although some adjustment is made if farmers can still hay or graze the land.

The Winnipeg Foundation, which manages the endowment, estimates the GROW fund will produce $2.5 million each year for projects.

That figure is a “good start,” according to Sopuck, although he suspects demand for projects may outweigh funding ability.

In 2018, Cuvelier reported that the local ALUS program was receiving more applications than they could accommodate.

More farmer input

The Keystone Agricultural Producers, meanwhile, is pushing for more farmer input in the program.

“If there are adequate funds and acceptance, I think that this is a good concept,” KAP president Bill Campbell said. “I think that we’ve evolved into this from two decades ago where government, society and producers realized that there are benefits for this alternative land service. We just need to figure out how we’re going to compensate and acknowledge producers so they can be sustainable,” he said.

Those compensation details will have to be negotiated, he said, although previous ALUS programs have given some foundation for the GROW program.

KAP has been a long-standing supporter of ALUS, but was not consulted on the GROW program, the producer group argued.

“If we don’t engage the stakeholders or the producers and the landowners, it’s going to be an uphill battle. We just have to show that good practices are beneficial and hopefully everybody will want to climb on board and do what is right for the land, the producers and society,” Campbell said.

KAP is also concerned with possible delays to the program, considering the upcoming provincial election. The program may not be in place until the 2020 crop, it said.

Sopuck says there is currently no timeline on the program’s development.

“Given that the money is in hand, we have a lot of motivation to work through the details as soon as possible and get the GROW program up and running,” he said.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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