Adecade ago, the notion of paying landowners for the services they provide in maintaining wetlands and critical habitats was so radical that few thought it would ever gain traction among the public or politicians.
Now, with the concept firmly established, the only obstacle going forward is funding.
“Ten years ago we could barely get people to accept the principle,” said Ian Wishart, the “godfather” of Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS), speaking at a panel discussion on the subject of Ecological Goods and Services (EG&S) hosted by the Mani toba Conservation Districts Association in Portage la Prairie recently.
“Now we’ve accepted the principle of environmental services, and we’re talking about how we can do it. That’s a long way to move a whole society in 10 years.”
The province of Manitoba, he added, has been “very supportive” along the way. On the federal level, however, it has been a “battle.”
The response of politicians, at least in one-on-one meetings over the years, has been generally favourable. Convincing the bureaucracy to help rather than hinder the process is another story, said Wishart.
But action is urgently needed, he noted, because 70 per cent of the original wetlands in Manitoba are gone, and in some areas, losses are already virtually 100 per cent.
“Frankly, I think it’s because the last time any of them got any mud on their boots was probably when they were in the sandbox. They have lost touch with reality,” he said.
“We have to bring them back to reality. Either that, or we have to find a politician who is convinced enough on the issue to run roughshod over the bureaucracy.”
Wishart noted that in the room of over 80 people, no high-level federal representatives were present.
Art Jonasson, a Manitoba Cattle Producers Association director from Vogar, echoed Wishart’s view on the attitudes of federal-level politicians.
Although the MCPA has only been involved in the EG&S lobbying effort for three years, the group has developed its own EG&S policy paper.
Not all agriculture, Jonasson noted, comes at the expense of the environment. The Prairie grasslands and the immense herds of bison evolved together over millennia, grazing and cycling the nutrients and carbon that made the land fertile enough to support agriculture today.
“Frankly, I think it’s because the last time any of them got any mud on their boots was probably when they were in the sandbox. They have lost touch with reality.”
– ian wishart
Now, grazing livestock are the only alternative for filling that important ecological niche, he said, providing food while at the same time enhancing and preserving “natural capital.”
“DONATION TO SOCIETY”
“All our incentives come to us in the form of commodity prices and how much commodity we can produce. We provide a lot of EG&S as well, but at no benefit to the cattle producer,” he said. “It’s more or less a donation to society.”
If a market for offsetting the carbon emissions of cities and industry is workable, the two main recognized offsets are agriculture and forestry, he noted.
“I really see this as not a program that should be run by agriculture; this is an environmental program. I think that Conservation should be taking the lead on this,” said Jonasson.
Tim Sopuck, CEO of Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp., has been working with Ducks Unlimited Canada and Manitoba Water Stewardship in the delivery of the Wetland Restoration Incentive Program, which provides EG&S payments for landowners who have entered into conservation easement agreements.
MHHC’s mandate and funding is aimed at securing the “best of the best,” he said. Casting a wider net would require more participation from diverse stakeholders.
“EG&S really does demand broad participation, broad collaboration, and broad co-operation,” he said. “We really need to break down a lot of barriers in order to see it happen.”
While it would make sense to frame further the organization and delivery of EG&S payments around watershed planning in Manitoba, the task would require more resources than those currently deployed by existing conservation districts, he said.
Ryan Canart, manager of the Upper Assiniboine Conservation District, said EG&S could help reconnect modern culture with the land and reinforce the understanding that human health is dependent on a healthy environment – but the main obstacle is communication.
“In getting the word out to society, we need to do a marketing campaign like we’ve never seen before. We need agriculture to come together and market that idea to the urban consumer,” said Canart, who added that he has been urging the CBC’s Rex Murphy via email to put EG&S up for discussion on his Sunday afternoon national call-in show, “Cross Country Checkup.”
Financial incentives would give farmers a reason to start doing the right things, and at the same time polish agriculture’s image in the eyes of the public, he added.
It may seem naive to think so, said Canart, but had former Liberal party leader Stephane Dion’s much-maligned “Green Shift” carbon tax initiative succeeded in capturing the public’s imagination, it could have brought money back to the landscape.
“It may seem trivial to some people, but wetlands on your tax assessment are still labelled as ‘waste, bush, slough.’ That’s sending this negative message out there that they’re not worth anything,” he said. [email protected]