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Tree nursery rooted in uncertainty

In April 2012, the federal government announced that it was axing the very popular Prairie Shelterbelt Program.

To date, the government has received more than 20,000 letters, phone calls and hundreds of petitions from upset tree planters. MPs have received numerous complaints as well.

Tree planting on the Prairies has always been a joint effort between landowners and the federal government. The government provides the tree seedlings and the farmer pays the shipping, planting and maintenance costs and provides the land. Landowners see few benefits for the first few years, but over the 50- to 100-year lifespan of the trees, shelterbelts benefit many generations and ultimately all people in Canada.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and his departmental bureaucrats keep saying that trees have no value and aren’t needed anymore. Yet every schoolchild knows the multiple benefits of trees. In our carbon-fuelled society, trees are more important than ever. Although the role of trees in agriculture has changed over time, they are valuable for watershed protection, wildlife habitat, farmstead protection and snow management.

For the past year, a group of concerned citizens has tried to get the government to reconsider its decision. The group has collected petitions, done media interviews, set up displays at trade shows, met with politicians, bureaucrats and farm groups.

A coalition of agricultural associations from across the Prairies has formed and asked the government to lease the operations at the Indian Head Agroforestry Development Centre.

On May 3, Minister Ritz met with the coalition in Regina to discuss a lease arrangement and to arrange a smooth transition. Ritz stated that the Indian Head tree nursery would run as a viable operation to Dec. 31, 2013. He said applications would be received, summer and fall seeding would occur, and fall harvest would be done, while the coalition prepared a business plan and acquired funding.

However, a bureaucrat was sent out to negotiate a lease and all Ritz’s promises flew out the window. While politicians appear to be attempting to solve the “shelterbelt problem” that is causing so much grief, the senior official in charge of assets and other bureaucrats are just interested in selling off the tree nursery, not trying to ensure a smooth transition.

The past spring, five million seedlings were planted by 10,000 landowners. In addition, thousands of applicants never received the trees they requested, probably due to shortages of stock. Maybe the government is now recognizing how valuable and popular the tree-planting program was to Prairie people.

Field staff that are left at the nursery are trying valiantly to keep the seedling crops tended with the hope that the century-old operation will have a new life next year.

But what will happen?

Will the coalition be able to put together a viable business case?

Will Ritz keep the promises he made May 3?

Will the bureaucrats deliver on what the minister has promised, or will they continue to look to dump the property with no intention to assist in a successful long-term transition?

For the sake of future generations, let’s hope that everyone co-operates and a successful transition to a non-profit coalition occurs and this wonderful service to Prairie people continues for years to come.

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