Prairie Commons in Crisis

Beneficial Community Pasture Program killed by Bill C-38
May 1, 2013

With the widespread damage to environmental protection inflicted by the federal government's omnibus Bill C-38, it was easy to miss the fate of more than a million acres of humble prairie grasslands. These grasslands provide habitat for endangered prairie species and provide carbon sequestration and other important ecosystem services.

In Bill C-38, the federal government terminated the very successful PFRA Community Pasture Program. The program cared for 23 pastures (0.7 million acres) in Manitoba and 62 (1.77 million acres) in Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan's pastures alone comprise 7100 km, 1.25 times the size of Prince Edward Island. These pastures are some of the largest remnants of protected native prairie remaining in the world.

Ownership of the community pastures now reverts to the provincial governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which are struggling to find a transition. Manitoba is fine-tuning Crown ownership. The Saskatchewan government has a different plan. Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart announced that the pastures would be sold or leased to the farmer/rancher patrons who graze cattle on them. Sale or lease, Stewart is quick to assure us, will require that each pasture remains whole with a "no-cultivation, no-drainage" conservation easement.

Management of the pastures, however, will fall entirely to the purchaser or lessee, and there will be neither enforcement nor regulation backing up the conservation easement provisions (nor species at risk). Furthermore, it is easy to alter these requirements for re-sale, so these provisions provide very weak protection, which will probably get even weaker over time.

There is considerable opposition to this plan from a wide array of Saskatchewan citizens: pasture patrons, conservationists, artists, and First Nations groups. Many pasture patrons, the supposed beneficiaries of the plan, do not have ready cash to buy a share of the pasture. If they cannot use the pastures, they may be compelled to sell their cattle, or even leave farming entirely. Pasture managers will lose both their jobs and their homes, because they were required to live on the pastures.

Conservationists are concerned that, with less than 20% remaining prairie, the loss of protection on 3% of pastures imperils endangered grassland species and vital ecological services. First Nations groups, as usual, have not been consulted, even though these lands contain many areas of cultural significance.

Despite this wide-ranging opposition, the Saskatchewan government has not altered its strategy. The first 10 pastures are currently for sale, and the government hopes to sell them by this summer.

The problem with this plan is that it focuses only on the agricultural benefit of the pastures, and threatens other benefits served by the current professional management. PFRA pasture managers enable sustainable grazing on these fragile ecosystems, while tending the sometimes conflicting habitat requirements of many species at risk. The pay-off for such management includes soil conservation, water conservation, and carbon sequestration, in addition to the economic value of the cattle.

The wise option would be to retain the management expertise and public/private benefit sharing that has been developed over nearly 80 years, but it is unlikely that pasture patrons could afford pay for this. Nor should they. We cannot reasonably expect farmers and ranchers to forgo private good to protect a public good on their own. Given the environmental, cultural, and recreational benefits, there should also be some public contribution. Dismantling the current management system would also result in a great loss of local ecosystem expertise, which may be particularly necessary as the prairies adjust to climate change.

Community Pastures History

The Community Pastures have a long and revered history in Saskatchewan. After the Canadian prairie was hastily opened for farming, the Rockies' rain-shadow took its natural toll, leading to the "Dirty '30s." In 1935, Parliament created the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration Act (PFRA) to halt soil erosion, recover abandoned farmland, and avert further hardship to farm families. Following a brief experiment with reseeding "tame grass" monocultures, PFRA managers learned the remarkable value of native grasses, and now 87% of PFRA lands support native species. This benefits both biodiversity and productivity because diverse native grasses do a better job of "putting meat on cows." With the planned return of these restored grasslands to private hands, are we destined to repeat history?

The Community Pastures represent a publicly shared "commons," famously discussed by Garret Hardin. Commons supply four types of "goods and services": production, life-supportive and life-fulfilling processes, and preservation of future options. Cattle are the production good. But the PFRA land does much more, which is the misunderstood crux of this dilemma. Government ownership facilitated a multi-stakeholder focus, land access, and cross-sector forward thinking.

Well-managed pastures provide air and water purification, soil conservation, and carbon sequestration (life-supportive processes), and are the context for many fulfilling activities, including art, science, hunting, and bird-watching. Several prairie painters and photographers use pasture landscapes and organisms as their subjects. Biologists, geologists, and range ecologists conduct research on what could be dubbed Canada's Grassland University.

Research continues on how to manage grass in the different prairie eco-regions under a "new climate normal." These pastures are home to 30 species at risk of extinction (3 mammals, 15 birds, 3 reptiles, 3 insects, 6 plants), so the future biodiversity of the grasslands is in many ways dependent on these pastures.

In an economic analysis, University of Saskatchewan Professor Suren Kulshreshtha calculated that pastures provide benefits worth $55 million (in equivalent dollar terms), 62% of which is from the three public benefit categories. This is 2.5 times the $22 million cost of the program, which was approximately equally shared between pasture patrons and the public.

The "tragedy of the commons" is that the sustainability of shared resources is threatened by inequitable distribution of benefits and costs from overuse. In the 1960s and 1970s, overgrazing was common, decreasing the grass species preferred by cattle and wildlife, and increasing less-preferred and invasive species. Benefits associated with grazing additional cattle on a pasture go to the individual ranchers, whereas the costs of overgrazing are distributed to everyone. Thus, according to Hardin, the "rational" option for each rancher is to overuse the resource and hope that others do not do the same.

Hardin discussed three management options to prevent commons overuse: central management (with effective monitoring), privatization, and moral appeals to the greater good (i.e., voluntary constraint). The PFRA program was an example of central management, with monitoring provided by pasture managers, supported by system-wide biological and range experts. The federal and provincial governments' proposed solution is to dissolve the commons by privatizing management in the hope that the owner's self-interest will sustain the ecosystems.

The Saskatchewan government, however, is adamant that it will sell or lease only to pasture patrons, so self-interest in this case primarily involves only one of the four categories of goods production. Most farmers and ranchers are aware of the importance of biodiversity to maximize their long-term interests, using systems such as integrated pest management, whenever possible, to preserve soil health and biodiversity. However, the "whenever possible" is usually defined by short-term economic necessity for producers, thus risking the long-term health of these pastures and the public benefits associated with healthy grasslands.

Since Hardin's time, other effective ways to manage commons have been identified. For instance, when commons are clearly identified, social governance can work as long as trust, shared norms, and relationship networks exist among the groups. Interestingly, since the governments' announcement of the end of centralized management, several citizens' groups have emerged. The Community Pasture Patrons' Association (CPPA), composed of farmer/rancher patrons, focuses primarily on agricultural needs and benefits; Public Pastures - Public Interest (PPPI) represents the environmental and conservation needs and benefits; and the First Nations Joint Venture (FNJV) initiative champions cultural and historical interests as well as collaborative management (see and Despite historic distrust between these populations, the groups have identified shared goals and are beginning the process of establishing shared norms to find a way to communally manage the pastures to maximize all categories of interest.

Saskatchewan citizens' reaction to what many perceive to be a crisis reflects what is known about best practice in commons management and decision-making. The pastures management challenge is to optimize the benefits and minimize the costs to all of the interests, not just one at the expense of the others. Although the PFRA system provided excellent management of these fragile ecosystems, the federal government's precipitous decision to end central governance may provide an opportunity to evolve to an equally effective localized management system, provided that the Saskatchewan government doesn't act to derail this developing solution. Before discussing this decisional tipping point for the Saskatchewan government, it is useful to consider what is known about decision-making in complex situations.

Decision-Making Complexity

Research in behavioural economics indicates that, even though human decision-making is always biased, there is a process that is more likely to result in optimal decisions in complex situations. Both individually and in groups, we pay more attention to, and consider more important, arguments that support options that intuitively appeal to us. Thus, we tend to consider only half of the information available to us. However, we can protect ourselves from this bias by having people with different preferences discuss the options. This works because each group focuses on the benefits of a different option, increasing everyone's thinking about the pros and cons of all options.

The citizens' groups that have formed to represent the multiple-use benefits of the pastures provide this type of multi-perspective debate. Together, these groups can potentially achieve an optimal solution for continued pasture management. In contrast to single-issue decisions, which are made primarily on the basis of intuition, multi-interest decision-making requires time, both to develop respect between the various interest groups and for each to fully consider information formerly disregarded because it didn't match one's intuitive preference. The benefits of such thoughtful decision-making are obvious in this case, preserving both human interests and the increasingly-endangered grassland ecosystem which represent a large proportion of remaining grassland on the planet.

Challenge for Government

The government of Saskatchewan seems fixated on enacting privatization quickly. Citizens have urged the government -- and, with less hope of success, the federal government – to enter into dialogue toward a democratic governance model including Crown ownership of all pastures. The remaining challenge is to devise a transition plan that maintains management of both public and private benefits and costs, risks and interests. The solution should match or exceed the $23 million public-good benefit citizens have so far enjoyed.

The conservative government of Saskatchewan, of course,ideologically favours privatization of public resources. In contrast, if citizens' groups are given a small amount of time – we've asked for one year – this time of decision could present a shining opportunity for Saskatchewan to display state-of-the-art, mature decision-making to protect one of our most valuable and valued shared resources. We believe that, with our history of community cooperation, Saskatchewan is uniquely positioned to show the world how this is done.

(Katherine Arbuthnott is a conservation psychologist at Campion College, University of Regina. Josef Schmutz is a conservation biologist at University of Saskatchewan.)