EDMONTON — The Alberta government is looking to auction off a small patch of native prairie to be plowed under despite recent promises that no Crown land would be put up for sale.
"The province of Alberta sees the unlimited potential in this quarter and has selected it for sale to the public," says the land description from the auction company.
"Never privately owned and always in pasture, the land offers up unlimited options for added value production to today’s discerning consumers. This quarter will answer the bell for any new owner and produce big yields off the hop."
The land east of Taber in southern Alberta is to be auctioned off March 31. The starting bid for the 65-hectare plot is $440,000.
Government data says the land is home to at least three sensitive species: Sprague's pipit, the common nighthawk and the plains spadefoot toad.
Environmental groups are angry that another bit of the remaining grassland that once covered Alberta is to go under the auctioneer's hammer.
"It's a bad idea," said Neil Keown of the conservation group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
"It's setting a precedent, despite the minister proclaiming to the exact opposite just two short weeks ago."
On March 5, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon told the Calgary Herald: "We are not selling any Crown or public land — period."
Nixon's assurance came after the province announced it was closing 20 provincial parks and removing another 164 protected areas from the parks list. The province's news release mentioned the possibility of sales.
Environment spokeswoman Jess Sinclair said Nixon's statement to the Herald referred to Crown land that had been used for parks. Crown grazing leases have been sold off before.
The plot being sold has been used for grazing, which doesn't require the land to be disturbed. Sinclair said proceeds from the sale will go into a fund to support conservation.
The province should let the public know under what circumstances public lands will be sold off, said Cliff Wallis of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
"Even though the minister has indicated these public lands are not for sale, they clearly are. We would ask the minister to make it very clear what the policies are going forward."
Kevin Van Tighem, an environmentalist and former superintendent of Banff National Park, said the sale being announced in a real-estate ad raises questions about government openness.
"It's very frustrating ... having a minister who's responsible for the environment to stand up and say 'no Crown land sales,' and then to discover something like this," Van Tighem said.
"There's a lot of pretty valuable special places that are potentially at risk if we have the kind of government that can only see the price of land and not its value."
Keown said one prospective buyer is the same person who attempted to acquire the land in 2011 to convert it to potato fields. That much larger purchase was halted after a public outcry.
Provincial government figures show more than half of Alberta's original grasslands have been plowed or paved over. Less than two per cent of what is left has been protected, despite three-quarters of the province's endangered species being native to the prairie.
"Every piece of native prairie that we have left is precious. Temperate grasslands are one of the most rapidly disappearing habitats on the planet," Wallis said.
He noted there was no consultation about the sale, just as there was none for the parks announcement.
"We have no confidence this government has a conservation agenda. There is no balance in this province."
In its campaign platform last spring, the United Conservative Party promised to modernize parks and sell off public lands.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2020
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Bob Weber, The Canadian Press