A piece of Alberta’s prime grazing lands may be preserved forever thanks to a historic conservation agreement between the Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Waldron Grazing Co-operative.
Once finalized, the agreement will allow the conservancy to purchase a conservation easement for $37.5 million from the co-op, protecting nearly 31,000 acres from cultivation, subdivision, and development. It’s the largest conservation agreement in Canadian history.
“As a conservation organization, we try to conserve places that have high conservation value,” said Larry Simpson, the conservancy’s associate regional vice-president. “The Waldron certainly fits that description.”
The Waldron is in an area known as the Last Five Miles, a small ecosystem stretching along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains that supports both wildlife and the 11,000 head of cattle that graze there.
Through the agreement with the Waldron Grazing Co-operative, the conservancy hopes to preserve the last remaining stand of the Northern Great Plains from further development.
“It’s slowly fragmenting — this last majestic place in Alberta — and we feel like we’re in a race to help where we can,” said Simpson. “Waldron is a good first step.”
The conservancy first approached the Waldron Grazing Co-operative, a group of 72 ranchers who own the land, two years ago with a proposal to purchase the easement by paying 20 per cent of the bare land value. Appraised at approximately $75 million by an unbiased panel, the total easement value is $33,547,000, of which $15 million will be paid to the co-op tax-free as cash, with a tax receipt covering the balance. Co-op members voted 76 per cent in favour in an April vote. Simpson, adding his organization still needs to raise an additional $3 million before the agreement can be finalized.
Few changes ahead
The deal won’t affect ranching practices and Waldron shareholders will continue to manage the land.
That provision was key, said Tim Nelson, chair of the Waldron Grazing Co-operative board.
“We’ve grazed the land for 50 years,” said Nelson. “We know how to graze our ranch, and we don’t want somebody telling us how to change it.”
The agreement requires the co-op to maintain the health of pasture land, but it already employs grazing practices superior to the requirements laid out in the deal, he added.
“We have to make a living off our land,” said Nelson. “If our land is at any point in time not producing, if it’s not healthy, we’re not going to make a living off of it. We know that the health of the whole region makes us more profitable.”
Co-op members want to see the land undeveloped, he said.
“We know we’re not going to (develop the land), but we’re not sure about 50 or 100 years down the road,” said Nelson. “Future ranchers, their philosophies may change, but they’re going to have to maintain the grasslands as they are.”
However, Waldron rancher Hugh Lynch-Staunton said that could be a problem one day.
“Neither the NCC nor the co-op can foresee the future,” said Lynch-Staunton. “There may be some circumstances that we can’t anticipate that might make it a bad deal some day for either party.”
Despite his reservations, Lynch-Staunton was one of the 55 members who voted in favour of the agreement and said he believes it will ensure the Waldron stays well maintained.
“It’s going to legally ensure best management on the Waldron itself, which is something that we’ve been able to achieve pretty well anyway,” he said. “This will be another factor that will insist that happens.”
Over the next several months, the conservancy will be working to raise $3 million to supplement the funding already slated for the project.
“I don’t care if we have to do this a penny at a time,” said Simpson. “If people want to leave the world a little better place, here’s a great chance.”
The additional fundraising will give the co-op time to decide what to do with the $15 million cash infusion, said Nelson. Its board has met with lawyers and accountants to determine the best use of the money. It may purchase a nearby parcel or distribute the money to members.
For more information on the project or to donate, visit www.conservewaldron.ca.