This is the Life: Do we get a say in agricultural land use?

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In the coming months we are likely to learn what the real priorities are with the current provincial Liberal government. Nothing less than the future of the province’s agricultural land is at stake.

A suggestion to turn over authority over agricultural reserve land in the north part of the province to, of all things, the Oil and Gas Commission should be seen as a trial balloon. An agreement between the Agricultural Land Commission and OGC signed last June would:

Enable the OGC and the OGC Commissioner to exercise some or all of the ALC’s power to decide applications for permission for non-farm use of identified ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) lands for oil and gas activities and ancillary activities, and exempts certain non-farm uses of identified ALR lands for oil and gas activities and ancillary activities from the requirement of an application for permission for non-farm use subject to certain conditions.

The miracle that became the Agricultural Land Commission Act in 1973 has withstood withering pressure from the political right, the private sector and landowners since it was established. But somehow it has maintained the support of the general public, perhaps now more than ever as food production and security issues become a higher priority by the day.

Miracle? Corky Evans recently wrote in the online magazine, the Tyee, that there is not a chance that any government today would pass similar legislation.

While we often think of the ALR as being vast and all encompassing, it only includes five per cent of the province’s land, and some of it is forest.

But is an inconvenience for a government that is hell-bent-for-leather to extract shale gas by using a fracturing process that uses lots of energy and enormous amounts of water. If the province doesn’t do something to undermine the strength of the ALC, it faces the unpalatable prospect of giving people who have concerns about water (which, believe it or not, is still generally considered to be a more valuable commodity than natural gas) an avenue to protest. First Nations communities who are trying to protect their land and resources find the ALC a natural ally.

For companies that want to develop shale gas reserves, agricultural land is seen as an inconvenience, one that can be removed by a simple stroke of the legislative pen. Land developers are no fan of the system either. They look at agricultural reserve lands around municipalities and see a barrier to development and speculation. Even owners of land in the reserve, many of them still farmers, would be happy to see the protection dismantled so they can cash in on the inevitable increase in value that would result.

The question is, will this government take the easy way out, succumb to pressure from its natural allies, and kill the ALC, setting up a land rush the likes of which the province has never seen? Or will it opt to make the more difficult choice and acknowledge that agricultural land is like the contents of Pandora’s box, never to be returned to its same use after it is let out?

My bet is that short-term economic expediency is going to win over long-term ability to keep up our food production potential. That fact that Premier Christy Clark is vastly overestimating job creation numbers as energy reserves are developed and put on-stream is just one indication that her cash-strapped and not very creative government is blinded by the promise of increased royalties and taxes.

This is a democracy and there is no reason why we shouldn’t be having a discussion about the ALR and its value versus fracking and its value. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the Liberals didn’t see fit to bring up the subject during the election campaign. As usual, they don’t see any need to bring the general public into the decision-making process. We just tend to complicate things.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.