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Is BC Down on the Farm?

In the East Kootenays, critics see more proof the Agricultural Land Reserve isn't working.

Charles Campbell 30 May

Charles Campbell has worked as a writer and editor with the Georgia Straight, the Vancouver Sun and The Tyee, and teaches at Capilano University.

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ALC's Carmen Purdy.

Dave Zehnder is a rancher with a problem. And it's not just his two vegetarian daughters. The Invermere-area resident figures he's lost 30 percent of his grazing land in the last decade to exclusions from the Agricultural Land Reserve.

"We've built our operation based on the belief that we'd have access to these lands for the long term," said the normally soft-spoken Zehnder. "We feel we've had the legs kicked out from under us."

The exclusion that concerns him most right now came last June when 267 hectares of land in Southeastern B.C.'s Windermere Valley was removed from the reserve, which protects the province's limited base of farmland for current and future use. The three-member regional Agricultural Land Commission panel, which oversees the reserve, stated the property has "no significant agricultural value." Given that the property has, in Zehnder's estimation, served as rangeland for a century, that rationale came as a bit of a surprise.

It wasn't the only surprise. Another was that even though his family had, by agreement with the property owner, grazed cattle on the land for 30 years, there was no requirement that he be notified or heard during an exclusion application involving the property. The land is now part of the proposed Grizzly Ridge real-estate development, with 880 units of residential and recreational property planned for its first phase.

Yet another surprise was that one of the three commissioners who made the decision, Carmen Purdy, has played key roles in two conservation groups -- he's on the board of the Nature Trust of British Columbia and is the founding president of the Kootenay Wildlife Heritage Fund -- that began discussions with the Calgary-based developer to acquire land and protect wildlife in the year the decision was made.

Concern that this relationship could have prejudiced Purdy's view of the exclusion prompted two farmers associations -- the Kootenay Livestock Association and the Windermere District Farmers' Institute and Livestock Association -- to call last month for Purdy to be replaced when his commission term ended on April 28.

Hot words

Intimations of possible malfeasance, and demonstrably rampant patronage, have dominated news coverage and political debate regarding exclusions from the ALR, and are generating controversy across the province.

On May 17, an exchange in the Legislature between NDP agriculture critic Bruce Ralston and Agriculture and Lands Minister Pat Bell prompted Purdy and Calgary developer Mark Himmelspach to talk of marshalling lawyers to defend their good names.

Ralston named Purdy as one of a long string of B.C. Liberal insiders benefiting from patronage. He also said Purdy himself "allegedly" negotiated with the developer on behalf of a conservation group. When contacted by The Tyee, however, Ralston could offer no evidence to support the latter charge.

While the Invermere story doesn't have the high profile of some other recent ALR dust-ups, it exemplifies the underlying problem – the Agricultural Land Commission's process for excluding land is often murky.

The result is a number of questionable decisions, a lot of bad blood, and all the attendant rhetoric about hidden agendas and political payback.

Where the ALR is concerned, few political hands are clean. When Ralston raised the issue of patronage on May 17, Bell responded by naming five of the 10 members of the Agricultural Land Commission during the NDP's last year in office, and stated that the five were supporters of the NDP.

Political parties like to reward their friends and subtly exercise power through them. That's a disappointment, but it's hardly a surprise. The B.C. Liberals argue they've introduced some improvements to the appointment process, but given the long list of Liberal friends appointed to the commission, those changes are mainly political theatre.

Is Purdy a supporter of the B.C. Liberals? "I can hardly say the word Liberal, let alone be one," he declared, when reached by The Tyee at his Cranbrook home. Then he paused and added: "I am a member." In fact, he allows, he's a friend of East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett, and has raised money for him. He said he's raised money for a lot of causes and political parties, and sees that as good citizenship. He said he's even been approached to run for the NDP.

Conflict issue complicated

So we move from patronage to conflict of interest. Purdy said he had absolutely nothing to do with the conservation groups' discussions with the developer. "That would be so silly." He also notes that all three members of the ALC panel supported the exclusion.

Himmelspach, who bought the property in December 2004 and won the exclusion just six months later, told The Tyee his discussions with the conservation groups began after the original decision.

However, Zehnder asked the commission to reconsider the decision, and the discussions were underway before Purdy's regional panel voted to stand by its original position.

The provincial government's "general conduct principles for public appointees" states that appointees such as Purdy "must avoid any conflict of interest that might impair or impugn the independence, integrity or impartiality of their agency, board or commission. There must be no apprehension of bias, based on what a reasonable person might perceive. Appointees who are in any doubt must disclose their circumstances and consult with their chair or registrar."

However, the guidelines also state that in practical terms they must simply keep their duties as board, tribunal or commission members separate from their activities as private citizens.

Before the issue was raised in the legislature, The Tyee asked Agricultural Land Commission Chair Erik Karlsen if he was aware of the ranchers' concern about Purdy's potential conflict. "I haven't heard that one specifically," Karlsen said. "I have heard that not everybody likes the guy, or likes what he says."

For the ranchers The Tyee spoke to, however, the issue isn't who knew what when. It's that conservation and ranching sometimes conflict. They believe that some conservationists, particularly those who are also hunters, see ranching in the East Kootenays as an impediment to their goals. They don't trust Purdy, an enthusiastic hunter, and they want people who are more knowledgeable about and clearly supportive of agriculture on the commission.

Complaints about checks and balances

It's not just rhetoric, patronage and real or imagined conflicts of interest that are undermining the integrity of the Agricultural Land Commission, however. It's the belief of ALC critics in communities across the province that questionable exclusions are being made based on vague and even contradictory criteria, without balanced public input, by people who often lack the appropriate background. Critics also feel developers and municipalities are lining up to take advantage of the vagueness, and of the new three-member regional panels that have replaced one seven-member provincial commission.

Zehnder believes the process that results in exclusions is neither fair nor clear, and that it's undermining the reserve. Patronage, potential conflicts of interest and the commissioners' expertise are just a few of his concerns.

He told The Tyee that after he learned about the exclusion application in the local paper, he phoned the Agricultural Land Commission office because he wanted to provide input. Zehnder said he was told there was no meeting scheduled, and wrongly presumed he should wait for one. Soon after, the panel and a commission staff member met privately with the applicant on the property to discuss the removal, and a perfunctory approval decision was released.

While the Regional District of East Kootenay's elected representatives supported the removal, there was virtually no public input prior to its decision. "Area F," where the property is located, has neither an official community plan, which usually provides guidance on agricultural needs, nor an agricultural advisory committee.

The area's advisory planning commission said a planning effort should be completed before the application to remove the land should be considered. The ALC's mandate is to encourage such planning. And yet the land was removed without a plan in place.

At every stage, the viability of farming in the area seemed an afterthought. "The way things went here wasn't right," said Zehnder.

Purdy said he wouldn't discuss the Invermere decision specifically. "I don't want to discuss any application. It's not professional."

However, when asked if Zehnder's concerns about the commission's process in general have any legitimacy, Purdy interjected, saying Zehnder should be asked why he opposed the removal. "Because it doesn't suit his needs," Purdy stated. Then he added: "Don't quote me on that."

Purdy eventually said the Agricultural Land Commission's process is better than it used to be. "I think the procedure as it stands gives everybody a fair hearing."

'A lot of land' for development

When Zehnder asked that the commission reconsider the decision, the panel did hear him out. It said it was "sympathetic to the difficulty being experienced by ranchers on the western side of Lake Windermere in securing adequate grazing leases." But it stood by its original position, declaring that the land has limited capacity (a simple fact where rangeland is concerned) and that the exclusion would take development pressure off of other agricultural land.

Ironically, the adjoining Castle Rock development, on land removed from the ALR less than a decade ago, is far from built out.

Even the Regional District of East Kootenay's manager of planning and development services, Andrew McLeod, told The Tyee there are other areas where such development can take place. "There is a lot of land zoned for development already in the municipal and in the rural areas." McLeod said he was unaware the exclusion was controversial.

The attraction for developers such as Himmelspach is that agricultural land, if you can buy it and get it out of the reserve, is much, much cheaper than the alternatives. The attraction for local governments is the economic activity such development brings. But combine sophisticated, wealthy developers, rural communities without well developed plans, and a vague Agricultural Land Commission process, and the result can be lethal for farmers. Not only are they losing the land they need, they're seeing speculation drive the price of what remains beyond their reach.

"At every opportunity," said Zehnder, "we purchased more land, even if it didn't make economic sense. We had to secure our grazing lands."

'Don't starve us out'

For small-scale ranchers such as those in the East Kootenays, who struggled even before the BSE crisis dealt many of them a fatal blow, the problem is particularly acute.

Klara Trescher is the only member of the Regional District of East Kootenay board who voted against the exclusion. Trescher is the board's only farmer. She and her husband sold their cattle just before the BSE crisis hit, but they still sell hay. "Nobody wants to farm. The commodity prices are so low."

Still, she wants to see those who remain given a chance to succeed, and didn't see any reason for the Grizzly Ridge land to be removed. "A lot of property was taken out of the ALR already," said Trescher. "Those properties, nothing is built there."

Out toward Fernie, rancher Faye Street fairly bristles at the general lack of regard for ranching interests. "This industry is getting the shit kicked out of it." Street is one of the most vocal opponents of the Grizzly Ridge exclusion. She told The Tyee that if the government can't treat ranchers fairly, they should just abolish the ALR and let all the ranchers cash out. "Don't starve us out one ranch at a time."

Before the ALR came into being, she said, ranchers could sell a small piece of land to get by in tough times.

Street noted that when the reserve was created, government acknowledged ranchers' needs by introducing a four-point support program that included income guarantees and low-interest loans. "They chained us to the backstop, and they gave us four keys," Street said. "Then they took away the keys and said 'Go ahead, boys, run the bases.' "

Street wants people knowledgeable about agriculture on the commission. She feels that's needed to ensure the increasingly urban perspective of new area residents doesn't prevail.

One commissioner's repentance

Ironically, the commission's Kootenay panel just lost one of those voices. Cheryle Huscroft and her husband were ranchers near Creston until high interest rates put them out of business in the 1980s. Now they lease land to a dairy farm and have a horse operation near Lister, along the Canada-U.S. border.

Huscroft, who twice voted to support the Grizzly Ridge decision, now says it was a mistake that reflects key weaknesses in the commission's process.

Her change of heart may be part of the reason she lost her job at the end of April. It isn't the first time she appears to have paid a price for speaking out on farmland protection.

In the 1990s, she was a member of the commission when the NDP government pressured it to release the Six Mile Ranch for development. She said she told the NDP agriculture minister of the day, Corky Evans, that she had no respect for the government's attempt to interfere in the commission's work. "And I was out of there."

Huscroft said the panel was not aware of all the facts and implications when it made the Invermere decision. "We had no idea," she told The Tyee. "We didn't have anyone with [agricultural] expertise from the Invermere area."

She also said the panel was concerned about the legal implications of reversing its original position.

Huscroft generally defends the panel and its work. "The panel I was on made some really good decisions. It made some really tough decisions." But the Grizzly Ridge decision, she said, is not one of them. "I should have done some things differently," she said, adding that it was partly incumbent on her to learn more about local needs.

"You can't ask [ranchers] in Invermere to put their life savings into the cattle industry and then turn around and erode the very thing they've invested in," Huscroft said, noting that ranchers she's spoken to since the decision was made are very angry. "They said 'The very system that encouraged us and protected our farmland has done exactly the opposite.' "

In the evening shadow of the Purcell Mountains, Dave Zehnder couldn't agree more.

Tonight [Tuesday, May 30] representatives of the Agricultural Land Commission will meet in Cranbrook with members of the Kootenay Livestock Association.

Charles Campbell is a Tyee contributing editor. He also is author of the David Suzuki Foundation report Forever Farmland: Reshaping the Agricultural Land Reserve for the 21st Century. In a future Tyee piece he will look at how the system can be reformed.  [Tyee]

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