Farmland fight sheds little light on the issue

Changes to the Agricultural Land Commission got underway in the legislature

Detailed debate on changes to the Agricultural Land Commission got underway in the legislature last week, while protesters played to urban voters outside.

A couple of West Kootenay NDP supporters brought a basket of homegrown veggies down to help East Kootenay MLA Bill Bennett get through the winter on a 100-mile diet.

A group of mostly UBC scientists wrote to Premier Christy Clark, embracing the popular assumption that the changes will automatically mean more exclusions of agricultural land, as well as expanded secondary uses in the Cariboo, Kootenay and North zones. This “jeopardizes species at risk, threatens many common species, and will impact many species prized for hunting,” they wrote.

It makes me wonder if these university botanists and bird experts actually understand what farming is. You know, clear-cutting a forest and planting largely monoculture crops? Using big machinery, creating drainage, applying fertilizers, controlling diseases, pests and wild animals? Not backyard gardening, real farming of the sort that has fed more people than in all of human history?

Have they heard that the largest cause of deforestation in North America is farming?

Do they imagine habitat loss from subdivisions sprawling across the Cariboo?

Forests Minister Steve Thomson has been pinch-hitting for Fort St. John MLA Pat Pimm on the agriculture file as Pimm undergoes cancer treatment. Thomson took exception when NDP agriculture critic Nicolas Simons asked if he is aware people think the changes are to “neuter the chair of the Agricultural Land Commission.”

Thomson, a former executive director of the Kelowna-based B.C. Agriculture Association, replied that the changes do not reduce the independence of the chair.

Under further questioning from Simons, Thomson allowed that the current ALC chair, Richard Bullock, has provided no response to the government on the proposals.

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick was appointed Friday to replace Pimm as agriculture minister. But this ALC project is Bennett’s initiative, so I asked him about his changes to the appointment process.

Bennett said the six regional panels, up to three people each, were set up by then-minister Stan Hagen in 2003 to provide local input. That worked well, he said, until Bullock came on the scene and began exercising his discretion not to appoint people recommended by cabinet.

“The chair doesn’t like the regional panels,” Bennett told me. “It’s a pain in the ass for the chair to have to deal with 18 farmers from all over the province in making decisions.

“He thinks that it’s unwieldy, and he’d rather have the decision-making centralized in Burnaby. But we changed that. We decided as a duly elected government in 2003 that we wanted the regions to have a say on this stuff, so the intention of the legislation, we felt, was actually being defeated, because we hadn’t made it mandatory.”

It will be mandatory soon, and Bullock’s days as commission chair appear to be numbered.

One of Bennett’s key issues is denial of secondary residence construction to keep families on the land in the Interior. The legislation also introduces social and economic factors in weighing decisions in the North, Cariboo and Kootenay regions, where in most cases development pressure is an urban myth. The main ALC board will still have authority to revisit a local panel decision if the chair deems it inconsistent with the mandate to protect farmland.

 

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press.

 

 

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