08/30/2011 05:07 EDT | Updated 10/30/2011 05:12 EDT

Grassland selloff: Alberta seeks to convert native prairie to irrigation land

EDMONTON - The Alberta government is asking for proposals to turn a parcel of native grassland in the province's water-challenged south into irrigated farmland.

The potential sale of a 65-square-kilometre spread southwest of Medicine Hat comes despite advice from a government-appointed panel to leave such rangeland alone.

"We are in the process across the province of looking at additional opportunities for agricultural development," Mel Knight, minister of sustainable resources development, said Tuesday.

"I think that it's a tremendous opportunity for agricultural projects there."

A Taber-area potato farmer had expressed interest in buying the land last fall in a private sale. Knight said the application from Louis Ypma of SLM Spud Farms was rejected, but the minister confirmed that the land now on offer is the same block. Knight said he expects Ympa to try again.

His original bid blew up a windstorm of protest from environmentalists and ranchers, who use the area for grazing. The president of the Alberta Fish and Game Association wrote a letter of objection to Premier Ed Stelmach.

"So little of Alberta's grassland region is left," said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association. "Only 30 per cent remains and, of that, less than two per cent is protected."

Nearly three-quarters of Alberta's endangered species live in grasslands, she said. The land being offered is home to the endangered ferruginous hawk and burrowing owl.

Knight countered that the area for sale represents about .15 per cent of the province's remaining natural prairie. A buyer would have to abide by federal and provincial regulations for endangered species.

"Any proposal must address and mitigate the impact on wildlife," said Knight, who added that some of the parcel has already been disturbed.

Money from the sale would go into a fund to help pay for other tracts with high conservation value, he added.

Knight also said that any buyer would have to prove to the government that there is enough irrigation water available to support the proposal.

A panel appointed by the province to advise it on managing the South Saskatchewan River watershed warned against tearing up any more prairie.

"On public native rangelands, the conversion to arable agriculture of other permanent uses will not be considered," said the panel made up of municipal, agricultural and industrial representatives.

Campbell said it's unlikely that wildlife would be able to co-exist with roads, land disturbance and chemicals associated with irrigated agriculture.

"There are many impacts that alter that habitat and irrigated land is one of the most intensive uses of land there is," she said. "The biodiversity on irrigated land really plummets to very, very low."

Knight said soil tests indicate that the land in question is one of the best places in Alberta for crop irrigation. Development would bring investment and jobs, he suggested.

The call for proposals on the land closes Oct. 31.