10/19/2012 01:40 EDT | Updated 12/19/2012 05:12 EST

Out to pasture: Ottawa starts land withdrawal with 10 transfers, 1 closure

REGINA - Ten grazing areas in Saskatchewan were identified Friday as the first to be transferred out of Ottawa's control as it winds down its long-running Community Pasture Program.

Agriculture Canada also announced that one pasture in Alberta, located at CFB Suffield, is to be closed and returned to the Defence Department's control in 2014.

The pastures in Saskatchewan are in Weyburn, Foam Lake, Watrous, Swift Current, Rosetown and North Battleford. The province said the pastures were selected based on proposals, consultations and interest from people who use the land to graze cattle.

Ranchers will have the opportunity to own or lease the pastures, which will have to be maintained as a complete block.

"Patrons have had cattle grazing these pastures for years. They know this land better than anyone else. They are our best environmental stewards and they will continue to have access to these lands which are important to their businesses," Saskatchewan Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart said.

Ranchers are to take over operating the 10 pastures in 2014.

The province and Ottawa are working on a plan to ensure federal staff continue to manage the land through next year's grazing season.

"This transfer is a great opportunity for those with a more direct stake in the usage of the land to take over the pasture management," Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a news release Friday.

The Community Pasture Program was created in the 1930s to reclaim land that was badly eroded during the Prairie drought. It includes 61 community pastures in Saskatchewan and 24 in Manitoba. There were just two in Alberta, both at CFB Suffield in the southwest corner of the province.

The federal government announced in its spring budget that it is walking away from 900,000 hectares of community pastures on the Prairies. It said the transfer was to occur over six years.

Ranchers said they were worried about the environmental consequences of the switch. The Canadian Cattlemen's Association said it supported the transfer, but wanted assurances the pastures — which could be sold off by the provinces — would be maintained as designated agricultural land for cattle grazing.

The Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association said Friday it's glad the land will still be used for grazing.

"Giving pasture patrons the option to purchase or lease the pastures from the province, will allow the individual patron groups to have greater financial flexibility and long-term stability," said stock growers president Harold Martens.

But the Agriculture Union, which falls under the umbrella of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, denounced the transfer. The union said there are concerns about who might buy the pastures from the government.

"This land will command something approaching $1 billion at market rates," said regional vice-president Milton Dyck.

"That's a price tag that no rancher I know can afford. All the other users of the pastures, from hunters to riders to naturalists, are concerned about continued access to the pastures.

"No one wants them sold."