Farmland losses in government’s focus

Rural lens points at tree planting by UK corporation

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick says reforesting farmland in the Interior goes against the intent of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), and he is looking for a way to prevent it.

British corporation Reckitt Benckiser Inc. (RB) is continuing to snap up ALR land in the Cariboo and Vanderhoof areas.

In recent years, the United Kingdom-based manufacturer planted this ALR land with trees to gain European carbon offsets, and froze it with covenants to prevent logging for at least 100 years.

Those covenants required Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) approval, which gave the province an arm to enforce farmland preservation.

While RB is looking to purchase more ALR property in the Cariboo, Letnick says he has been informed that this time the planting is not for the carbon offsets, but rather to improve public opinion, so covenants – and ALR approvals – aren’t required.

Cariboo-Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett says landowners in the ALR have always been able to plant trees, and “a lot of ranchers” do this as a buffer to help retain water and for windbreaks.

“A landowner can plant trees without seeking approval. If this is not for carbon offsets, then people do have the right to plant trees.”

Barnett notes she has not discussed the matter with Letnick, but this might be a discussion private landowners may wish to engage in.

It is a “difficult and very complex” situation, she adds.

“We need our grasslands, big time. And then, of course, you have to say if it is legal in the ALR and a rancher can’t sell and he loses his grazing lease, what is he to do with his land?

“A lot of land within the Cariboo region is marginal … a lot of times you really can’t grow anything [for harvesting], in essence, if you have no water.”

However, Quesnel Mayor Bob Simpson has told media these are not marginal lands involved now, but good arable property currently growing alfalfa, and one is a historical ranch.

He continues to express his longtime concern about RB’s purchase of more than 7,000 hectares of farmland from Prince George to Quesnel during the past few years.

Since 2011, legislation has ensured ALC approval for the century-long, no-harvest covenants.

Barnett notes there have already been about 1,500 hectares planted in trees in the Vanderhoof and Quesnel areas, most of them between 2011 and 2014.

The MLA says she would like to hear the rancher’s point of view on the issue, as they are most affected.

“I think we better have another look at this, and we should be discussing this with the landowners.”

She says disappearing British Columbia farmland is a more widespread issue than foreign companies planting trees.

“We should also be discussing prime agricultural land in the Lower Mainland that is continuously getting turned into housing and development.”

Barnett’s 100 Mile House constituency office is located at 7-530 Horse Lake Road, PO Box 95, 100 Mile House, B.C. V0K 2E0; ALR landowners may also call 250-395-3916 or e-mail with their input.

With files from Tom Fletcher.