A natural partnership: The Stewardship Credit Program
Imagine a world where a rancher has the ability to turn their hard-earned and well-cared for grassland and waterways into cash in their pockets!
It’s always been a personal dream of mine to better connect the good work that cattle producers do for our land, the natural products come from it and the benefits those products create for the world around us. Everything from clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat all come from sustainable stewardship of our natural land in Alberta and across Canada — largely things that we all tend to take for granted.
In 2008, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) purchased the Sandstone Ranch in partnership with the Alberta Conservation Association, Alberta Fish and Game Association and the Sandstone Ranch Grazing Co-op. The 4,200-acre (1,700-hectare) ranch is located in prime foothills fescue grassland not far from the Montana border on the Milk River Ridge of Alberta.
Immediately there seemed potential to turn this traditional conservation project into something very non-traditional. As the NCC representative for this area of the province, I approached the Sandstone Grazing Co-op members with the unique idea of leasing the grazing on the Sandstone ranch to the co-op for a decreased lease rate when the individual co-op members demonstrated sustainable stewardship of their personal ranches. This Stewardship Credit Program enabled NCC to proactively give back to the cattle producers who inherently care for this landscape.
Piloting the Stewardship Credit Program
With the aid of a grant from the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, NCC launched a pilot project for the Stewardship Credit Program for the Sandstone Ranch. Over a five-year timeframe, NCC researched, set up and tested this pilot project with the four participating members of the Sandstone Ranch Grazing Co-op.
The ranchers can earn up to 2000 credits in a year (equivalent to $2000) in return for maintaining the health of their land as well as for implementing specific land management projects that will work to increase that land health. A few examples of these stewardship projects include off-stream water development, temporary fencing to influence cattle distribution, and winter grazing.
A win-win for ranchers and conservation
With this pilot project now complete, I am really pleased to share some of our successes. By leveraging our land purchase of the Sandstone Ranch, we managed to influence an additional 5,000 acres (2,023 hectares) of land with four neighbouring ranchers for a fraction of the cost it would have been to purchase this same amount of land. Over the five years of this pilot project, NCC has awarded more than 32,000 credits to the participants in the program.
A how-to manual for the Stewardship Credit Program has been recently completed. It outlines all the details of the program, NCC’s experience and the great success of the program.
For me personally, being the NCC lead on this project has been incredibly fulfilling. I have built lasting relationships with the cattle producers we have partnered with on this project, been humbled many times by their wealth of knowledge of their land and surprised and honored by their support. I knew we were making positive progress when the grumbles from the back of the room turned to questions, then turned to quiet as they listened, then finally to smiles and jokes and nods.
I am truly hopeful that other conservation organizations across Canada can share in this experience, learn from it and try it.