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Previously protected Crown land to be sold to Saskatchewan farmers, ranchers

REGINA - Crown land that was previously protected in Saskatchewan will soon be for sale to farmers.

The Saskatchewan government has proclaimed legislation that allows about 526,000 hectares, or 1.3 million acres, to be sold to farmers and ranchers who are already leasing the land.

Agriculture Minister Lyle Stewart says farmers have already been effectively managing the land for generations and he's confident they'll care for it.

"Certainly producers, if anything, will be motivated to be great stewards of the land and they certainly have been in the past," Stewart said Monday.

"Most of this land has been operated by farm families in this province for over 100 years now and the fact that we have so many millions of acres with strong ecological values is a testament to their good stewardship."

Farmers who don't want to buy the land or can't afford it can continue to lease it.

There will still be restrictions on what farmers can do with any land they buy that has been deemed to have moderate ecological value. It will also be against the law to break or drain such land.

There will be increased fines under the new Conservation Easements Act. Fines have increased from to $100,000 from $2,000 for individuals and to $500,000 from $50,000 for corporations who break the rules. New compliance measures also include stop-work orders, equipment seizures and injunctions.

Another 212,000 hectares, or about 525,000 acres, with a lower ecological value may also be eligible for sale without restrictions.

Harold Martens, president of the Saskatchewan Stock Growers Association, said it's a significant change for farmers and ranchers.

"It gives us the opportunity to build equity and, for our producers, that's a very important thing," said Martens.

"If you relate this to home ownership, is it better to lease it or is it better to buy it? Young people today want to own their own home and it's no different with people who are in the livestock industry wanting to do the same thing."

The change has been a long time coming.

The province passed the legislation in 2010, but environmental groups raised the alarm because there wasn't any consultation about the impact.

"Without playing a part in developing that and with the potential of losing protected habitat lands, we were concerned and we were vocal about that," said David Pezderic, president of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation.

"And so today we're pleased that ... the government has demonstrated that they are prepared to consult with stakeholders at that level."

Pezderic, who also farms, says he believes farmers are good stewards of the land. But he also wants to see if there are ways to replace some of the previously protected lands with other land.

The province is also looking to see if other vacant Crown land with a high ecological value should be protected.

About 688,000 hectares, or 1.7 million acres, of Crown land with high ecological value will stay under the Wildlife Habitat Protection Act and not be sold.

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