Editorial: Leonard must defend farmland

Frank Leonard is a good choice to head the Agricultural Land Commission, but he faces a challenge maintaining the commission’s independence. The very nature of Leonard’s appointment as chairman and interim CEO of the commission is a hint of what he will face. His predecessor, Richard Bullock, whose five-year term was to expire in November, was fired last week in a 30-second phone call.

Bullock was outspoken in his defence of the Agricultural Land Reserve in the face of changes being made by the B.C. government. Those changes included dividing B.C.’s agricultural land into two zones: A first-class zone in the Lower Mainlaind, Vancouver Island and Okanagan regions, where most of the existing rules would apply, and a second-class zone covering the rest of the province, where the level of protection for agricultural land would be diminished.

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While he doesn’t come from an agricultural background, Leonard brings considerable experience to his new post. He has been an able municipal politician, having served as mayor of Saanich from 1996 until being defeated in last fall’s election. Before becoming mayor, he served for 10 years as a Saanich councillor. He has chaired the Municipal Finance Authority of B.C., and served as president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities and chairman of the Capital Regional District.

The B.C. Liberal government, like other governments, is fond of appointing failed party candidates to plum positions, and while Leonard could be deemed to fall in that category, it would be a stretch. His run for provincial office as a Liberal was in 1996, when he came a close second to the NDP candidate in the Saanich South riding. His more recent municipal experience far outweighs his attempt to enter provincial politics nearly 20 years ago.

But what he will do is more important than what he has done. He is known to be independent-minded, and he will need to be.

As former wildlife biologists Fred Harper and Ray Demarchi wrote in a Times Colonist commentary last year: “British Columbia is long on mountains, but short on valley bottoms — less than five per cent of the province is considered arable farmland and even then, we have lost much valuable farmland to development, including several large hydroelectric reservoirs. Valley bottoms are where most of the population resides and where conflicts over land use are common.”

Harper and Demarchi, who both hold master’s degrees in agriculture, were involved in the original mapping of the ALR in the 1970s. They worried about the increasing threat of development to agricultural land.

“Failing to protect and conserve our precious and limited agricultural land base in the haste to reduce red tape for developers is simply not responsible stewardship,” they wrote.

Leonard will need to resist political interference, such as when Peace River MLA Pat Pimm lobbied the ALC on behalf of a constituent who wanted 70 hectares of farmland taken out of the ALR so it could be developed as a rodeo ground. Pimm continued the pressure when he became agriculture minister. That earned him a reprimand from the ALC, but Premier Christy Clark defended Pimm’s actions.

More conflicts can be expected as the provincial government pursues fracking and liquefied natural gas development.

As the B.C. government considers the value of its natural resources, Leonard will need to remind politicians that good soil is a valuable resource, one that can be a renewable resource when used properly, but one that can be irretrievably lost through unsuitable uses.

Leonard has been known to be stubborn and strong-minded. Let’s hope he retains those attributes when attempts are made to encroach upon B.C.’s precious agricultural lands.

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