Ecological Tax Credit Good Public Policy

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Manitoba’s Finance Minister, Greg Selinger, deserves a hearty pat on the back for the innovative “Ecological Tax Credit” program announced recently in the provincial budget. The measure reflects an important change in the effort to create a healthy environment, away from costly sanctions and towards cooperation and economic sense.

The ETC offers financial support to farmers and landowners who return land to its natural state. This incentive will encourage farmers to abandon low-return crops on marginal land and brings the rest of us closer to a universal goal, more wildlife and cleaner water. A side benefit will be the expansion of tourism and the hunting and fishing economy.

The question of conservation on privately owned land has confounded environmentalists for years. How do you maintain property rights while achieving ecological goals?

In Canada, ownership of property takes two forms. With private ownership of goods like your house or your car, you have an enforceable title to those items. With public ownership, the Crown owns resources held in common and decides who, if anyone, can use it. Provincial parks are a good example.

Land is easy to understand, but other environmental resources like fish, wildlife or water are more complicated. Who owns them and who looks after them? Our constitution considers them Crown resources and their stewardship the responsibility of the government. But these assets move naturally back and forth between public and private lands. Who’s in charge then?

Take wildlife. Farmers generally appreciate its value, but when deer are too abundant they can cause real damage to crops. Likewise, ducks and geese can descend on a grain field and fly away with that year’s profits. It’s really no wonder that farmers, with their economic backs to the wall, sometimes get rid of wildlife habitat. It’s a public resource but it is often preserved at private expense.

Eliminating wildlife habitat is therefore a common practice on our farms. That sounds bad, but face it, that’s how our food system got going in the first place. Today we want to have both abundant food and wildlife and we are discovering that we can. The ETC is a way to reward private farmers who support the public’s environmental goals. It reduces a farmer’s property taxes through a formula that recognizes the economic cost of conservation.

This idea started here as a pilot project in two rural municipalities. It was co-funded by the private conservation organization Ducks Unlimited, a federal agency, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration and the Manitoba’s Special Conservation Fund. A soil group, the Northwest Soil Management Association, did the local groundwork. The Delta Waterfowl Foundation evaluated the program and concluded it worked for everybody. And now we have a government commitment to expand it province wide. Good stuff happens when we all cooperate.

Voluntary conservation programs that use credits and incentives make people want to conserve the environment without curtailing their property rights. The new Federal Species at Risk Act, unfortunately, takes the regulation and enforcement route. Just what farmers don’t need in this time of economic crisis.

Conservation incentives produce win-win outcomes for farmers, city dwellers and especially the environment. Best of all, these programs do not distort trade. Similar programs are underway in the United States and Europe.

The Ecological Tax Credit is probably the best legislation offered so far by Manitoba’s New Democratic government. It moves us towards a rural Garden of Eden based on hi-tech agriculture, high environmental quality, and wealth creating people. It’s a much more intelligent approach than the punitive environmental policies under consideration in Ottawa.