The Value of Prairie

Spiritual and Aesthetic Value

The prairie landscape is part of our cultural history and a significant aspect of our Canadian identity. Canada's First Nations (Blackfoot, Plains Cree, Sioux, Assiniboine) inhabited the Canadian prairies for thousands of years prior to European settlement. Native prairie has great spiritual significance to aboriginal peoples, who continue to strive to maintain their cultural heritage and re-establish a close connection to the land.

In comparison, many European settlers who arrived in the late 19th century viewed the Canadian prairies were viewed as a barren, harsh, and lonely landscape. But they also saw the prairie as a land of opportunity, a wilderness frontier which needed to be tamed. These early perceptions of the prairies have significantly influenced the formation of societal attitudes about acceptable human interactions with the prairie landscape.

Today, many aboriginal people, ranchers and farmers who live in close contact with the prairies have strong emotional ties to the land and its creatures. They feel a responsibility to be good stewards of the land. People who are highly dependent on the land for their livelihood inherently understand the benefit and value of living in harmony with the land.

The prairies are also a source of aesthetic pleasure. Some people find beauty and inspiration there. It appeals to their eyes, hearts, minds and imagination, and inspires writings and works of art. Just knowing that there is still native prairies provides an intangible, though powerful source of spiritual refreshment. (See the writings of Sharon Butala and Wallace Stegner.)

Some people believe that prairie species and the prairie ecosystem have an intrinsic right to exist, as do other species and natural communities. Others value prairie solely because of its usefulness to humans.

Finally, for people seeking escape from urban life, the prairies provide opportunities for solitude and reflection, a retreat where one can experience the natural world.

Scientific and Biological Value

As one of the major ecosystems of North America, the prairies are rich in biodiversity and genetic resources. Droughts, grasshopper infestations, prairie fires, floods and other natural processes have dramatically altered the landscape over a period of several thousand years.

Species that were uniquely adapted to the prairies were able to survive and pass their genetic code to a new generation. In our recent past, human use and development of the prairie has resulted in the decline or demise of several plant and animal species. As a result, many people are concerned about human activities that lead to the extinction of prairie species.

Native prairie provides a tangible benchmark against which we can compare change in disturbed areas. Native prairie areas are vitally important to complete basic scientific and ecological research, and to further our knowledge on how to appropriately manage natural systems.

Economic and Social Value

The prairie landscape, and the many natural resources associated with it, are significant assets that are an important part of Alberta's economy.

Beginning in the 1870s, ranchers moved large herds of cattle into Alberta to take advantage of the ample forage which provided year round grazing. By the mid-1880s, European immigrants arrived and began establishing rural communities, which supported homesteading in both the prairie and parkland regions.

Prairie soils provide a rich growth medium for a range of agricultural crops. In turn, crop production supports agricultural industries such as sugar beet and potato processing, breweries, seed cleaning plants, storage facilities and similar activities.

In 2008, 146,500 Albertans were employed in the agri-food industry, with 61,000 Albertans employed in primary agricultural production (which is about 10% of the workforce within the goods producing sector), and 85,500 employed in the agri-food industry (2008, Labour Force Survey, Statistics Branch, Alberta Finance and Enterprise).  Gross farm receipts in Alberta for 2006 was $9.9 billion for Alberta, and about $200,000 per ‘Census Farm’ (2006 Census of Agriculture, Statistics Canada).

In 2006, the total pasture area in Alberta was 22.2 million acres (8.9 million hectares).  26.4 million acres (10.6 million hectares) was cropland (including 6.0 million acres (2.4 million ha) of forage, mainly hay), 6.1 million acres (2.4 million hectares) was tame pasture, and 16.1 million acres (6.5 million hectares) was native pasture (this includes areas outside the Grassland Natural Region of Alberta) (2006 Census of Agriculture, Statistics Canada).

Native prairie, when used as rangeland for cattle, adds millions of dollars each year to the provincial economy. Beef production provides valuable protein for human consumption, and keeps native grasslands open for other uses. In 2006, Alberta's farmers and ranchers raised about 6.4 million head of cattle and calves (including dairy) with the total number of beef cows around 2.0 million head (note: in 2009, the beef herd declined to about 1.8 million), 222,000 head of sheep and lambs, and 310,000 head of other grazing livestock (such as horses, bison, elk, llama), mostly on prairie lands or using feed grown on prairie lands (2006 Census of Agriculture, Statistics Canada).

Alberta's petroleum industry depends heavily on the oil and gas pools that underlie prairie landscapes, and on ready access to prairie lands needed for exploration and development.

As the urban population continues to increase, the appeal of farm and ranch vacations, and other forms of rural and prairie tourism is flourishing. This brings revenue to rural residents and small prairie communities.

The prairies offer many recreational opportunities for hunters, boaters, fishing enthusiasts and other outdoor adventurers. Bird-watching and other wildlife viewing is gaining popularity. Prairie lakes and reservoirs are particularly well used, for both summer and winter recreational pursuits.

top photo by Francois Blouin | RSS