With the passing of Earth Day last week, and the hype over the signing of the COP21 Paris Agreement, there has been a lot of discussion about the targets countries have set in order to decrease our impact on the Earth and limit global warming. Targets include, for many countries, decreasing carbon emissions. Many of these solutions include developing technology that reduce emissions, but the issue is, how do we take CO2 out of the air once we’ve put it in? We need carbon sinks. The simplest solution is nature. E.O. Wilson put it quite simply, maybe a little too simply, in his new book, proposing that we set aside half of the Earth for nature. Perhaps a bit optimistic, but why do we struggle so, to live in harmony with the planet? Change in land use management, protecting existing habitat, and restoring areas that have been degraded, have received little attention from the media, but “the land use sector is the only sector that can switch from being a net source of carbon to a net sink within as little as a decade.” (Justin Adams). This is where land trusts come in!
What’s a land trust you ask? Well, simply put, a land trust:
“…is a charitable organization which as all or part of its mission, actively works to conserve land by undertaking or assisting in land acquisition or conservation agreements, or by engaging in stewardship of such land or conservation agreements…”
Maybe you’ve never heard the term “land trust” before, but you are most definitely familiar with a few of them! The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, Ontario Nature, and the Bruce Trail Conservancy are big names in the Ontario land trust community. However, there are over 30 Land Trusts in Ontario alone, most of which are members of the Ontario Land Trust Alliance (OLTA). They come in all shapes and sizes, from the Nature Conservancy, an international organization aggressively protecting nature and seeking ways to work with the private sector, to the RARE Charitable Reserve in Cambridge, with one nature reserve and a focus on stewardship, research, and education. We are a large community of conservation enthusiasts, each in a different region, with a slightly different approach to conservation, acquisition, and stewardship.
I work for the Escarpment Biosphere Conservancy. Our mission is to establish a system of nature reserves on which only ecologically sustainable recreational activities are permitted. We preserve the landscape, ecology, and wildlife in the area of the Niagara Escarpment, Manitoulin Island, Bruce Peninsula, and Saugeen River. We have protected over 11,000 acres of land throughout these areas of southern Ontario and are working hard to increase that number every year!
Unfortunately, being in the land acquisition business has its ups and downs. Purchasing a property outright to create a nature reserve is extremely costly and it seems like it would be nearly impossible to stay afloat. However, Environment Canada has implemented many tax incentive programs in order to reward landowners for managing their land sustainably. These programs either reduce, and in some cases eliminate, property tax, or provide the landowner with a sizeable charitable tax receipt. We specialize in the latter, which is made possible through the Ecological Gifts Program (EGP).
“The Ecological Gifts Program (EGP) provides a way for Canadians with ecologically sensitive land to create a natural legacy for present and future generations. It offers significant income tax benefits to landowners who donate land for safekeeping to qualified recipients such as land trusts…These recipients take on the job of ensuring that the land’s biodiversity and environmental heritage are conserved forever.”
Every once and a while we come across a property that we purchase, but this is a rare occasion, occurring maybe once a year. For the most part, we rely on generous landowners who actually donate their land to the trust. Landowners may also donate their development rights on the ecologically significant features of their land – forests, wetlands, Niagara Escarpment, farmland – through a conservation agreement.
These generous donors leave their land, the special piece of Nature they have watched over and protected, to the trust and it is our job to continue watching over the property in perpetuity. The concept of perpetuity is hard to wrap your head around, but it’s an amazing thing to be able to say, and a promise we make to every land donor. The Ecological Gifts Program is very strict, alterations to the landscape – even if for conservation/restoration purposes – must be approved by Environment Canada, and there are severe financial repercussions if unauthorized alterations occur. This is a major safeguard that applies to properties donated under the EGP, and it is something that distinguishes land trusts from municipalities, some conservation authorities, and federal/provincial parks. We cannot change the rules, decide to harvest timber, hunt, or build on the land. If a land trust goes under, we are required to give our nature reserves to an organization with similar goals – likely another land trust.
Working for the land trust, I encounter people every day who have lived their lives as stewards of the land. They have managed to coexist with the rest of life with ease. E. O. Wilson said during an interview with the New York Times regarding conserving half of the Earth, “…it is partly a practical challenge and partly a moral decision. It can be done, and to a great and universal benefit, if we wish it so.” Land trusts provide one way for people to take the first step, they have made a moral decision to leave a legacy of nature to be protected forever.
Written by: Morgan Roblin