For three days last week, the meeting rooms and corridors of Geneva Park hosted lively discussions on databases, donors, best practices and cross-border training, not to mention the special challenges of raising public sympathy for bat and snakes. All this and much more were on the agenda for the annual gathering of the Ontario Land Trust Alliance, a symposium that encourages this province’s 35 land trusts to share and learn.
As someone who has been involved in land trusts since 1988, I take special pride in watching the growing scale and sophistication of their operations across Canada. This year’s gathering included representatives from B.C., Alberta, Quebec, and New Brunswick, as well as several American friends; in total, Canada now has over 150 active land trusts.
The lead-off speaker, CEO John Lounds of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, noted the ten-fold growth in their operations over the past 20 years to an astounding annual budget of $80 million. With a staff of 230, this national nonprofit has the capacity and the moxy to take on massive landscape-level conservation projects and to rank among Canada’s top charities.
Most of Ontario’s land trusts operate at a local or regional level, but their impact within the communities they serve is rapidly growing. A rapid-fire sharing of success stories from the past year highlighted a successful $1.6 million campaign by the Thames Talbot Land Trust to purchase the Hawk Cliff reserve on Lake Erie, a similar $1 million purchase of Boyd Island in Pigeon Lake by the Kawartha Land Trust, and many more smaller transactions. Conservation projects of this scale by local groups would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but now are serving as inspiration for others.
How does the Couchiching Conservancy stack up in this rapidly growing field? As one of the oldest land trusts in the province, now managing some 40 conservation properties, I think it is fair to say that we are regarded by many as a leader with a reputation for innovation and solid financial management. We also have often served as a mentor for others. It was a particular pleasure to hear that the Huronia Land Conservancy, which we helped through its initial stages to serve the Midland-Huronia area, has now received its first land donation and a major capacity-building grant.
Inevitably, a conference like this one includes a lot of discussion about the challenges we all face – worries about our ability to defend conservation easements when needed; the constant struggle to support staffing and overhead costs, the need to effectively engage the swelling ranks of young people with interests in environmental conservation.
But there is also a strong sense of being surrounded by opportunity. The current generation of baby-boomers is the richest cohort in Canadian history, and many of them would like to leave a legacy of protected green space for the future. Emerging climate change initiatives such as Ontario’s cap-and-trade program offer the potential of new funding sources from forest-based carbon offsets. Land trusts with solid reputations are well placed to attract charitable donations from their local communities.
Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but Ontario’s land trusts appear ready for a bright future.
Written By Ron Reid, a founder of The Couchiching Conservancy and currently working as the Carden Coordinator.