When David and Sharon Cation purchased a large piece of land near Coboconk, a community in the city of Kawartha Lakes, in 2013, their intention was to leave the 270 hectares of forest, wetland, and disused farm fields alone. They wanted to preserve the parcel and pass it on to their children.
But around the same time, the couple got involved as volunteers with the Kawartha Land Trust, helping on a campaign to protect another property, Big Island, in nearby Pigeon Lake, from development. It got them thinking — maybe there was an even better way for them to protect their property for future generations.
So the couple reached out to the land trust and started discussing the ins and outs of donating. Near the end of 2018, they gave the property to the charity to steward and protect in perpetuity.
“We both lived in Brampton,” Sharon Cation says, where intense development had overtaken green spaces, and “all the farmer’s fields got to be either industry or housing.”
“There’s still lots of green space in Coboconk,” where the couple now lives, she says, “but in a hundred years from now, there might not be, and this [property] will still be green.”
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The Cation Wildlife Preserve officially opened on June 22, 2019. It’s one of 17 properties that the Kawartha Land Trust acts as custodian of — altogether, the trust oversees more than 1,600 hectares.
Across the province, dozens of small non-profit land trusts, such as the KLT, protect more than 34,000 hectares of land. That number increases by 800 or 1,200 every year, according to Ontario Land Trust Alliance executive director Alison Howson.
Whereas national and provincial parks protect large high-value properties of provincial significance, Howson explains, land trusts protect anything that falls outside that remit, especially properties that are ecologically significant from a local perspective. “Land trusts play a particular role which isn’t covered by any other system,” Howson says.
They also often recruit volunteers to participate in land-stewardship and conservation activities. John Kintare, the executive director of KLT, says it’s the local involvement that makes land trusts so valuable. “Land is such a personal piece for so many people that I think having a local organization doing the work is essential for the success of the conservation movement,” he says.
Land trusts protect property by securing it through two main methods. They can own land outright, either by purchasing it or receiving it as a gift, or they can be granted an easement on a property. In the latter case, a third party continues to own the land, but a legal agreement is reached that restricts the activities possible on the property, and the land trust has the right to monitor and enforce the restrictions. (The Cations donated about two-thirds of their property outright to the KLT; they retained ownership of the remaining third but agreed to a conservation easement on it.) Conservation easements are registered on the title of a property and remain in place even if the property changes owners, so they can be just as effective as outright ownership in conserving a property’s natural features in perpetuity.
In addition to securing properties, land trusts play an active stewardship role in maintaining them. That means they have to be strategic about which properties they secure, Kintare says, and then fundraise enough that they’ll have sufficient resources to continue maintaining them into the future. “Sometimes there’ll be properties that come up that the donors would like to give us,” he says. “But if there isn’t accompanying funds to support them, then that becomes a fundraising imperative for the KLT, and it can delay the protection of the land.”
So how can a donor be sure that a land trust will continue to protect their property in perpetuity? When a gift is made through the federal government’s Ecological Gifts Program, which provides significant tax incentives to donors, future property use is governed by a stringent set of regulations. All 35 land-trust members of the Ontario Land Trust Alliance have also committed to implementing a set of standards and practices developed by the Canadian Land Trust Alliance to ensure long-term viability and responsible land stewardship.
While some land trusts in Ontario protect cultural heritage or farmland, the majority are environmentally focused and work to preserve crucial habitat and promote biodiversity.
The importance of that mission was highlighted recently by a United Nations report that said that 1 million species worldwide are at risk of extinction due to such human-caused factors as deforestation, overfishing, invasive species, and climate change.
The conservation community is also worried about the priorities of the current provincial government, Howson says. There’s “a sense that the focus of the provincial government is very much on opening land for business and for development,” she says. “And those changes will increasingly put pressure on sensitive areas of land that our members and land trusts across Ontario work to protect.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks told TVO.org via email that “the government is committed to ensuring conservation authorities focus and deliver on their core mandate of protecting people and property from flooding and other natural hazards, protecting drinking water sources, and conserving and managing conservation authority lands.”
For Kintare, the political uncertainty surrounding the environmental movement serves to underscore the need for private land trusts.
“It’s always possible to change a policy,” Kintare says. “So, while policy protection is valuable and important, it’s not in perpetuity. A new government can at any time come in and change that policy. So land trusts are really the only ones who are guaranteeing to do this in perpetuity … Once this land is protected, it will continue to be protected.”
The federal government appears to be embracing this approach to conservation as well. In April, it announced $100 million in funding through the Natural Heritage Conservation Program to help secure private conservation lands. A portion of the funds will be available to local land trusts. The new program is meant to help Canada reach its Aichi Biodiversity Target of conserving 17 per cent of its land by 2020.
Given the threat of climate change and the collapse of our planet’s biodiversity, getting more land protected can’t happen soon enough for Ontario’s land-trust community — but it will require money, time, and willing donors or sellers.
As Kintare says, “It’s a bit of a race to get as much as we can as fast as we can and make sure it’s protected.”