Land trust gets cash infusion

More private land across Canada is likely to be preserved through conservation easements due to a major infusion of federal funding announced April 23.

The Natural Heritage Conservation Program has earmarked $100 million to support agreements on privately owned land in areas considered to be ecologically sensitive.

In practice, that means organizations including Nature Conservancy of Canada, Ducks Unlimited, Wildlife Habitat Canada and various land trust organizations will have more money available to make agreements with private landowners on habitat protection.

However, they will have to match every federal dollar with $2 of their own under the dictates of the fund.

The new money, announced by federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, is expected to conserve another 490,000 acres of forests, wetlands, coastal regions and native grasslands over the next four years.

Justin Thompson, executive director of the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society (SALTS), said conservation groups had hoped the federal government would make funding available for private land conservation, so the announcement was welcome.

On the Prairies, it could lead to more preservation of native grassland, he said.

“It’s really another funding source that is hoping to encourage and support the conservation of private lands with high ecological value, and of course in Alberta, a lot of those private lands of high ecological value are native grasslands and ranchlands.

“So my hope is that this new Natural Heritage Conservation Program will see some federal dollars support the work that organizations like SALTS and others do with private landowners who want to see their grasslands conserved.”

Though protection of species at risk is a federal priority, Thompson said that doesn’t mean funds will be exclusively earmarked for that purpose.

“Because there are so few of our native grasslands left, just due to development and the history of cultivation, a lot of those areas that have relatively large intact blocks of native grassland, they’re going to have important habitat for species at risk, whether it’s grassland birds or raptors or whatever it might be.”

Matching every federal dollar with another $2 is also not as onerous as it might seem at first blush, he added.

When landowners agree to a conservation easement, some or all of the property is eligible for a charitable receipt. The value of that receipt can serve as matching dollars for the purposes of the fund.

In Alberta, money provided through the Alberta Land Trust Grant Program can also be used as matching funds for the federal program, Thompson said.

SALTS is already working on conservation easement arrangements that could utilize the new federal funds, he added. One involves a large tract of grassland on the east side of southern Alberta’s Porcupine Hills and another involves land along a major river. Details are confidential until finalized.

The $100 million available federally is for preservation of sensitive lands across all of Canada, so organizations will have to make their case in order to access funds.

“We don’t know what the demand will be yet,” Thompson said.

However, given that native grassland is in dwindling supply, he is hopeful some will be available for prairie conservation easements.

Those have become more popular in recent years among ranchers as they make succession plans and seek to keep their properties intact. That goal and the tax benefits with regard to capital gains have increased interest in conservation easements, Thompson said.

The arrangements do come with some restrictions, though likely not as onerous as some might think, he said.

The main one in the case of native grassland properties is simply to leave it intact. Other factors, like the option for another home or road on properties, can be part of agreements before they are finalized.

The new federal fund is part of a nationwide initiative to protect at least 17 percent of land and freshwater and 10 percent of marine areas by 2020. It will be overseen by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, with contributions from conservation group partners.

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