Land Trusts

"I want to put a land trust on my property" - that is a statement heard by most organizations who deal with conservation easements in Alberta, and it reflects a basic confusion in the world of private land conservation.

What landowners generally mean by this statement is they are looking to grant a conservation easement on their land. Because both conservation easements and land trusts are relatively new concepts in Alberta - and are very much related - people tend to confuse them. Simply put, however:

  • land trusts are organizations; and
  • a conservation easement is a tool.

What is a 'Land Trust' or 'Conservancy'?

The terms land trust and conservancy are more or less interchangeable. In general, they refer to non-profit, charitable organizations which have as one of their core activities the acquisition of land or interests in land (like conservation easements) for the purpose of conservation. The hallmark of a land trust is the direct action they take to protect the local land base and that they hold those lands or conservation easements in trust for future generations.

Land trusts and conservancies are generally local in scope and operation, but may be provincial, regional or even national (though national organizations tend to have locally-focused offices). Most land trusts focus on conserving the biological values of land, but across the continent land trusts have been established to protect scenic, historical, agricultural, and recreational lands as well.


A brief history

Though relatively new to Alberta, land trusts have a century-old history in North America, with the first one appearing in the eastern United States in 1891. As the townships there filled with settlement, local residents looked to their dwindling open spaces with increasing concern. The land trust concept was born out of a desire on the part of locals to protect those areas, and their willingness to take direct action. They would band together to buy, and jointly steward, the small open spaces they deemed critical to the quality of life in their community.

As the idea has spread west across the United States and Canada, the land uses involved have varied, the tools have increased in number, and the parcel sizes have grown - but the model has remained remarkably consistent.

By 2010, the U.S.A. had over 1700 land trusts operating across the country. Their land trust movement grows at the rate of one new organization per week - the fastest growing segment of the American conservation movement.

In Canada, we have approximately 150 organizations that are eligible to receive gifts of ecologically sensitive land . The heaviest concentrations are in Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, but they span all of the provinces. In Alberta, there are currently 10 organizations and agencies that operate as land trusts.


A popular solution to land conservation dilemmas

The dramatic growth of land trusts reflects their popularity as a way to address the land conservation dilemmas all regions face. That popularity is based on the opportunities provided by land trusts:

  • conservation efforts tailored to local landscapes and local concerns;
  • the opportunity to conserve private land, not just public land;
  • organizational creativity, flexibility and responsiveness; and
  • empowerment of citizens to conserve land in their area.

The thousand faces of a land trust

Traditionally, the term 'land trust' is applied to locally-created and operated non-profit organizations, though several regional, provincial and national organizations carry on land trust work as well. In Alberta, there are also a few crown agencies and several municipalities that operate 'land trust' programs in the sense that they acquire conservation easements or land for conservation purposes.

A land trust's flexibility is perhaps its greatest strength. Aside from the common theme of taking direct action to conserve land for future generations, there are no set guidelines for what a land trust will and will not do. Looking across the continent, here is a taste of the variety:

  • Some are very small, volunteer-run groups who work in just one neighbourhood; some are large, working on a regional or national scale, and employing several staff.
  • Though all land trusts acquire interests in land, some own lands and operate them as nature reserves, while others own no land but hold conservation easements, and some do both. Most rely solely on donations of land and conservation easements, but some raise money to buy properties and easements.
  • Some land trusts buy land and turn it over to public agencies to make parks; certain land trusts provide land conservation and land use planning services; some work with other land trusts to protect land, each offering their specialty to the process.
  • Some land trusts were organized to protect a specific piece of property, and some to protect certain resource or land use types; some manage lands owned by others; some provide succession planning services; some simply facilitate transactions by other parties.

As is clear from this short list, land trusts can take many different shapes in their pursuit to conserve land for future generations.


Choosing Which is Best for You

If you are considering approaching a land trust or conservancy to help you with conserving your land, it is important to understand what each one is and what they can do for you.

Some of the things to think and ask about include:

  • what are their priorities as an organization?
  • what tools do they use that might be of use to you?
  • what sorts of land do they work with (land use, ecological importance, size, locales)?
  • what is their history and their future strategic focus?

The best way to get this information is to call and talk to someone who coordinates their conservation easement or land securement program. You can also talk to neighbours who have direct experience with various groups. As well, the by-laws of incorporated non-profit organizations are a matter of public record, and can be obtained through the corporate registry. As each land trust is a registered charity, you can search Canada Revenue Agencies, Charity Listings (http://www.cra-arc.gc.ca/chrts-gvng/lstngs/menu-eng.html) online and find out some basic information about them.

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