Under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA), a “qualified organization” is an organization that can hold a conservation easement granted by a landowner. Though the attributes of qualified organizations are established by legislation, there is no application or other approval process to gain qualified organization status. If an organization meets the prescribed attributes, it can hold conservation easements.
Qualified organizations may be referred to as “holders” or “grantees” of conservation easements. The qualified organization is the party that agrees to protect the conservation features and values of the property regardless of ownership for the length of the conservation easement term (often perpetuity). They do this by keeping in regular contact with the landowner (grantor), by conducting regular monitoring assessments and by upholding the restrictions and management plan. In the case of an infringement against the conservation easement it is the responsibility of the qualified organization (or its assignee) to discuss the infringement with the landowner and come to some sort of resolution. A resolution may be simple in that the landowner was not aware their action was an infringement or complex where the conservation easement needs to be defended in court. The qualified organization must ensure that it is financially prepared to carry it out its responsibilities.
There are two broad classes of qualified organizations under ALSA:
- Government bodies, which includes the Alberta government, provincial government agencies and local (municipal) government bodies; and
- Charitable non-government organizations with a land conservation purpose often referred to as land trusts or conservancies.
The range of government bodies that can hold conservation easements in Alberta is very broad. Their key characteristic is that they have been in some way created, appointed or authorized by the Alberta government or provincial legislation. There is no limitation that requires a government body holding a conservation easement to have a mandate or programming related to any of the legislated purposes for conservation easements so virtually any provincial or municipal government body in Alberta that otherwise meets ALSA’s requirements may hold a conservation easement. On the surface, this seems to offer limitless possibilities to landowners seeking a qualified organization to hold conservation easements on their lands, but practically speaking only a few of these bodies may be interested, able and willing to make the long-term commitment conservation easements require.
The Provincial Government
Conservation easements can be held by the Alberta government or by a specific ministry, such as Tourism, Parks and Recreation or Agriculture and Rural Development. In Alberta, several conservation easements are held by the provincial government documented on the land titles as either Alberta Environment or HMQA the minister of Environmental Protection.
Provincial Government Agencies
This category of qualified organizations includes corporations that are agents of the Alberta government and bodies whose members are appointed by provincial legislation or government order. For an example of the range of agencies that may be covered by this category, see the Alberta government’s list of Ministries.
Local (Municipal) Government Bodies
Most people will think first of municipalities when they think of local government bodies that can hold conservation easements. However, ALSA includes a broader range of bodies within the scope of local government bodies, such as:
regional services commissions;
Metis settlement councils;
the Metis Settlements General Council;
boards under the Irrigation Districts Act and Drainage Districts Act; and
management bodies under the Alberta Housing Act.
In addition, under ALSA the Alberta government can designate or exempt any person or entity as a local government body.
Land Conservation Charities
The other broad class of qualified organizations under ALSA that can hold conservation easements is charitable organizations with a land conservation mandate. It’s important to know that not all charities may be qualified organizations; ALSA imposes three limitations:
- The organization must be a registered charity as defined under the federal Income Tax Act. This means it must:
- have been established in Canada;
- be based in Canada; and
- be registered with the federal government as a charitable organization, private foundation or public foundation.
To qualify for registration as a charity under the Income Tax Act, an organization must have objects that are solely charitable and carry out activities that support those objects. The organization must be able to show that it uses all its resources, including money, staff, volunteers and property, to carry out these charitable activities. It must also show that its objects and activities provide a measurable benefit to the public as a whole or to a significant segment of the public. There is no definition of “charity” or “charitable” in the Income Tax Act; the meaning has been determined over time by the courts. Based on the common law, there are four broad categories of charitable purpose: poverty relief; advancement of education; advancement of religion; and other purposes beneficial to the community.
The Canada Revenue Agency provides the Charities Listing, an online searchable list of charities registered under the Income Tax Act.
- One of the organization’s objects, as set out in its incorporating documents, must be to acquire and hold interests in land for purposes “substantially the same” as any of the purposes for which a conservation easement can be granted. Under ALSA, these purposes are protection, conservation and enhancement of:
- the environment;
- natural scenic or esthetic values;
- agricultural land or land for agricultural purposes; and
- using land for recreation, open space, environmental education or research and scientific study of natural ecosystems, consistent with the previous three purposes.
Note that this makes these organizations different from the government bodies discussed above, which are not required to have any specific link or mandate related to the purposes of conservation easements.
- The organization’s governing documents (e.g., bylaws) must include a requirement that, if the organization is or plans to be wound up, all conservation easements will be transferred to another qualified organization.
Non-government organizations that do not fit these three criteria will not meet ALSA’s requirements for a qualified organization.