Municipal governments as qualified organizations
To date, the most common qualified organizations to hold conservation easements in Alberta have been non-governmental organizations (more commonly referred to as land trusts or conservancies) and municipal governments. The Alberta Land Stewardship Act doesn’t make distinctions between different types of qualified organizations in relation to the substance of conservation easements, but practically there are a range of differences between municipal governments and land trusts that can be very relevant in developing and maintaining a conservation easement.
Municipalities use conservation easements in a wholly different way compared to land trusts. Municipal conservation easements come about almost exclusively as the result of a proposal for development; a development proponent is either offered or asks for the option of using a conservation easement as part of their application.
The level of capacity that a municipality has to devote to a conservation easement program is actually more dependent on its goals than its staff complement and budget. Conservation easements with numerous and complex restrictions have a proportionately complex and time-consuming responsibility to monitor, enforce and defend; conservation easements that simply restrict sub-division, for example, are simple and particularly easy to monitor for a municipality because those applications come through them. Planners and protected areas staff traditionally play a significant role in conservation easements for biodiversity, but agricultural fieldmen and agricultural service boards, for example, would likely play the lead role in conservation easements for agriculture.
Municipalities have significant advantages over other potential qualified organizations in several respects. Their statutory documents require them to articulate goals that can be a base for conservation goals. In particular, municipalities are required in their Municipal Development Plan to consider conservation of agricultural operations, but not agricultural land, though virtually all municipal development plans speak at least nominally to the agricultural land base. A challenge for effective conservation easements generally, is they are usually perpetual, which raises questions about the sustainability of the qualified organization; however municipalities, for all intents and purposes, are also perpetual. Municipal conservation easement programs can complement other conservation easement-based programs such as Transfer of Development Credits. Despite being a private, voluntary tool, the overall effectiveness of conservation easements depends on how they are accepted by a community; municipalities are already structured to establish those two-way conversations.
There are also a variety of issues for municipalities pursuing conservation easement programs. Municipal conservation programs can be subject to political pressure through their council. In some cases, on-going monitoring of conservation easements has been challenging for municipalities, raising questions about the effectiveness of their programs. Possibly related is that municipalities as a whole are not tied into the private land conservation resources and networks of land trusts. At a base level, a municipality is not established solely to conserve natural resources, so different parts of the municipal corporation may be working at cross purposes.
Land trusts as qualified organizations
The terms land trust and conservancy are more or less interchangeable. In general, they refer to non-profit, charitable organizations that 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. They hold those lands or conservation easements in trust for future generations. Land trusts and conservancies are often local in scope and operation, but may be provincial, regional or even national (though national organizations tend to have regionally-focused offices). Most land trusts focus on conserving the biological values of land, but land trusts across the continent have been established to protect scenic, historical, agricultural and recreational lands as well.
Land trusts provide:
- 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.
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.
There are currently very few land trusts in Alberta, relative to similar landscapes across Canada and the U.S. This is due to a variety of factors: low population, early predominance of large cross-province land trusts, low levels of environmental funding and others. Few land trusts have a robust staff complement, and financial sustainability is a continuing challenge. Like land trusts elsewhere on the continent, on-going stewardship is necessary and the importance of effective monitoring and stewardship increases with the complexity of the conservation easement restrictions.
Existing land trusts represent several key opportunities for conservation easements. First, even for small land trusts conservation easements are part of a land conservation program, so the critical step of articulating a conservation goal and need is undertaken deliberately. Second, they have access to – and are targeted by – networks and resources. This causes them to be part of a private land conservation community almost by default. As such they have a high level of experience and expertise in structuring and managing conservation easements.
The main issues Alberta land trusts currently face are the potential pitfalls that may come from mixing purposes for conservation easements, their relatively low organizational capacity, and their limited experience as a group with non-ecological, natural scenery and agricultural conservation issues.
Choosing which qualified organization is best for you
As a grantor considering a qualified organization to help conserve your land, it is important to understand what each one is and what each can do. Some of the things to think and ask about include:
- What are their priorities as an organization?
- What are their conservation priorities?
- 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. It is also advisable to talk to neighbours who have direct experience with various qualified organizations.
For land trusts, 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 also search Canada Revenue Agency, Charity Listings online and find out some basic information about them.
Many municipalities have their own websites, which may provide access to information such as municipal development plans and other planning documents; environmental or conservation programs; budgets; and staffing structures. Because a land conservation program may be managed within any of a number of departments (planning, parks, and agriculture), calling the local municipality or local councilor may be the best first step.
Comparison of aspects of municipal and land trust conservation easements
Though the conservation easement tool is the same regardless of who the qualified organization is, the way that tool is used can be different. The following is a side-by-side comparison of how a conservation easement is employed by a municipality versus a land trust.
|Organizational mandate||Good government, services, safe and viable communities||Protection of the environment, scenic land and/or agriculture|
|Conservation purposes||Program-based (protected areas, agricultural services, sustainable development)||Protection of the environment, scenic land and/or agriculture|
Parties to agreement
|Landowner; municipality||Landowner; land trust|
|Trust||Credibility based on public interest mandate; cynicism about political influence||Credibility based on conservation mandate; cynicism about private interest and organizational stability|
|Financial benefit to landowner||Tax receipts for donations; Split receipts; Exchange for development considerations (NB: no tax receipt available if exchanged for development considerations)||Tax receipts for donations; Split-receipts; Cash payments (rare)|
Generally no broad “conservation planning” initiatives; conservation tends to be opportunistic or focused on municipal protected areas)
|The primary use of CEs|
|Development planning||CE program is often a development planning tool||CE program plays no direct role in development planning|
|Eligible recipient (for perpetual CEs only)||Eligible recipient (for perpetual CEs only)|
|Develop restrictions list based on conservation program; tend to be targeted to program goals||Develop restrictions list based on conservation mandate; tend to be comprehensive|