British Columbia

Conservation groups see mounting success in B.C. with private land acquisitions

Conservationists in the business of raising money to buy and protect private lands in B.C. say the approach is resonating with people wanting to take direct action against biodiversity loss and climate change.

Donations from $5 to $500,000 offer 'direct' results toward protecting biodiversity

Andrew Day, CEO of the B.C. Parks Foundation, gazes up the steep granite cliffs enclosing Princess Louisa Inlet in 2019. The foundation raised $3 million in three months to protect a portion of the inlet. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Conservationists in the business of raising money to buy and protect private lands in B.C. say the approach is resonating with people wanting to take direct action against biodiversity loss and climate change.

Andrew Day, CEO of the B.C. Parks Foundation, which was created in 2017 as the independent, charitable partner of B.C.'s parks system, said thousands of people across the province have given donations from as little as $5 up to $500,000 to protect land from development.

"There's no more direct way to halt habitat loss and mitigate climate effects than to protect land. It is by far the most effective means of doing that," he said.

Over the past two years the foundation has purchased and conserved about 4,450 hectares (11,000 acres) of land in B.C. One of its first land acquisition projects bought 800 hectares of land in a remote coastal wilderness on the Sunshine Coast.

Chatterbox Falls, at the end of Princess Louisa Inlet. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

To complete the purchase in Princess Louisa Inlet, the foundation needed to raise $3 million in three months, which it did.

"It was a completely overwhelming experience from all demographics and sectors of B.C.," said Day.

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'We don't do doom and gloom'

With the ongoing threat of climate change and habitat loss in B.C. due to development or industrial activities like logging, Day says private land acquisition for conservation comes at a good time for people wanting to make a positive difference.

"We don't do doom and gloom and messaging, you don't do finger wagging. We do very concrete things. And we do that in a spirit of gratitude and celebration," said Day.

B.C.'s land base is about 95 million hectares, with the vast majority — some 89 million hectares — being provincial, or Crown land. About five per cent of B.C.'s land base is privately owned, close to five million hectares, but much of that is in ecologically rich areas like valley bottoms, where conservation could preserve species into B.C.'s future.

A riverfront property in the Bella Coola Valley is the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s newest conservation area in British Columbia. (Harvey Thommasen/Nature Conservancy of Canada)

Hillary Page is the director of conservation in B.C. for the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), which employs more than 300 people across the country and since 1962 has been doing land acquisition for conservation. She says the NCC hopes to protect a million hectares over the next eight years.

"We've seen a huge acceleration in interest in our work. From individuals wanting to either donate their land or even if it's not a donation, they want to see it conserved," she said.

Just this month, the NCC unveiled the protection of a 122-hectare parcel of ecologically rich land in B.C.'s Central Coast through a donation by the two naturalist owners who wanted to see it protected.

In 2019, the NCC completed a major purchase of land in B.C.'s Kootenay region that connected and conserved hundreds of square kilometres for essential habitat for almost 40 confirmed species at risk, including grizzly bears, wolverines, peregrine falcons and mountain caribou, as well as an inland temperate rainforest.

The NCC put together $20 million for the project.

Grizzly bears actively forage along the riverfront in the 122-hectare Snowshoe Creek Conservation Area. (Harvey Thommasen/Nature Conservancy of Canada)

While the NCC welcomes donations in any form to support its work, it mostly leverages federal money from programs like Ottawa's Natural Heritage Conservation Program, which in 2018 pledged $1.3 billion to new protected and conserved areas.

Conservationists in B.C. who are active in trying to protect the last of B.C.'s old-growth forests commend groups that have raised money from private donors to protect parcels of land, but they want to see the province come up with its own pool of money to mirror what they federal government is doing.

"There's no dedicated provincial fund for private land acquisition beyond the province's current ad hoc program, which doesn't come close to the amount of funding needed to meaningfully protect ecosystems and reduce risks to biodiversity on private lands," Andrea Inness, with the Ancient Forest Alliance, wrote in an email.

The province is working with First Nations and communities to defer harvest of ancient, rare and large stands of old growth within 2.6 million hectares of B.C.'s most at-risk old-growth forests. It has so far committed more $30 million in spending.

But it also appears poised to tap into the interest from individuals to hand over their own money to buy private lands, such as those slated to be logged.

"The province will also establish a new process to enable individuals and organizations to donate funds to purchase existing timber licences and preserve old-growth stands," said the Ministry of Forests in a November news release.

The province said it has not yet formalized how that process will work.