Responding to the urgent crises of rapid biodiversity loss and climate change, Nature Conservancy of Canada is expanding the pace, scale and scope of its work
Put a map of Ontario on the wall, throw a dart at its geographical centre, and if your aim is true, that dart will hit smack dab in the boreal forest, somewhere near Hornepayne, a forestry town 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.
NCC’s new Boreal Wildlands project in Ontario is Canada’s largest single private conservation project

For two years, that part of the map has been a special focus for Kristyn Ferguson, the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) program director for large landscapes in Ontario. Specifically, a 1,450-square-kilometre (145,000-hectare) area to the west and south of the community of Hearst, about 900 kilometres north of Toronto. The lands here are rich in boreal forest habitat, pristine lakes and rivers, and carbon-storing peatlands.

In April, on Earth Day, NCC unveiled a fundraising campaign to complete the conservation of these lands, covering an area more than twice the size of the city of Toronto. When complete, the project will be the largest single private conservation project ever undertaken in Canada, dubbed the Boreal Wildlands.

“The first time I had a chance to visit the property was in late September of 2021,” says Ferguson. “It was peak fall, where all the poplar and birch leaves turn yellow against the dark conifers. From any bit of height, looking out at the forest, it just goes on forever. The lakes look glacial because of their bright greenish colour. This place is mesmerizing.”

Boreal Wildlands covers 1,450 square kilometres rich in forest habitat, pristine lakes and rivers, and carbon-storying peatlands

Boreal Wildlands’ significance is both tangible and symbolic.

The property, originally held by Domtar, with whom NCC negotiated an option to purchase the site, has tremendous conservation value. It is home to threatened woodland caribou, other large mammals like black bear, lynx, wolf and moose, and provides nesting, breeding and migratory stopover habitat for a multitude of birds.

At the same time, the project epitomizes how NCC, as Canada’s leading private conservation organization, is responding to the crises of rapid biodiversity loss and climate change by expanding the pace, scale and scope of its work — adding a focus on larger conservation projects in all regions that builds on its long history of protecting crucial habitat in southern Canada.

This focus, a cornerstone of NCC’s new roadmap for the next eight years, will see NCC protect more land, faster, either through traditional fee simple acquisition, as with Boreal Wildlands, or by lending its expertise — in securing private financing or acquiring resource development rights, say — to help projects led by governments, Indigenous communities or other partners.

The goal: to double NCC’s impact by 2030, conserving an additional one million hectares and delivering $1.5 billion of new conservation outcomes. In the process, NCC will help Canada achieve its pledge, as a member of the international High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, to protect 30 per cent of this country’s lands and waters by 2030.

“Our new strategic plan lays out our toolkit and our values, and a recognition that with climate change and biodiversity loss, we have a big part to play,” says Nancy Newhouse, NCC’s regional vice-president in British Columbia.

It’s an approach endorsed by Mike Wong, North American regional vice-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas.

“Protected areas are one of the best conservation tools in the world,” says Wong, who is based in Gatineau, Quebec. “When you have large intact areas that are well-managed, you conserve both the diversity as well as the carbon that is stored in that protected ecosystem.”

One of NCC’s longstanding strengths is its ability to bring together landowners, donors, fundraising partners, governments, Indigenous communities and other non-profits to protect nature. But traditionally, the outcomes include NCC owning the land. Taking a supporting role on other groups’ projects isn’t entirely new, but according to Dawn Carr, NCC’s director of strategic conservation, it’s been mainly ad hoc.

“We’ve not done a lot of proactive outreach with potential partners to ask, ‘What conservation objectives do you have that our abilities or capabilities might be able to support?’” says Carr. “The more we ask, the more opportunities will surface to support lasting conservation.”

Increasingly, NCC is looking to scale up its collaboration with partners in a more proactive manner.

A prime example that demonstrates NCC’s potential in a supporting role is the negotiations now underway between the Ktunaxa Nation and the BC government to establish an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA) in the Central Purcell Mountains. The IPCA will encompass an area known as Qat’muk, a sacred landscape the Ktunaxa hold as the spiritual home of the grizzly bear.

NCC was invited to work with the Ktunaxa Nation Council in 2019 to help them achieve their vision of fully protecting Qat’muk — an area rich in biodiversity that includes the Jumbo Valley and surrounding watersheds. The core threat to the area was a proposed ski resort in the Jumbo Valley, which the Ktunaxa and their supporters had been fighting against for 30 years. After decades of legal battles, an opportunity arose to negotiate a settlement with the developer and open the door to develop an IPCA.

Working alongside Indigenous communities, as with the Ktunaxa for Qat’muk, is a growing emphasis for NCC

NCC first assisted the Ktunaxa in developing the ecological rationale for protection, which was necessary to secure funding for the IPCA creation. It then also acted as the negotiator on behalf of the Ktunaxa in talks to extinguish the developer’s tenures and development rights associated with the resort. Today, NCC is poised to assist the Ktunaxa with conservation planning, providing mapping and ecological data for the Qat’muk IPCA once its details have been finalized.

“The Ktunaxa are leading the government-to-government conversations about what Qat’muk will look like,” says Newhouse. “Our role there now is to be a support to the Nation as requested.”

The Qat’muk example also underscores that working alongside Indigenous communities more generally, in different capacities, will be a growing area of emphasis for NCC as it expands its large landscapes work. The Boreal Wildlands project is a case in point. While it won’t be an IPCA, the project area includes the traditional territories of many Indigenous Nations and communities within Treaty 9.

“We’re making sure we’re speaking with all of the communities, learning how they’ve used the site historically, how they might like to use it going forward,” says Ferguson. “We’re in the very early days of developing partnerships that NCC intends to be long-term, respectful, meaningful and that bring benefit to the communities.”

Protecting any parcel of land, large or small, that provides essential habitat for species at risk is critical to help stem the loss of species and conserve overall biodiversity.

But from an ecological standpoint, large-scale projects play a unique role by ensuring the existence of large expanses of connected, protected habitat. These areas are critical for larger animals that migrate seasonally or require big territorial ranges for feeding and reproduction. In the face of a changing climate, they also provide a measure of resilience, giving many species of animals and plants the opportunity to adapt and adjust their location over time.

The Green Mountains Nature Reserve in the Appalachian corridor of southeastern Quebec is a prime example of the value of large-scale connectivity in NCC’s portfolio. Established in 2008, the reserve continues to grow thanks to the donation or purchase of adjoining parcels of land. It now measures close to 8,000 hectares in size. It also is directly linked to protected areas south of the U.S. border.

“If you look at a satellite map, you can see that every piece of land around [the reserve] is cities or farms, not much forest. So, it’s very important to keep that corridor for the migration of species from the south to the north with climate change,” says Cynthia Patry, NCC’s project manager for the Northern Green Mountains. “We still have wide-ranging mammals that are crossing the border and using that corridor, like lynx, moose and bears. Outside of that corridor, there are no lynx, so we really want to maintain it for them.”

Large-scale connectivity is important for wide-ranging mammals such as moose

The Green Mountains Nature Reserve is one of a handful of NCC’s existing large-scale protected areas located in Canada’s south. The newest in this category is Hastings Wildlife Junction, a planned 8,000-hectare acquisition consisting of significant forests and wetlands located between the towns of Belleville and Bancroft in southeastern Ontario. However, in future, given the density of settlement in the south, NCC expects most of Canada’s large-scale protected area opportunities will lie farther north.

This reality, coupled with the fact that much more of the land in Canada’s north is Crown land, also explains why NCC’s role in such projects is likely to be that of a supporting partner. As Newhouse explains, ownership of such lands will stay with the Crown, but in many cases, as with Qat’muk as well as another recent project in B.C., the Tenh Dzetle Conservancy, made possible with the relinquishing of mineral rights, NCC’s role will be to “create agreements whereby when [such] privately held tenures are relinquished, there’s a parallel process that creates a protected area.” IUCN’s Wong says he is happy to learn that NCC is looking at a different way of doing things, as it represents the kind of approach that everyone — individuals, governments, companies, NGOs and other stakeholders — needs to embrace if Canada and the world are going to achieve their commitments to protect 30 per cent of their territories by 2030.

Wong highlights the failure of most countries to reach the IUCN’s previous target of protecting 17 per cent of their lands by 2020. In Canada’s case, we’re now at just 13.5 per cent. “If we didn’t make the 17 per cent target, how do we get to 30 per cent?” he asks. “You have to do things differently, right?”

Ferguson agrees: “We’re so proud of everything that NCC has been able to accomplish over the last 60 years with the help of our supporters. But we recognize that we are at a crisis point, when we need think bigger and think differently, bring in different partners and collaborate.”

Recalling her visit to Boreal Wildlands, she describes standing on the banks of the Skekak River alongside Councillor Wayne Neegan of the Constance Lake First Nation, NCC’s escort on the land. As the river rushed past on its way to Hudson Bay, Neegan pointed out moose tracks at the water’s edge and demonstrated how he calls moose when hunting.

About that moment, and others since, Ferguson reflects: “I think we all recognize we’re headed in the right direction, working together on initiatives that are making a conservation impact at scale. We’re doing it for the land and the caribou, but also for people. We’re all realizing we’re not separate from nature; we are a part of nature. So, every time we’re helping nature, we’re actually helping ourselves.”

This story was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Nature Conservancy of Canada magazine. Photos courtesy of NCC; Pixabay/brigachtal (grizzly bear)