This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Natural Areas Conservation Program — a unique public-private partnership that has spurred private land conservation in Canada to new heights

THE NORTH SHORE OF LAKE SUPERIOR, renowned for its rugged beauty, needs little introduction. But that’s not stopping Gary Davies.

“I think you’re going to have a few ‘Wow!’ moments when you’re on the property,” says the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) program director for northwestern Ontario. “It’s got some pretty spectacular scenery and views.”

Above image: Looking east over Big Trout Bay from one of the high points on the NCC’s 1,012-hectare Lake Superior property

The property in question is the Big Trout Bay Nature Reserve, a 2,500-acre (1,012-hectare) tract of forest, wetlands, tall cliffs and jagged peninsulas. It features 21 kilometres of frontage on the Lake Superior shore and is home to such iconic species as moose, black bear, Canada lynx, bald eagle and peregrine falcon, the latter a species of special concern in Canada.

Purchased by NCC in August 2016, with a total project cost of $8.5-million — combining a $3-million contribution from the Government of Canada’s Natural Areas Conservation Program (NACP) with matching funds raised from foundations and private donors — Big Trout Bay stands as one of the last undeveloped parcels of Great Lakes coastal wilderness between Thunder Bay, Ontario, and Duluth, Minnesota. According to NCC vice-president of conservation planning and policy, Lisa McLaughlin, it’s also a hallmark of the kind of conservation successes made possible by the NACP — through which NCC has conserved more than 1 million acres (430,000 hectares) since the program’s inception 10 years ago this fall.

Today, Davies is standing near the reserve’s western boundary, speaking to a group of wildlife scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Natural Heritage Information Centre. Scenery aside, it’s the sort of group whose “Wow!” moments might also include seeing rare plants, birds or insects. They’re here to start a week-long intense science “bioblitz” on the property — one of 10 national science surveys of species biodiversity held this year under the Canada BioBlitz 150 program — and Davies is outlining features, access points and hazards to get them oriented. “There are some pretty steep cliffs,” he warns. “You’re bushwhacking and then all of a sudden you’re at the edge.”

Ordinarily, when NCC acquires a new property, it conducts its own baseline inventory of plant and animal species. It combines that data with its existing site knowledge to create a long-term management plan. It’s no wonder then that Davies is thrilled to have the bioblitz team on hand. The pending treasure trove of data, he says, will be “a baseline inventory on steroids.”

Sharing the wealth

Just as the bioblitz has the potential to kick-start NCC’s work on Big Trout Bay, it helps to think of the NACP in the same way. In the past decade, NCC has used the NACP, with the participation of Ducks Unlimited Canada and other land trusts, to spur private land conservation in Canada to a level that would have been hard to imagine prior to the creation of the program.

In terms of sheer volume of lands conserved, the more than 1 million acres saved to date under the NACP represents nearly one-third of the entire habitat NCC has helped protect since it was founded in 1962.

Scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ontario Natural Heritage Information Centre led the week-long bioblitz at Big Trout Bay

Scientists from the Royal Ontario Museum and the Ontario Natural Heritage Information Centre led the week-long bioblitz at Big Trout Bay

“We have hundreds of thousands of acres now protected that certainly would not have happened had this program not been in place,” says McLaughlin.

The program is about more than raw totals, however. From day one, when the Government of Canada put up an initial $225 million in a fund to be administered by NCC, with $25 million tabbed for Ducks Unlimited and another $15 million set aside for other land trusts, rules required that no money could be drawn unless it was matched 1:1 with monies (or an equivalent value in donated property) raised from other sources — chiefly foundations, corporations and individual donors. In 2013, when the government allocated another $100 million to the NACP — money slated to sustain the program through 2019 — it changed the ratio to 2:1, doubling the required match from other sources.

Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, believes the matched funding commitment is key to the NACP’s success. “It shows it’s not just government spending the money but working with great folks like farmers and ranchers, who are giving land and providing funding for the program.”

The matching element means every acquisition done under the NACP is a partnership, says McLaughlin. “It reinforces the notion that land conservation or biodiversity conservation is everyone’s responsibility.” It also makes it easier to raise funds when you can tell a donor that every dollar they contribute will be matched, essentially tripling their impact. “It was a very significant enabler for us [with Big Trout Bay],” says Davies.

In Big Trout Bay’s case, this match even helped to motivate a number of American donors and partners, including The Conservation Fund, a national conservation lender, and the Minnesota and Wisconsin state chapters of The Nature Conservancy (U.S.). “They all spoke to Lake Superior as an international conservation asset,” Davies says. “It was great to see that kind of generous cross-border co-operation.”

On many projects, NCC has to seek out its funding partners. In other instances, they reach out from the grassroots up.


A clear example in the latter category is NCC’s Musquash Estuary project, the organization’s largest reserve in Atlantic Canada, located less than 20 kilometres southwest of Saint John, New Brunswick. A sublime, verdant, winding expanse of salt marshes, peat bogs, tidal flats and surrounding Acadian forest and freshwater wetlands, Musquash is one of the last fully functioning estuaries in the Bay of Fundy, a haven for aquatic species, migratory water birds and other wildlife. In 2007, the Musquash Estuary was announced as Canada’s sixth Marine Protected Area (MPA) under the Oceans Act.

Private conservation has a role to play in helping Canada meet its international pledge to conserve 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and inland waters by 2020

Private conservation has a role to play in helping Canada meet its international pledge to conserve 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and inland waters by 2020

NCC’s involvement here dates from around 2000, when local residents began campaigning for the MPA designation in order to protect the estuary from proposed industrial development. As the MPA designation only applies to marine areas, they sought NCC’s assistance in securing the land around the estuary. By the time the MPA was designated, NCC had acquired close to 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of adjacent property, much of it transferred from the provincial government. That milestone also coincided with the introduction of the NACP. In the decade since the program’s introduction, NCC has relied heavily on the program to secure another 2,000 acres (800 hectares) on the estuary. “Much of what’s happened since 2007 has been land donated by local families,” says Paula Noel, NCC’s New Brunswick program director. “They’ve given their land, and on the basis of its matching value, the NACP has covered the other costs of us being able to accept that land — such as biological inventories and gathering information on species and habitat.”

Musquash has also taken on added significance lately, as the federal government has stepped up its efforts to deliver on Canada’s commitments as a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Under the CBD, signatories have committed to conserving at least 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, through networks of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures by 2020. “I think they’re looking at Musquash as an example of how MPAs should be done,” says Noel. “Because of all the community input that was behind that designation.”

The government’s efforts to reach the CBD targets fall under a program called The Pathway to Canada Target 1 (the language is adapted from the CBD’s Aichi Biodiversity Targets process).

On the terrestrial side, NCC’s McLaughlin says the NACP can be seen to be helping Canada move closer to its 17 per cent target by enabling private land conservation in the more developed areas of southern Canada. “The federal government’s tools are incredibly effective in large geographies, however the tools NCC has are built for this fragmented landscape in the south,” she says. “So the NACP supports Canada in its efforts to get to its national and international goals, in a way it would be unlikely to do otherwise.”

McKenna agrees that collaboration among “unusual partners,” including private land trusts, non-profit-organizations, Indigenous communities and ranchers, is going to be key to meeting Canada’s Pathway to Target 1 goals. “[We’re] bringing together everyone, from Indigenous peoples, to ranchers, to not-for-profit organizations, to develop a path to get to this goal, in addition to our advisory panel [on which John Lounds, NCC president and CEO, is a member].”

Local conservation

NCC’s Fort Ellice project on the Assiniboine River in western Manitoba is another example of the NACP’s potential to fuel conservation success. From a biodiversity standpoint, the 3,500-acre (1,420-hectare) property boasts a concentration of threatened species and a diversity of prairie habitats. But as the name suggests, Fort Ellice is also an important cultural site — as the site where, in 1831, C.T. William Todd established a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trading post.

Kevin Teneycke, director of conservation for NCC in Manitoba, says HBC records also indicate that many Indigenous peoples set up winter camps in the vicinity. In fact, the site’s value to the local First Nations community is such that they hold a sunrise ceremony on the property each year at the summer solstice. It’s an arrangement that the property’s former owner adopted and NCC has honoured since taking possession in 2012.

NCC plans to do more to recognize the site’s historical-cultural significance, as well. According to Teneycke, NCC is working with the local municipality and a local economic development corporation to establish a “low-impact, low-maintenance interpretive site,” to highlight the site’s ecological importance and history.

The theme of providing support for local conservation also underlies NCC’s administration of the portion of the NACP grant that is earmarked for use by smaller land trusts across the country, under the Other Qualified Organizations program (OQO).

One such beneficiary of the OQO program is the Kawartha Land Trust (KLT), which is based in Peterborough, Ont., and to date has helped protect 26 properties in the surrounding Kawartha Lakes region. In 2015, KLT received $108,000 in OQO program funding that proved critical in enabling it to make its largest acquisition to date — securing the 1,100-acre (450-hectare) Big Island in Pigeon Lake, a deal with a total value of more than $6 million.

“The owner donated the land, while the OQO money provided a lot of the enabling cash for appraisals, human resources, a survey, some legal fees — a lot of things that are essential to completing a project, but aren’t always that attractive to donors,” says Mike Hendren, KLT’s executive director.

Hendren strongly believes that the NACP is a good program that needs to continue. “I hope, in fact, it can be expanded,” he says. “In the last five to 10 years, the land trust community in Canada has really grown. We’re now better positioned to use that [support].”

While NCC operates at a much larger scale, McLaughlin credits the NACP with helping to spark a similar evolution in its work in the 10 years since the program began.

Q&A with Catherine McKenna

Brian Banks: How committed is Canada to hitting the Pathway to Target 1 goal by 2020?

Catherine McKenna: We’re absolutely committed to meeting the target, and we’re working really hard [to get there]. We haven’t been in government that long, but we’ve already been working with the provinces and territories and bringing together the other unusual partners. It’s really hard to meet the targets, the goal, which is 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and 10 per cent of coastal marine areas.

We’re bringing together everyone, from Indigenous peoples, to ranchers, to not-for-profit organizations, to develop a path to get to this goal. We have a national advisory panel, and we have an Indigenous circle of experts that will help look at what are all the opportunities that are out there and how we can move forward on them.

John Lounds, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), is a member of our national advisory panel. So we have a great group that are looking at all the opportunities and looking outside the box, including Indigenous protected areas.

We’re all committed to meeting this target.

BB: What role can private land conservation play in these efforts?

CM: When you look at where we need to protect areas, it includes big spaces, often in the north, but also private lands, which are mostly found in the south of Canada, where we know that there are areas rich in biodiversity, but where there’s a lot of urban development.

We need to be working together to protect those lands, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, working with private landowners, plays a really important role.

[Private land conservation] helps to protect habitat for species at risk and migratory birds. It also is important to have corridors, or connections, between protected areas. In the context of climate change, we know that these protected areas play a really important role in fighting and mitigating the effects of these changes.

BB: How important is it for private land conservation to connect its work to existing protected areas?

CM: [Connectivity is] a really key piece. Sometimes the lands that are acquired aren’t huge, but they connect broader swaths of land. Animals don’t just stop because it’s someone else’s land.

Figuring out how to connect these areas is really important, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada has been very effective at working with private landowners, including ranchers and farmers, to acquire these lands.

BB: This year NCC is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Natural Areas Conservation Program. What are some of the NACP’s key accomplishments?

CM: I believe that it’s important to have public-private sector partnerships, and that’s exactly what [the NACP] is. It takes real action to protect lands. And between 2007 and 2016, [the program helped conserve] 418,000 hectares of not just any lands, but ecologically sensitive lands. [We predict that] by 2019 it’s going to be well over 500,000 hectares.

The NACP provides matching funds; 2:1 from non-federal government sources for each federal dollar received. That’s a really important model.

It’s really about protecting lands that people care about. You’re connecting people to the land, you’re engaging people and getting them excited and motivated to do this and be part of a bigger picture.

“We’ve really established a science-based process for conservation investment,” she says. “So now, when NCC goes into an area, we’ve done the science and identified the most important places, ecologically. That means we have a different discussion with the local community. Whether that’s about the irreplaceability of a particular habitat or about building a corridor or network so that animals and plants can move, we’re now connecting people to landscapes in a way that is more meaningful to everyone.”

One of Big Trout Bay's impressive features is its raised cobble beaches

One of Big Trout Bay’s impressive features is its raised cobble beaches

Big Trout Bay is a case in point. This summer’s bioblitz ultimately identified some 630 species of plants, birds, insects, mammals and other wildlife — information that, according to Gary Davies, “will allow NCC to create a well-grounded property management plan.” Significantly, that plan will include a public hiking trail, interpretive signage and community outreach in the Thunder Bay area. “We want people to appreciate the property and the benefits we all receive by protecting it,” he says.

For McLaughlin, creating such opportunities for Canadians is one of the greatest measures of the NACP’s success. “They’re learning a little more about what makes their community special. And I think it raises awareness; it fosters a conservation ethic. All these spinoff benefits of the program will actually have a long and lasting impact, just like the long-term conservation of the land.”

This article was originally published in Fall 2017 issue of Nature Conservancy of Canada Magazine. Main story images are my own; sidebar: Government of Canada