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Swept up in the season's frenzied search for presents, Canadians may overlook gifts that will truly keep on giving -- perhaps beyond the gift-giver's own lifetime. The intense media hype driving material present-giving can overshadow the long-lasting appreciation derived from gifts that support and sustain our way of life. Among local nonprofit organizations deserving gifts of time or money, donated on behalf of loved ones, in your name or anonymously, are Land Trusts, which are dedicated to preserving neighbourhood connections and protecting cherished, and often at-risk, natural areas.

According to the Land Trust Alliance of British Columbia, land trusts or conservancies are "independent nongovernment, nonprofit organizations committed to the long-term or permanent protection of our natural or cultural heritage." Many work in partnership with governments and other organizations to achieve shared conservation goals. Land trusts steward and protect important ecological, recreational and cultural sites. Activities include public education and assisting landowners and communities to manage the land under their control.

Land trusts protect natural and heritage sites through ownership of donated or acquired land or through interests in land such as conservation covenants. Usually registered charities, donations to these groups are tax-deductible and may involve additional benefits like capital gains reductions.

BC's Gabriola Land & Trails Trust (GaLTT), dedicated to "conserving and connecting the natural areas and neighbourhoods of Gabriola Island," illustrates how residents and property owners of this Gulf island off Nanaimo hold the power to influence community development and preserve cherished environmental elements of their island. Like many rural communities across Canada, Gabriola is under pressure from increased real estate development and rising land values, with a particular vulnerability since it reportedly ranked last among the Gulf Islands based on its proportion of protected lands (2.5 percent) and second lowest for its remaining natural ecosystem area (15 percent).

"The impetus was a stunning piece of property that jelled us into a group, but, unfortunately, it sold before we could launch a campaign," said GaLTT President Kerry Marcus, explaining how a few residents with no real estate experience got the land trust off the ground. "But we were sufficiently galvanized and decided to get ready for the next lovely piece that would come along."

Since the inaugural meeting in November 2004, about 150 individual, family and corporate members have joined GaLTT. Membership levels and donations prove community commitment to granting agencies while covering operating costs and building an acquisition fund. GaLTT is off to a strong start toward its 2010 goal of developing a network of interconnecting parks and trails that extends across the Island. In 2005, through the committed efforts of many, Gabriola's protected land inventory increased to 9 percent with the addition of 2 large land holdings, one through a development density transfer and the other, a provincial crown land grant.

"A network of trails that connect neighbourhoods and services greatly enhance the quality of life in a rural community, as well as in an urban setting," said Marcus, who knows challenges arise when a property hosting public access is sold and new owners consider discontinuing existing trails. "Landowners who have an interest in establishing a section of trail through their property or in redirecting a traditional access point to a more convenient area, [for instance] along a property line, can draw on several resources. Groups like ours can help them connect with larger land donation or management groups to develop the most suitable solutions for each individual situation."

Land owners can also find solutions for public liability concerns whether the donated park or trail section commemorates a loved one, a pioneer family or a special event.

"The Occupiers Liability Act in most provinces give a landowner a measure of protection when there is access provided explicitly for recreational purposes," said Marcus. "Regional Districts or municipalities with a parks mandate also have public liability insurance on the properties or trails they manage. There is a benefit to landowners to establish a legal easement with such a group, for increased liability protection, management and maintenance."

The diverse Canadian ecology and our multilevel land use and ownership systems demand a variety of organizations combine forces to ensure that special environmental and heritage areas are protected for future generations. For instance:

Whether you are a landowner or not, your contributions of time, skills or money can play an important role in preserving Canada's diverse ecosystems and enriching our communities. The greatest gift may be your genuine enthusiasm for the task at hand -- a spark that could catalyze a significant donation or the creation of a land trust where none exists.

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