The risky business of private land conservation

Gentle hands

Gentle hands

May 15, 2014 | by Lisa McLaughlin

What’s the difference between the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and some of Canada’s largest businesses, including banks, grocery chains and telecommunication giants? Not much, actually. 

In the world of for-profit business, innovation is the heartbeat of the corporation. If you’re not anticipating the next opportunity, preparing for the next obstacle and focussing on efficiently delivering your product, you’re falling behind. The same is true when you are in the business of protecting ecologically significant land. The trouble for both corporate business and private conservation organizations (referred to as land trusts) is balancing the benefits with the risks when it comes to innovation.

NCC has been successfully balancing risk and innovation for more than 50 years. In the early years, the very existence of land trusts such as NCC was innovative. A small group of big thinkers, like Bruce Falls, Richard Pough, Aird Lewis and Dave Fowle, realized that they could focus all their energy on protecting private land by legally incorporating for the business of land protection. It was a novel concept at the time, and also involved risk for the group — would anyone donate their land to this enterprise? Would funders invest in it? Would communities support it? Could the long term liabilities be managed?

The answer was yes and since then hundreds of land trusts have been incorporated across the county. But success stories are easy to tell. 

What would have happened if NCC or the other early pioneer land trusts had failed?  I could list the majestic places and important species that NCC and our partners have protected, such as BC's Darkwoods, Old Man on His Back in Saskatchewan or the Musquash Estuary in New Brunswick. Without NCC's intervention, these places would likely have been lost to the bulldozer, the axe or to leafy spurge. But that perspective only comes with hindsight.

What, in the moment,  would have been lost if, after a few meetings around the table the would-be land trust volunteers and staff said, “No, lets not take the risk of committing to something that isn’t guaranteed to work.”  Nothing. Nothing would have been lost because nothing had been ventured. No one would have had to answer to any authority. They probably would have gone on to do other interesting and worthwhile endeavours with their lives. 

Lucky for Canada, lucky for nature and lucky for you and me, they didn’t make that decision. But what pushed them to assume the risk? Was it passion for wild lands? Personal philosophy? Craziness? Likely a little of all of the above and undoubtedly more, but I suspect that the decision was also based on a calculated risk. They looked at what was at stake and analyzed what it would take to succeed, they started small, they aligned themselves with partners who could advance their goals, they innovated along the way. 

Sounds pretty business-like.

NCC has continued to develop along those business-like lines. NCC’s approach to land acquisition has matured to be a highly focused yet creative decision-making process. NCC’s land management programs have expanded to engage not only staff but neighbours, students, interns, volunteers and corporate employees. More recently NCC has been leading the way in the area of monetizing carbon credits as well as conservation planning and conservation data management.

That innovation isn’t without risks either. Simply owning land comes with inherent corporate risks; there are taxes, infrastructure repairs, like fences and sometime structures, there is insurance and liability, without even mentioning restoration and biological monitoring activities.

The corporate world can again offer guidance with respect to evaluating risk. Successful corporations don’t ask, "Is this risk too big?" They ask, "What needs to be in place to reduce the risk to a tolerable level?" Similarly, NCC has worked to manage risk by hiring professional staff and establishing an endowment fund to ensure that there are always resources available to manage and maintain the land. NCC has a board of directors and trusted advisors who bring perspectives and experience that provide sober guidance when our proposed endeavours unnerve  even the most seasoned staff.

In the corporate world, risk avoidance usually boils down to avoiding financial losses. For NCC and other land t, risk is more dispersed. There are analogous risks of course. Land trusts, like any incorporated operation, need to be operating with strong governance and sound financial practices if they expect to continue to exist. But NCC and fellow land trusts have even greater obligations. When a donor makes a gift of land or money they are saying that they trust us. When we accept the gift we’re saying that we’ll keep that trust not just for now but for the long term. 

Seems a bit more weighty than the guarantee you get when you buy a toaster.

I suppose that’s where private land conservation and the corporate industry part ways. Despite that divide, I think we should continue to learn the lessons from the corporate world: embrace innovation, go where success isn’t guaranteed, aim to achieve unthinkable successes but recognize that poorly calculated risks is simply gambling. 

Lisa McLaughlin, Vice-president, Conservation Policy & Planning

About the Author

Lisa McLaughlin Lisa McLaughlin is the vice-president of conservation policy and planning for NCC.

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