The goal of the Nature Conservancy of Canada is to make sure crucial areas of the country are kept in a natural state, in order to preserve biodiversity. To do that the organization buys up land, or persuades landowners to donate their properties or promise to keep it wild.
But the NCC also recognizes the need for development, works with corporate supporters, and tries to avoid confrontation and controversy. Chief executive officer John Lounds has run the NCC for the past 15 years as it built up a portfolio of property now worth $500-million.
Can economic development and conservation co-exist in Canada?
People want economic development and they also want environmental conservation to happen. We believe we can work toward making that happen simultaneously.
A lot of economic development often focuses on the short term. We think over a long term. When we purchase a piece of property we are going to hold that for a long, long time. But we are very patient about how long it takes to actually get a land conservation project to happen.
Where do you concentrate your work?
We work in the southern part of Canada, basically in settled landscapes where 90 per cent of Canadians live. It is only about 10 per cent of the country, but 70 per cent of all our species at risk are found in that particular southern geography. We’ve identified about 80 places across Canada, but the two real hot spots are the South Okanagan [in British Columbia] and Southern Ontario’s Carolinian zone. Conservation targets could be grizzly bears, dromedary jumping slugs, or anything rare out on the landscape. It could be migratory stopovers for migrating birds.
Do you have enough resources to preserve those critical areas?
If we continue at this rate, it will probably take us another few decades to actually get to where the science is telling us we need to be. Landscape scientists say that 25 per cent to 50 per cent of the land [in southern Canada] should be conserved as natural landscape.
Right now we have less than that in many areas, so getting there is a great challenge. We are not saying all these lands need to be owned by the Nature Conservancy. If you, as a land owner, are taking care of your property to the same level that we are, that’s great.
What kind of people want to make sure their land is preserved in a wild state?
An example is ranch lands out west. Often you get a ranching family [in which] the kids are not going to do ranching, but the owners love that particular geography and would like to see it conserved in some way. Sometimes we can bring funds to the table to allow them to provide an estate for their kids, and we end up with land conserved. So it is good for Canadians, it is good for the family, and it is good for their kids as well.
How much land is donated, compared with what you purchase?
About 20 per cent to 30 per cent is donated. Some [acquisitions] are part purchase, part donation.
The other thing we do is what are called conservation easements. Those are restrictions on property, so you continue to own the land, but you may not be able to commercially harvest the forest, or you may be restricted from plowing up the land. There is a “before” value appraised and an “after” value, and the difference between the values is what you are eligible for as a tax receipt.
Is the tax system helping? Does it need to be changed?
The system has improved a lot. Prior to 2000, you couldn’t give your land away without having to incur capital gains tax. That has been changed, and this government has made further changes to reduce that capital gains inclusion rate to zero.
Can you give an example of effective corporate support for conservation?
Toronto-Dominion Bank is our biggest corporate supporter. It has several programs under way to reduce carbon emissions, paper use, etc. [At the same time] it is contributing to our work to conserve forests, to help offset its paper use. We know where the best forests are. We can count the trees and tell it how much biomass is in those trees. We [want to] do more of those kinds of things with companies as we go forward.
You sold carbon credits on a piece of land you purchased in B.C. Is that a new model that will help generate funds?
That was our first attempt to look at how the carbon markets work. We went through quite a bit of work to determine how much carbon would be sequestered in the forest, based on a reduction of the timber harvest. It is quite a complicated verification process.
This is a way we could conserve more property across the country [by generating funds from the sale of credits]. It doesn’t work for small lots, because it is too much work to verify and validate. We are not sure whether we are going to do more of them, because it is complicated; this was an experiment.
You try to avoid lobbying and advocacy. Why is that?
We meet with all sorts of people – corporations, ranchers, urban folks, etc.
We are interested in finding people, no matter what their political stripe, who are interested in conservation. So we don’t find it very productive to take stands on various issues that aren’t about our own business, which is to ensure more private land is put into conservation across the country.
How is your organization different from a for-profit company?
For-profits are worried about every quarter. We are not. We have to make sure we are breaking even, but we also have to think longer term because that is what our mission is all about.
Is there pressure, as a non-profit charity, to be as lean as possible?
One of the things that people focus on, is overhead costs. We are very proud that our overhead is less than 15 per cent of total costs.
But people rarely ask that question when they buy a can of pop or a phone. They don’t say, well, gosh, how much money is this company going to make off this. But they do that with non-profits all the time. It is a challenge, because we have to keep costs down, yet at the same time, we have to invest in administrative systems and other things that are important.
[One thing] we had to invest in was a land information system. It cost us a fair bit of money, but we had to do it, to know where all our properties are and what the features are.
What can private-sector companies learn from a non-profit such as the NCC?
In for-profit companies, the profit is what focuses people’s energy. [In non-profits], the motivation comes from doing something good for community and country.
I would hope for-profit corporations take a good look at what they are doing for community and country, because it makes employees happier and more productive.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
President and chief executive officer, Nature Conservancy of Canada.
Born in Brantford, Ont.;
57 years old.
Bachelor of environmental studies, York University; Masters in environmental studies, University of Waterloo.
Worked in various positions at the government of Ontario from 1982 to 1991, including program director for the Ontario Round Table on Environment and Economy.
Executive director, Federation of Ontario Naturalists from 1991 to 1997.
Joined the NCC as executive director in 1997; became president in 2000.