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The Nature Trust of BC acquires and manages ecologically significant land to protect vulnerable species.Graham Osborne/Supplied

The Nature Trust of BC invested $15-million in land acquisition last year, and its CEO expects to spend even more in 2022.

A sighting of a caribou herd during a backpacking trip decades ago led to a moment of clarity that set Dr. Isobel Ralston and Dr. Jan Oudenes on a path of conservation that has driven them, and their ongoing partnership with The Nature Trust of BC (NTBC) ever since.

“We saw one of the last herds of the Southern Mountain caribou,” Dr. Oudenes says of the trip on the Skyline Trail, near Maligne Lake in Jasper, Alta., in the late 1970s.

“It occurred to me that the world was in trouble,” he says. “Having come to Canada in the early 1970s, I began to realize that, yes, we have a huge country but we’re also quite capable of destroying a lot of nature.”

Over the years, the couple have travelled widely, developing a deep appreciation for the Canadian wilderness and endangered species such as Southern Mountain caribou, whether that was through hiking the Rocky Mountains or canoeing the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories.

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Dr. Isobel Ralston and Dr. Jan OudenesSupplied

Dr. Ralston says local tree-cutting issues and the health of forests near their home in Aurora, Ont., had a cumulative impact on the couple.

“We began to speak with someone about what land trusts are all about and began to realize what a wonderful opportunity this might be from the environmental side to really help save land in Canada,” Dr. Ralston says.

“We looked at the environmental area and saw the need to increase support for non-profit land trusts,” Dr. Oudenes adds. NTBC was recommended to them, so they reached out and have been involved ever since, providing funding for six NTBC projects to date.

The NTBC has been a mainstay for 51 years. It acquires ecologically significant private land through purchase or donation, and manages that land to save species at risk. The organization works with individuals, communities, donors, governments, First Nations and others to achieve its goals. Since 1971, NTBC has conserved more than 500 properties and 180,000 acres of vulnerable habitat in British Columbia.

“Isobel and Jan are amazing leaders in land conservation,” says NTBC’s chief executive officer, Dr. Jasper Lament. “They are showing the way for people across Canada to invest in land conservation, to really make a difference and inspire others like government agencies and other conservation partners through their investments to join them in protecting these endangered properties across the country. It’s a great example of what’s possible when one family steps up.”

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Williamson's Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) perched on a branch in British Columbia.Supplied

B.C. has the most biological diversity of any province in Canada, with an estimated 50,000 species. “Protecting habitat is the best way to protect biodiversity and help reverse climate change at the same time,” Dr. Lament says.

There is also tremendous urgency when it comes to biodiversity loss, which is exemplified by the plight of North America’s migratory birds, he says. “In my lifetime, North America has lost nearly three billion migratory birds, and that’s scary.”

“Tangibility” is a key selling point for a land trust, Dr. Lament says. With a lot of charitable organizations, one can give money and not see the direct impacts of that donation. With a donation to NTBC, people can see nature-based solutions in action – leveraging nature and the power of healthy ecosystems to protect people and biodiversity.

“We offer the opportunity to donate to a specific project,” he says. “People can see how that makes a difference on one landscape in B.C. They can see carbon-rich ecosystems like grasslands, wetlands and forests that are protected forever. They can really see the fruits of their labour that way. That’s personally rewarding and powerful.”

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Princeton Grasslands, a 2,600-acre grasslands and woodland project in the southern part of B.C., includes critical habitat for the endangered Williamson’s Sapsucker.Graham Osborne/Supplied

Donors can visit conservation properties where access is permitted. Dr. Ralston and Dr. Oudenes did just that last summer: They drove to an NTBC project on which they were lead donors. In 2017, the pair founded the MapleCross fund, making major contributions toward the acquisition of 40 ecologically sensitive lands across Canada. Princeton Grasslands, a 2,600-acre grasslands and woodland project in the southern part of B.C., is one of the larger projects they have supported. The property includes critical habitat for the endangered Williamson’s Sapsucker. There are fewer than 500 breeding pairs left in B.C., mostly due to habitat loss.

Ironically, Dr. Ralston and Dr. Oudenes had to navigate through B.C. wildfires to get to their destination.

“We had donated for three successive years and we really wanted to see it,” Dr. Oudenes says. “The view from the property is just immense. You really get a sense of the importance of it. The more you get involved in this whole endeavour, the more you appreciate the complexity of natural systems.”

Dr. Lament said they were able to get the Princeton Grasslands – MapleCross Meadow project done in just three years thanks to donors and the landowners who made a significant donation of land value. In fact, the success of the Princeton project set NTBC down a new, more ambitious path.

“When we started four years ago with Princeton Grasslands, we were doing smaller projects,” he says. “It was a stretch for us to tackle at the time but once we were able to get the momentum, to get that one done, we have since gone on to do similar projects with other partners. We’re now tackling much larger projects, having more conservation impact than ever.”

It was the transparent, business-like approach to land conservation that really attracted them to NTBC during that first meeting, Dr. Oudenes says. The couple set budgets for what they want to allocate to land conservation every year. Often they will support matching fundraising activities, where they will match other contributions dollar for dollar, to a certain level.

“It also tends to get people who have never contributed to do so, and it makes their dollar go further,” he says.

Last year, NTBC invested $15-million in land acquisition, about four times more than a typical year and, in 2022, Dr. Lament says, they will exceed that.

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Dr. Jasper Lament, chief executive officer of The Nature Trust of BC.Supplied

Protecting wetlands is an area Dr. Lament says he is personally passionate about. NTBC is now fundraising for wetland projects along the Fraser and Columbia rivers.

“I am always excited to talk about the opportunities to protect our precious wetlands,” he says. “They are just so important to wildlife and people. The benefits they provide in terms of flood protection, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities are huge.

“People across Canada have realized that land conservation can really move the needle for addressing two crises – climate change and biodiversity loss. It’s a powerful tool for nature.”

People can support The Nature Trust of BC in a variety of ways, including monthly contributions, one-time gifts or bequests in wills. The NTBC’s Fall Gala returns Oct. 6 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, with dinner, entertainment, and live and silent auctions.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio and The Nature Trust of BC. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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