Protecting private lands crucial to Alberta’s environmental future

By Patrick Burles - @PatrickBurles on Twitter
February 1, 2018 - 3:18pm

LETHBRIDGE – While there is always a significant emphasis on conservation in provincial and national parks across Alberta, the guest speaker at SACPA (Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs) Thursday, Feb. 1, noted the importance of protecting private lands as well.

Justin Thompson, the Executive Director of Southern Alberta Land Trust Society (SALTS), first encountered the group while looking for ways to protect the wildlife habitat and watersheds on his own land near Pincher Creek.

“The main issue, really, is that over the last hundred years, we've added about a million more people to this landscape in southern Alberta. And what that's meant is more roads, more houses,” Thompson explained. “You might ask, why does that matter? We've got our provincial parks, our national parks. But the fact is, a lot of the lands that are private land, actually hold different or higher ecological values than some of our parks. And so, if we don't protect some of those private lands we're missing a big piece of the picture in terms of conservation.”

Thompson went on to note that those privately-owned lands provide critical range for species like elk, while the waters offer a clean habitat for fish while also filtering and storing our drinking water.

Over the last 50 years, Thompson says models and maps have shown that the human footprint has grown a great deal. When projecting another 50 years into the future, he says a lot of the areas that we currently think of as open space will be developed with roads and houses replacing grasslands and wildlife.

“The main tool we use is a conservation easement, which is essentially where a landowner agrees to put some restrictions on the future use of their land. They still own it, they still manage it. But, if and when it's sold or transferred, it still has to be kept largely as open land and continue to support those conservation values,” Thompson stated, when asked what they’re doing to address the issue.

The conservation easements are offered with support from the province, and provide landowners with a negotiated sum and terms, each of which is different and based on a percentage of the land’s value.

Thompson explained that his organization is one of many to offer the easements, saying landowners are increasingly interested in the program and protecting their lands for future generations.

“We have done agreements with over 40 different landowners – from west of Calgary down to the Montana border – and that covers about 20,000 acres. But, I would say, if you looked at all the land trusts in Alberta, it would be probably in the hundreds of landowners. I think the interest in this has really been ramping up in recent years.”

Speaking in Lethbridge to a group that is largely an urban audience, Thompson noted that there is a way for everyone to help, even if you don’t own rural land.

“I'm here today to help spread that message and hope that people here will encourage their provincial and federal politicians to support private land conservation, to maybe support SALTS directly, and just engage in the conversation that these lands are becoming more and more fragmented, and we're losing a real valuable asset as that happens.”

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