Status of Stewardship

The private land conservation organizations that offered their perspectives on key questions related to stewardship capacity and funding, including endowment funds, represented a range of organizations from volunteer-run to high-capacity charities with conservation agreements and fee simple lands worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Most private land conservation organizations manage a mix of fee simple and easement, covenant or servitude lands. Some have opted to focus on fee simple lands while others focus only or mainly on conservation agreements. There was a high level of consistency in the feedback received from private land conservation organizations that provided input either in writing or during interviews.

On fee simple lands, as the land manager, private land conservation organizations necessarily take an active and direct role in the stewardship of the lands. Core stewardship activities focus on such activities as:

  • protecting, maintaining and restoring existing habitat
  • controlling invasive species
  • monitoring for trespassing and boundary issues
  • conducting community outreach and maintaining friendly relations with neighbouring landowners
  • tracking any potential land-use changes on adjacent lands
  • dealing with human impact on trails and any built infrastructure on publicly accessible property

For organizations that hold title to private conservation lands, the consultations highlighted that private land conservation organizations of every size go beyond acquisition and stewardship with programs that support a variety of activities such as public education, community and volunteer outreach, scientific research, native plant propagation, trail and facility maintenance and Indigenous engagement. While these broader activities serve a valuable purpose, the private land conservation organization may be challenged to expand operations to include fundraising for these broader activities while still ensuring sufficient funding to effectively manage its conservation lands. Private land organizations are challenged on an annual basis to acquire and steward conservation lands while supporting these other activities. Many organizations noted that funding for acquisition of conservation lands and agreements is more readily available while exclusive funding for stewardship is difficult to generate.

For conservation agreements, core stewardship activities are conducted to ensure that the terms of the agreement are being met by both parties. These activities focus mainly on:

  • managing and deepening the relationship with the landowner through direct contact
  • ensuring landowner compliance through regular monitoring and reporting
  • conducting checks through site visits, flyovers or other means

To ensure conservation outcomes on lands for which they hold conservation agreements, private land conservation organizations rely primarily on the landowner to uphold and even improve the natural heritage value of the property according to the terms of the conservation agreement. A key challenge cited by organizations relates to when ownership of a property changes. In general, they report higher levels of confidence in the original owner to meet the obligations of the conservation agreement because of trust developed through the agreement development and negotiation process. When land changes ownership, private land conservation organizations anticipate higher than usual landowner contact will be needed to ensure the new owner fully understands the intentions and obligations of the conservation agreement. Such engagement assists the new landowner in developing a management philosophy for the lands that is consistent with the requirements of the conservation agreement.

With 59% of private land conservation organizations operating with no full-time positions and 24% supporting one to six positions, nearly 85% of private land conservation organizations function with limited or no paid human resource capacity.(18) Common capacity challenges shared through the consultation process include:

  • monitoring, collecting and tracking details about the properties
  • reporting and meeting with landowners regularly (ranges from annual to triannual)
  • tracking land sales and changes to land title
  • providing best management practice tools or training for landowners
  • maintaining contact with landowners is time consuming
  • completing long-term management plans for every property
  • supporting internal policies and financial management related to stewardship activities and investments
  • building connections with Indigenous communities
  • maintaining good relations with neighbours of conservation lands
  • engaging professional expertise when needed
  • fundraising and grant responsibilities require a significant time commitment—multiple funders are usually needed to meet budget needs

In general, private land conservation organizations support their operations through a combination of common revenue generating strategies, such as membership dues, monthly and one-time donations, grant writing, corporate sponsorships, legacy gifts, investment income and merchandise sales, as well as volunteer support. Gaps in staff capacity are handled mainly through externally funded short-term contracts, government funding programs, such as the Canada Summer Jobs initiative, partnerships and volunteers. Members of Boards of Directors may also play key roles in the activities of private land conservation organizations including fundraising, property management, landowner outreach, community engagement, investment oversight and legal defence. This is especially true for organizations with limited or no staff. Without this highly dedicated and motivated group of volunteers playing an active role in the life of the private land conservation organization, the impact and sustainability of the private land conservation community would be significantly diminished.

All organizations reported that stewardship activities are being undertaken for both conservation lands and agreements. However, all reported budgets for stewardship are insufficient and result in lost opportunities for enhancing the benefits of private conservation lands. Available budget is prioritized for essential obligations and ‘core’ stewardship work which one organization defined as activities required to maintain organizational image and reputation. For this organization, maintaining a positive public perception meant keeping ‘the lights on’, the ‘basics’ of property ownership, for example, paying taxes and insurance, inspecting properties, delivering on commitments to the public, donors and supporters, managing assets related to the visitor experience such as access, trails and parking facilities and other basic needs and requirements. Funding for these necessary activities is provided through their revenue streams including annual fundraising efforts and/or through the establishment within budget of reserve or endowment funds. Nevertheless, while core needs appear to be met, other stewardship needs, such as maintaining or restoring habitats or removing invasive species, are met only to varying degrees and, in some years, may not be undertaken at all.

Funding Challenges
“Ongoing stewardship isn’t valued in the same
way as acquisition.”
“Funders are inconsistent from year to year or
move on to different areas of interest, while
private land conservation organizations are
committed to their core mission in perpetuity.”
“Keeping up with conservation challenges of
stewardship and climate change like pulling
invasive species is getting increasingly expensive
and doesn’t solve the problem; investing in
solutions is needed.”
“An increase in hectares protected means
an increase in liability and the property
management budget.”


18. According to 2018 data available from the Canada Revenue Agency