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Canada seeks more protected land like Love Mountain reserve in King

David, Ann Love transferred ecologically significant private property to land trust
July 25, 2019
Kate Allen

David and Ann Love are self-deprecating about the landmark that bears their name: Love Mountain is less of a majestic peak and more of a modest mound.

But the Love Mountain Nature Reserve, just a 50-minute drive north of Toronto, is notable for another reason. These 36 hectares were once the private property of the Love family. Now the land is part of a protected area designated for the long-term conservation of nature.

Canada made an international commitment to protect 17 per cent of its lands by the end of 2020, a pledge that arose from being a signatory to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Scientists consider this an important initial push towards protecting enough of the planet to maintain its liveability for all species, including humans.

With almost 18 months left, the federal government is hustling to meet that target: 11.8 per cent has been conserved as of April.

Southern Ontario presents a special hurdle. Canada’s protected areas should be ecologically representative, covering all of the country’s diverse ecosystems. Southern Ontario is both exceptionally abundant in at-risk species and almost entirely tied up in private ownership: it would be next to impossible to carve out a big new national or provincial park here.

In April, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna held a press conference at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works to announce $100 million for a program designed to encourage more Canadians to do what the Loves did: transfer their ecologically significant private property to land trusts.

Land trusts and conservancies are non-profit, charitable organizations that acquire property through donation, purchase, or other legal agreements, and conserve it for future generations. They are among the few strategies for protecting nature in privately owned, scarcely protected places like southern Ontario. If these parcels of land meet the government’s criteria, they could count towards Canada’s international biodiversity targets.

David and Ann Love have both been involved in the environmental movement since the late 1960s: David, 73, worked at the World Wildlife Fund for 30 years, and Ann, 72, co-founded Pollution Probe, one of the country’s first environmental NGOs. They consider themselves lucky to have been in a position to personally contribute, and want to encourage anyone else who can to do the same.

"We are still waiting for the systemic change it’s going to take to have people recognize that nature is what keeps us alive, so we better make sure we keep it alive," says David Love.

"It’s pretty scary," he says of the state of the natural world, "but you gotta do what you can do, and we had a chance to do something."

On a hike through the nature preserve in early June, the couple pointed to a silver flash in a still pond: sun reflecting off the shell of a Midland Painted Turtle. Snapping turtles live here too. Both are at-risk species.

The Love Mountain Nature Reserve is part of the Happy Valley Forest natural area, which is managed by the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Wedged between Highway 400 and Highway 27, just north of King City, the forest supports a remarkable 30 endangered species, and is the largest intact block of deciduous forest on the Oak Ridges Moraine.

Southern Ontario as a whole is home to the highest number of at-risk species in the country. Of Canada’s 629 federally-listed at-risk wildlife species, 217 live in this province entirely or in part -- more than a third of the total. Because species richness increases towards the tropics and away from the frigid poles, most of those endangered species are crammed up against Ontario’s border with the U.S., an area that happens to also be densely populated and heavily developed.

In April, WWF-Canada released a national wildlife protection assessment. The report found that protected areas in Canada do conserve nature, but do not protect the vast majority of habitats where most at-risk species live.

The assessment identified five priority areas where this lack of ecological representation is most acute. The area covering southern Ontario and southern Quebec is one of them.

Canada’s push to reach the goal of 17 per cent protection by the end of 2020 has resulted in an emphasis on maximizing coverage and setting aside large spaces, says James Snider, WWF-Canada’s vice president of science, research & innovation, who co-led the report.

"Many of the protected areas that come out of that kind of exercise will principally be in the north, in large part because that’s where larger areas of intact land exist," he says.

"But comparatively in the south, where there are these high numbers of at-risk species, important wildlife and ecosystems, there needs to be effective measures to protect them too."

Protecting wildlife and its habitat in places like southern Ontario requires different strategies.

Many conservationists are most hopeful and excited about Indigenous protected areas, an evolving designation that often simply recognizes, formalizes and funds the stewardship First Nations have always practised. Experts are also focusing their attention on restoration, which repairs degraded and destroyed ecosystems.

Private land trusts, like the Love family’s, are another important tool, says Snider.

"It’s that kind of patchwork or puzzle of these different habitats that we need to weave together," he says.

In the early 2000s, the Nature Conservancy of Canada approached the Love family and asked whether they would be interested in transferring their land to be part of the Happy Valley Forest natural area. David and Ann spoke with their children, and in 2012 decided to do it; NCC purchased the land at a price the Loves felt was fair with funds from a previous version of the program that Minister McKenna announced in April.

"We can go to our grave knowing that this is not going to go anywhere. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to walk in Happy Valley Forest," says David Love, adding that the family got a good financial deal too: among other benefits, Canada’s Ecological Gifts Program allowed them to eliminate the massive capital gains tax associated with the deal.

The $100 million program that Minister McKenna announced in April, the Natural Heritage Conservation Program, is overseen by NCC; the organization and its partners will match each federal dollar with $2 to create a $300 million program. The federal government’s contribution is part of the $1.3 billion Nature Fund announced in the 2018 federal budget, created in part to meet Canada’s biodiversity targets.

Snider notes that different land trusts and conservancies have different stewardship practices, and it will be important to remain vigilant to ensure standards aren’t watered down in the push to reach the 17 per cent target. He notes that the provinces and territories do appear to have a rigorous system to report their totals to the federal government.

"We were so fortunate to be able to do this," says David Love. "We were driven by what nature gives us. We figured the least we can do is give something back."