Jim Crooker (photo by Dan Hutt)

Jim Crooker (photo by Dan Hutt)


WHAT’S THE POTENTIAL FOR WORKING FOREST CONSERVATION EASEMENTS IN NOVA SCOTIA?
 
Aging landowners and struggling rural economies make working forest conservation easements (WFCEs) an idea worth exploring. Woodland that has benefited from years of careful stewardship may suddenly face an uncertain future if a family is unable or unwilling to continue overseeing the legacy.
 
A WFCE is a legal tool that permanently protects woodlots from development, while still allowing forestry. Done right, it can promote good forestry. Often they help conserve a property’s non-timber values, too.
   
WFCEs became an option in Nova Scotia in 2012 when the Province passed the Community Easements Act. The Act enables provincial and municipal governments, Mi’kmaw bands, and nonprofit groups such as land trusts to become easement holders by entering into legal agreements with landowners to conserve forestry land, farmland, wetlands, view planes, archaeological sites, and access to special places.
 
Land use restrictions specified in the easement are registered with the property deed and bind future landowners. The easement holder must monitor the property to ensure it is managed according to mutually agreed-upon terms.

All this sounds good to Jim Crooker. Jim manages an 850-acre, FSC-certified woodlot in South Brookfield, Queens County, which has been in his family for six generations. He is on the board of the Federation of Nova Scotia Woodland Owners and was Western Region Woodlot Owner of the Year in 2012.
 
Crooker predicts that within the next decade he, and many folks like him, will be unable to play an active role in managing their woods. His two children live away and are unable to pick up the reins. He worries about the future. “It’s hard to get people to take it up these days. Whoever inherits this land may feel pressure to cash in and call up a contractor from a big mill. They'd end up with a moonscape. We need more options.”
 
So, if we have had legislation to enable WFCEs since 2012, why has there been no uptake? Landowners may not be aware of the option, but the bigger reason appears tied to the resources required to establish, monitor and enforce an easement. It's a lot of work. 
 
The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and the Nova Scotia Nature Trust (Nature Trust) have experience in holding “forever wild” easements. They see the need for the working forest option, but are yet to pursue it. 
 
“It’s possible, but it would involve a fundamental shift in the way conservation land trusts do business,” says Craig Smith, Nova Scotia Program Director with NCC. “WFCEs require management and expertise beyond our current capacity. Establishing easements is very time consuming and the structure of current documents is not really transferrable.”
 
He adds that costs associated with management plans, annual monitoring, audits, and legal challenges of easement infractions are an added burden for the easement holder.
 
If land trusts operating in Nova Scotia aren't currently ready to take on WFCEs, who can?

  Dale Prest (photo by Dan Hutt)

Dale Prest (photo by Dan Hutt)

Dale Prest has an idea. Dale grew up logging in family that owned woodlots around Mooseland, in eastern Halifax County. Now he works as an ecosystem service specialist with Community Forests International (CFI), a group that helped establish a WFCE with the New Brunswick Community Land Trust (NBCLT) on Whaelghinbran Farm, a 235-hectare forest near Sussex.
 
This particular forest was slated to be purchased and clearcut after 40 years of careful management by a single family. Now it is part of an innovative carbon offset program. Money generated by the sale of offsets allowed CFI to purchase the property and pay for the easement.
 
In this case, the carbon offset sale required an easement to provide investors with the legal guarantee that carbon retention would be a primary goal for the property. The easement is held by the NBCLT, an organization dedicated to conserving working lands. Dale would like to see NBCLT broaden its mandate to encompass all three Maritime Provinces, which would be easier than starting from scratch in Nova Scotia and P.E.I.
 
 
“There is no point in having redundancies,” says Prest. "There are opportunities to piggy-back off systems already in place. For example, if woodlots were FSC-certified they would already be subject to regular third party monitoring, reporting and auditing. This would significantly lessen the burden on the easement holder."
 
Initial funds are needed to increase capacity and reach. Prest suggests governments could provide the necessary support to get a regional land trust focused on WFCEs up and running. The New Brunswick government is interested in supporting WFCEs. They are engaging with representatives from CFI and the NBCLT to explore the opportunity. Reviving the rural economy and a struggling forest industry are among chief political objectives. They also see potential for stored carbon as a new export industry.  
 
Government priorities are not that different here in Nova Scotia. In the 2011 natural resources strategy, “The Path We Share,” the potential of WFCEs (and community forests) are recognized. It states, “the department will work with interested groups to test these approaches.”
 
Patricia MacNeil is the executive director of policy, planning and support for the Department of Natural Resources. She sees the potential in WFCEs as a tool in going forward.
 
“This could be a way to engage woodlot owners in the forest industry over the long term,” she says. “It’s in line with our strategy and the direction of the Ivany Report.”