About 12 or 13 years ago, a group of Farmers Institute members went by boat to Yellow Point to visit Wildwood, the sustainable forest owned by Merve Wilkinson. Merve, recognized nationally for his sustainable logging practices, received an Order of Canada for his work and was highlighted on David Suzuki's The Nature of Things. In 1938, when Merve Wilkinson established Wildwood, his philosophy of forest management was based on principles dramatically different from common practices of the day. He has lived in his forest and has used science, observation and experience to shape his practices. The result is a forest that achieves all measures of sustainability – ecologically, economically and socially. Merve has been very generous in sharing his knowledge and experiences with others and over the years he has taken thousands of people through his forest. Merve himself gave the tour to us that day, and described the principles of sustainable forestry, also known as ecoforestry. The forest we saw was magnificent and inspirational for all who attended. Since that visit, Merve has sold Wildwood to the Land Conservancy of BC (TLC) with the understanding that the forest would continue to be operated in a sustainable manner and remain a working forest in perpetuity, a model for future forestry methods. However, in the past ten years since the TLC has taken the helm Merve and his family have watched what was once a working forest become a park. According to Merve and his family, Wildwood is not being used to its full potential as a working forest. After ten years a management plan is not yet in place. TLC seems hesitant to put a covenant on the land, something Merve wants to ensure the forest will remain a working sustainable forest. This has distressed Merve and his family to the point that they requested TLC to sell Wildwood back to them, something that TLC claims they are not willing or able to do.
This is not the only trouble brewing at The Land Conservancy. Just last year, the founder and Executive Director, Bill Turner, was demoted in the organization by the Board of Directors. It was felt by the board that Turner's strengths were in acquiring land, not the fiscal workings of the organization, which was carrying a lot of debt and had a high overhead. Turner resigned and the members ousted the Board and reinstated Turner as Executive Director. Now some of the same problems have resurfaced, and three of the new board members, including the Treasurer, have resigned over many of the same issues that troubled the old Board. This instability has concerned some groups who are using the charitable status of TLC to help them fund raise for land acquisitions, especially if TLC will ultimately be holding the title of these lands bought with community funds.
One such group at Horse Lake was raising funds to purchase a farm that they had been leasing for some time. The owner was ready to sell to them, and the TLC was going to help with fund-raising by allowing them to use TLC's charitable status (for a percentage of the funds raised). TLC was also going to hold the title for the community once the property was ready to change hands. However, based on the instability last year, the group was going to work into their agreement that if TLC tries to sell Horse Lake Community Farm in the future, the Horse Lake group wants first right of refusal in repurchasing the farm for $1.00. The re-sale of donated or acquired lands by conservancy groups has happened before, and had been discussed by TLC regarding other properties.
The Wildwood/Merve Wilkinson situation raises other issues: will the working farms that TLC hold in their portfolio be farmed in the future, or will they become parks too? This question was raised a few months ago by farmers in Saanich. Madrona Farm was part of a successful community fund-raising effort to “save”their farm, but to farmers in the Blenkinsop Valley watching from the sidelines it wasn't really threatened because it was in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). It was family owned, with a family member wanting to farm it. A good succession plan was needed, or if TLC was to buy it there needed to be assurances that it would indeed be farmed “in perpetuity” with a management plan available to the public. Why doesn't TLC appear to support the ALR? Some claim it is because the ALR does not protect the land enough.
But there are other issues that makes TLC stop short of supporting the ALR – in 2002 the Agricultural Land Commission changed the way conservation covenants were dealt with on ALR land, much to the dismay of TLC. After consultation on the legislation, TLC felt that the only way to protect ecological attributes of farmland would require ownership of the land. It was at this time that TLC started its drive to acquire farmland throughout the province.
Perhaps The Land Conservancy's role in acquiring lands needs more public scrutiny when it extends to our forest resource and farmlands. Some of the farms acquired by TLC have been struggling financially, adding further challenges to TLC. Ramona Scott, the champion for the TLC Community Farm program, has left TLC. The question that has now been raised is, should the TLC do any more than acquire and hold lands for their natural attributes? Should they be in the business of forestry or farming?
The Land Conservancy has sold some of its properties because of its fiscal irresponsibility. Some of these are farms, to private owners. Perhaps we can now focus on strengthening the ALR.