Land Conservancy faces financial crisis

Elizabeth Lake, Wycliffe land preserves near Cranbrook and Kimberley could change hands.

A family of Eared Grebes frolick in Elizabeth Lake

A family of Eared Grebes frolick in Elizabeth Lake

A group that owns part of Elizabeth Lake Bird Sanctuary is in financial crisis and talking to other conservation groups to take over the property.

Last week, the Canada Revenue Agency froze the bank accounts of The Land Conservancy of B.C. (TLC) after it failed to pay taxes on several of its properties for more than three years.

TLC is involved with 300 properties across B.C., totalling about 48,000 hectares. In the Cranbrook and Kimberley area, TLC owns property at Elizabeth Lake and Wycliffe.

The 0.6 hectare Elizabeth Lake property was donated to TLC in 1998, and forms part of 249 hectares of marshland protected by the Ministry of Environment and the City of Cranbrook.

TLC also owns 380 hectarees in the Rocky Mountain Trench near Kimberley called the Wycliffe Wildlife Corridor. It was purchased in 1999 from Teck-Cominco and covers rare Ponderosa Pine/bunchgrass habitat. The TLC property surrounds a 270-hectare wildlife corridor the Ministry of Environment purchased from Teck-Cominco in 1998.

But Briony Penn, the vice chair of the TLC board of directors, said that East Kootenay residents have no need to fear for these valuable conservation lands.

“For the Kootenays and Cranbrook area, we have really good partnerships with all the various national and provincial land trusts. I don’t think anyone in the Cranbrook area has to worry about any of those properties. They are all covenanted, they are all secure, there are no mortgages outstanding on them,” said Penn.

It is possible that ownership of the two nearby properties could change hands, Penn added, but said they cannot be sold.

“We can’t sell properties. That’s completely against the law. If we could sell properties, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” she said.

Penn said TLC has started consulting with the network of 32 land trusts in B.C., who have expressed an interest to help.

“We have been in discussion with a lot of conservation organizations. If in the event we did go down, there would be appropriate equivalent organizations.”

The Canada Revenue Agency froze TLC’s accounts last month because the group was unable to pay property taxes. Last week, the accounts were partially unfrozen to allow the group to send money to the agency, and to pay staff.

“It was bleak last (month) and it’s less bleak today,” said Penn.

The board has taken over management of the non-profit organization, Penn added, and has been forced to reduce its staff from 60 to 12, including all of its staff in the Kootenays.

Penn said that TLC has not gone under yet and has hope that its situation could turn around.

“The main message we are giving is: we are not going down and we are going to do everything we can to ensure all the properties continue to be managed and looked after by appropriate organizations.

“We really don’t think it’s going to get to that stage. We have too fierce a membership and too hard-working a board and staff to let it go that way.”

She pointed to a lack of government grants and corporate donations for the charity’s dire financial position.

“The only source of income that conservation organizations have any more is donations. Not only has government gotten out of the business of saving and protecting land themselves, they have gotten out of the business of even supporting the non profits who do it,” said Penn.

She applauded TLC’s near 8,000 members for rallying to support conservation.

“The membership has remained really solid. They recognize that they are the lifeblood of the organization.”

Finally, Penn insisted that its East Kootenay conservancy properties will continue to be protect.

“The last word is: those properties are safe and the board members have pledged their firstborn to ensure those properties (are protected). We owe it to our grandchildren.”