Conservation Incentives Farmers Could Be Paid For Protecting Their Land

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The Alberta government s new environmental protection tools might seem confusing, but advocates say they re good news for both the environment and landowners.

There s all this talk about ecological goods and services as a way for farmers to get an influx of cash, but everyone is asking: How does it all work? How does it all fit together? And how does it affect individual farmers? said Kim Good, project manager with the Miistakis Institute, which is affiliated with the University of Calgary and conducts and supports ecosystem research in the Rocky Mountain region.

Truthfully, I think these tools are good news. These tools can be opportunities for producers to receive a return for doing the environmentally right thing. These aren t brand new things that haven t been tried elsewhere. We know they can work.

One of the three voluntary stewardship tools laid out in the Alberta Land Stewardship Act conservation easements is familiar to most people, but two others are relatively new: Transfer of development credits (TDCs) and conservation offsets.

The former allows a landowner to sell the density that he or she might otherwise develop on his or her land. For example, an urban developer wanting to build a 10-unit structure on land only zoned for five units might purchase development credits from a farmer. The credits would allow the developer to build to a higher density, while the producer would receive a payment for not developing environmentally sensitive land. Transfer of development credits has been used in Vancouver and Calgary, has been tried by the MD of Bighorn, and is being considered by several other Alberta municipalities, said Good.

Conservation offsets allow producers to sell credit for positive environmental practices to companies that choose to mitigate some of their negative environmental impact. Unlike the legislation governing large emitters in Alberta that prompted some to buy carbon credits, this is a voluntary program.

I am sure offsets will be used as the goals of the regional plans are rolled out and people get to spend some time using their creativity to apply them, said Good.

The hope is that enshrining these two options in legislation will encourage uptake and expand the use of conservation easements, agreements whereby a land trust or municipality acquires certain land management rights from a landowner (such as restricting development of a parcel of land while allowing for grazing or some other specific agricultural use).

It s up to local governments and local people to make these work and to cash in on the opportunity, said Good. I think everyone agrees the status quo on the environment is not OK. And, the more options landowners have and possibly receive compensation for the better.

For now, Good is spending a lot of her time explaining how TDCs and conservation offsets work.

Ecological goods and services is relatively new in the jargon of conservation, and we re getting a lot of questions (from landowners), she said.

But Good said she expects there will be strong uptake, both from landowners and municipalities.

There s no reason municipalities couldn t use (some of these) tools in the past, but they wanted the go-ahead from the province first. No one is required to implement these voluntary tools. At the end of the day, it will come back to the municipalities to figure out how to achieve the goals set out in the Regional Plans.

The Alberta Land Stewardship Act also gives the province the right to impose development restrictions on land through conservation directives. Because such a mandatory order could decrease land value, landowners would be compensated by government.

Conservation directives are a bit of an unknown because they re not voluntary, said Good. I could make up all sorts of scenarios where I think they could be used, but nothing s sure yet. Compensation is a right through conservation directives, but compensation needs to be applied for and that process is not fully understood yet.

The grounds for using directives are expected to evolve over time, she said.

Some people think (the province) will use conservation directives as a last resort, she said. The other thought is that they re going to strategically pick which land will be conserved in this way. The risk of this tool is that the money would come from the government. If they did a lot of them, it could be very expensive.

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It suptolocalgovernmentsandlocalpeopletomaketheseworkandtocashinontheopportunity.

KIM GOOD

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