WHEREAS the Alberta Farmland Trust is a new land trust organization pursuing charitable status and advocating for the advancement of mechanisms to support the protection, conservation and enhancement of agricultural lands in Alberta; and
WHEREAS the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) establishes “the protection, conservation and enhancement of the environment,” “the protection, conservation and enhancement of natural scenic or esthetic values,” and “the protection, conservation and enhancement of agricultural land or land for agricultural purposes” as valid purposes for conservation easements; and
WHEREAS Canada’s Ecological Gifts Program (EcoGift) offers “significant tax benefits to landowners who donate land or partial interests in land to a qualified recipient” by way of a conservation easement with the purpose of protecting and preserving ecologically sensitive lands, but no similar program exists in support of the protection, conservation and enhancement of agricultural lands; and
WHEREAS funding, tax benefits, and support offered to ecological conservation easements (such as EcoGift) have proven to be an effective tool for the conservation of ecologically sensitive lands; and
WHEREAS cultivated lands do not qualify under the EcoGift program;
WHEREAS many of Alberta’s high quality, productive soils are found in areas with high development pressure and therefore are at risk of loss without an effective mechanism for legal protection; and
WHEREAS agricultural land owners are unable to conserve agricultural land because of risks and costs that would be alleviated by supports currently offered only for ecologically sensitive lands; and
WHEREAS rural municipalities, due to their obligatons under regional land use plans and their role as a voice for rural landowners, have an interest in the availability of effective tools for the preservation of agricultural lands; and
WHEREAS financial barriers to placing conservation easements on agricultural land render them economically unavailable for legal protection at this time;
WHEREAS the ALSA establishes that the Lieutenant Governor in Council or designated Stewardship Minister is responsible for establishing, supporting or facilitating the development of conservation easements and instruments, including for agricultural land or land for agricultural purposes;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) request that the Government of Alberta support the creation of agricultural conservation easements on lands within Alberta’s highly productive, food-producing areas through the following means:
FURTHER, BE IT RESOLVED that the RMA request that the Government of Canada work with Alberta and other provinces to establish an “AgriGift” program similar to the existing “EcoGift” in support of the protection, conservation and enhancement of Canada’s most valuable food producing agricultural lands.
In January of 2020 Wheatland County’s Agricultural Service Board received a presentation from Stan Carscallen, a lawyer, rancher, and co-founder of Alberta Farmland Trust. Carscallen described challenges faced by landowners and land trusts seeking to protect, conserve and enhance Alberta’s agricultural lands, and efforts made by Alberta Farmland Trust to improve supports available to them. Wheatland County’s Agricultural Service Board and Council were inspired to join advocacy efforts for the development and implementation of programs and policies that support agricultural conservation easements in Alberta, with recognition of the importance of preserving and protecting our most valuable agricultural lands. We hope that agricultural conservation easements will soon become a feasible option for the landowners in our municipality, and others, through this advocacy work.
Please see Carscallen’s attached paper titled The Urgent Need for the Formation and Support of an Alberta Farmland Trust as background support for this resolution. Background – Farmland Trust Carscallen Paper
Alberta Farmer Express: Alexis Kienlen. (2019, Nov. 20). New farmland trust aims to preserve good soil. Accessed on April 28, 2020 at https://www.albertafarmexpress.ca/news/new-farmland-trust-aims-to-preserve-good-soil-2/.
Alberta Land Stewardship Act, SA 2009, c A-26.8, <http://canlii.ca/t/5259q> retrieved on 2020-05-01
Carscallen, Stan. (2018, Aug. 2). The urgent need for the formation and support of an Alberta farmland trust. Work provided by Stan Carscallen, Q.C., on January 29, 2020.
Government of Alberta. (2020). Alberta land trust grant program. Accessed on April 30, 2020 at https://www.alberta.ca/alberta-land-trust-grant-program.aspx
Government of Alberta. (2018, May 1). South Saskatchewan regional plan 2014 – 2024: amended 2018. Retrieved on May 1, 2020 from https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/13ccde6d-34c9-45e4-8c67-6a251225ad33/resource/e643d015-3e53-4950-99e6-beb49c71b368/download/south-saskatchewan-regional-plan-2014-2024-may-2018.pdf
Government of Canada. (2019, May 8). Ecological gifts program: overview. Accessed on April 30, 2020 at https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-funding/ecological-gifts-program/overview.html
The Western Producer: Barb Glen. (2018, Nov. 1) Proposed program aims to conserve farmland. Accessed on April 29, 2020 at https://www.producer.com/2018/11/proposed-program-aims-to-conserve-farmland/
RMA has no active resolutions directly related to this issue.
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry
Agriculture and Forestry (AF) recognizes the loss of agricultural land to other development is a concern to Albertans. AF monitors and reports annually on fragmentation and conversion of agricultural land across the province. These reports are available for municipalities to reflect on their efforts to minimize the conversion of prime agricultural lands for non-agricultural purposes by implementing appropriate zoning and development plans.
Conservation easements on private land have traditionally been used solely for environmental purposes, initially through the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (1996) and more recently under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (2009). The Government of Alberta has also legislatively enabled Conservation Easement for agricultural land (CE-ag) under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act. However, the practical use of CE-ag requires policy support and incentives. AF will begin internal development of a provincial CE-ag policy in 2021, which will be completed by spring 2022.
As the RMA Resolution 3-20F notes, land trusts registered for ecological purposes (to protect biodiversity, habitat, native landscape etc.) are eligible to receive grants from the Alberta Land Stewardship Fund under specific criteria. Conservation for agricultural purposes (as opposed to environmental values on agricultural land) does not qualify for this grant under the current Alberta Land Trust Grant Program. This grant program is guided by the Land Stewardship Fund Regulation under Alberta Environment and Parks. AF appreciates RMA’s advocacy to update or expand the Alberta Land Trust Grant Program that will recognize the agricultural value as an eligibility criterion for grants.
Landowners who donate lands for ecological conservation receive significant tax benefits under the Ecological Gift Program, which is enabled by the federal Income Tax Act. This incentive is currently not available for CE-ag. A carefully crafted program similar to ‘EcoGift’ is important for the successful implementation of CE-ag.
Conservation easements are designed to be perpetual (i.e. hard to undo), and thus, not flexible to changing situations such as future development needs, climate change, or altered demand for that specific land-use. Agricultural lands or lands for agricultural purposes need to be clearly defined to ensure that CE-ag is applied appropriately and supported through land use planning.
AF is actively exploring policy options that will provide clear guidelines for a sensible use of CE-ag in alignment with relevant legislation and policies.
Alberta Environment and Parks
While the primary objective of the Land Trust Grant Program is the conservation and stewardship of native landscapes, I am pleased to report the program introduced new provisions in 2020 to recognize the conservation of agricultural land as part of the project evaluation process. The criteria focuses on protecting native rangelands, primarily associated with ranching operations.
RMA appreciates Alberta Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development’s (AAFRED) understanding of issues related to the loss of prime agricultural land and their commitment to develop policies to support the use of conservation easements for agricultural land under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act. While the Government of Canada has not yet responded, AAFRED indicates they support amending the Income Tax Act to recognize donors of agricultural lands for protection.
The AAFRED response also indicates a willingness to modify the Alberta Land Trust Grant Program to provide funding for agricultural easements. This work has begun, as the response from Alberta Environment and Parks indicates the Alberta Land Trust Grant Program is available for agricultural land, currently focusing on native rangeland conservation associated with ranching operations. The Alberta Land Trust Grant Program uses an annual granting process. Changes have not been made to the grant to allow for its use for agricultural lands.
RMA assigns this resolution a status of Accepted in Principle, and will revisit this assessment after receiving responses from the Government of Canada, and based on further action from the Government of Alberta.