A Land Between volunteer prepares to release turtle hatchlings under a wildlife permit. /Submitted

Local nature conservation orgs adapt, mobilize amidst funding shortages

By Amanda Duncombe-Lee

This second part of a two-part profile on local non-profit organizations explores how two environmental conservation organizations have fared since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we work.

When the pandemic lockdown orders hit Ontario last March, Leora Berman, chief operating officer and founder of the Land Between said the organization’s biggest challenge was to create a whole new culture of work.
“Moving everything online was an enormous effort in terms of man hours,” said Berman. “At the same time, I was still trying to get people not to run over turtles and to care about their properties.”

The Land Between is a grassroots charitable conservation organization anchored in Haliburton and serving nine counties in a regional belt extending across Ontario. The charity is unique in that it honours the original treaties and incorporates both traditional ecological knowledge and Western science to inform its approach.

“Our primary goal is to look after the land, because the land looks after us,” said Berman. “It’s a final refuge for many at-risk and common species and is a last stronghold of living ecosystem services in southern Ontario.”

The Land Between is not government funded but founded on volunteerism, grants, donations, partnerships, and fee-for-service programs.

Berman said they had to cancel the Turtle Walk this year and scale down events and galas, while sales went down 80 to 90 per cent and donations decreased.

“Funding sources are extremely limited,” said Berman. “We were lucky to get some grants that are significant but if it wasn’t for those, we’d be dead in the water.”

Operations have continued throughout the pandemic, but the staff team had to move quickly when lockdown orders began. Working from home, they adapted all programming to be done virtually, trained new volunteers online and created virtual reporting systems for turtles. Instead of doing shoreline garden services in person, they asked people to share their screens and completed case studies virtually.

Berman said the shift to virtual programs and services made them more accessible and meaningful to all the communities, providing people with opportunities to connect with nature and encouraging new skills development.

“We also just value the small stuff more,” said Berman. “You value the volunteers and every phone call that comes in … anyone that comes to the door … it makes me understand the value we’re giving to the community.”
The agency is now working on infrastructure projects that have enduring impact on the wider community, such as bird tracking towers in Haliburton County and the Kawartha Lakes, and pilot testing new ways to install turtle tunnel passages at low cost using recycled food grade barrels.

Berman cautioned that there is not enough public awareness in Ontario of the impact on Bill 197, introduced last July, which made substantial assessments to the Environmental Assessment Act. “The government has entirely changed the way natural resources are managed, and undermined protections for species at risk and wildlife,” said Berman.

“Ontarians just don’t know. We’ve been distracted by COVID and it’s affected the public understanding of what is happening and their knowledge base.”

Berman said the community can help support the Land Between through direct donations, volunteering to monitor wildlife, booking fee-for-service site visits, and “the best other way to get involved – take a tour of our website to get to know what the Land Between is and learn about your backyard. It’s just mind-blowing how enriching and important it is. We are extremely lucky and privileged to live here. It’s the meeting of the north and south, with unique species only found here in Ontario, and how they all interact is magnificent.”

Haliburton Highlands Land Trust board chair Greg Wickware said as soon as the lockdown began, he knew the challenge ahead would be great in terms of visibility, fundraising, and changes to programming.

The Land Trust is a charitable non-profit organization committed to protecting the natural heritage of Haliburton County, and protects in perpetuity five donated properties totalling 1,300 acres of ecologically significant lands.

A Canadian Conservation Corps volunteer helps post directional signage at the new HHLT Barnum Creek Nature Reserve. /Submitted

While the Land Trust was successful in securing four grants in 2019, including one from the Haliburton County Development Corporation, they rely on fundraising, events and donations. Community visibility, a key factor in fundraising, has been a challenge since March.

The team made the decision to close their Dahl Forest trails for two months, move their discovery days and guided tours online and cancel their annual Rock Our World fundraising event. Though the online auction went ahead, and a number of tickets were still purchased, there was a revenue shortfall.
“Out of the stress came some positive things,” said Wickware. “We learned how to do online fundraising, new technology, and we’ve broadened our reach. With the online auction, it wasn’t just people from Haliburton who bid on some of our items but other people from [other parts of] Ontario and Canada … it’s really opened our eyes to be able to reach out in different ways in the community and country.”

The opening to their newest property, the Barnum Creek Nature Reserve, was delayed and restricted to 25 people, but over 150 people came to visit the property the week after the opening. “They said they are just so thankful to have a place like Barnum Creek that they can come to in these times, and to be able to get out on these trails and be in nature and get away from things,” said Wickware.

Operations at the Land Trust are primarily volunteer based, with the organization maintaining one part-time administrative employee. “The more volunteers we have, the better visibility we have, and the more community support we get,” said Wickware.

The public can also support the Land Trust through direct donations, including the donation boxes at the trailheads. “We have over 1,300 acres of properties and almost two-thirds of those acres are open to the public to maintain and keep safe for people to use,” said Wickware. “We like to think when people are out there [on the trails] that they understand it costs a lot of money and time – and to please not forget about us.”