Muskoka Conservancy launches...
Muskoka Conservancy launches into new year
MUSKOKA – Same heritage and natural environment to protect, new name.
“Conservancies focus their efforts on how they will continue to protect properties and continue to conserve natural spaces, while also meeting stewardship and educational needs within the community.”
— Kristie Virgoe
Executive director, Muskoka Conservancy
The Muskoka Heritage Foundation and Muskoka Heritage Trust merged on Jan. 1, 2013, to form the Muskoka Conservancy. But executive director Kristie Virgoe said the organization would continue its role of natural heritage protection, built heritage protection and stewardship awareness despite the name change.
“Conservancies focus their efforts on how they will continue to protect properties and continue to conserve natural spaces, while also meeting stewardship and educational needs within the community,” said Virgoe.
Virgoe said the work of the Muskoka Conservancy will be just as important for the environmental and economic viability of the region as was that of the foundation and trust.
“We depend a lot on our natural landscape, it’s why people come here,” she said. “The Muskoka Conservancy is being very pro-active to work with private landowners and organizations to help protect those areas, to help support smart development, to help support development that contributes to our community. But it also keeps a conscience toward the natural environment so we don’t ever run into a situation like we have in southern Ontario where you just can’t find that landscape.”
And Virgoe suggested that continued education and awareness is key to the conservancy’s success. When people start taking Muskoka’s natural environment for granted, the region could get into trouble, she said.
“It’s really easy, when something is gone, to encourage people to understand the importance of it. But it’s really difficult when you have it in abundance to encourage people to protect it,” she said. “And that’s what the Muskoka Conservancy is taking on – encouraging people to protect what we have so we don’t get into a situation where we’re trying to rebuild it.”
The two organizations that will merge in January were doing the work of a single conservancy, but with twice the paperwork and cost, she said.
Muskoka Heritage Trust functioned as a true land trust insofar as its only task was to acquire and protect properties or conservation easements, said Virgoe.
“But once the land trust movement really got going, land trusts realized that, in order to encourage people to take action to protect land, you needed to do community outreach,” she said. “So, a lot of the land trusts in Ontario started to move toward a conservancy model, which is basically an organization that does the work of a land trust and they also do the work of the stewardship and community outreach and education.”
It so happened that the region already had another organization already working on the activities not covered by the land trust.
Muskoka Heritage Foundation, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012, focused on community outreach, private land stewardship, restoration projects and education.
“When we looked at the foundation and the trust, we realized we have two organizations that are essentially doing the work of a single organization. And with the requirements for reporting and auditing and everything else, we were paying two auditing fees,” said Virgoe. “There was a lot of duplication of effort when really the two organizations had been working so closely together since the trust formed 16 years ago.”
She said it did not make fiscal sense to continue running two separate organizations.
“It made more sense to merge the two organizations, reduce our operating costs, allow ourselves to put more of the money we raise from our community back into our community through protecting properties or working with community outreach and education. That’s why we decided to do the merger,” she said. “And the reason we changed the name was to more truly reflect the combined programming of the two organizations.”
The Muskoka Conservancy will be funded, as in the past, by a combination of private donations and memberships, grants and product sales.
The newly merged organization will already have a to-do list underway at the start of the new year. Property acquisitions, shoreline naturalization initiatives and the pending purchase of an historic building in Bracebridge are just the tip of the iceberg.
Virgoe noted, however, that the Muskoka Conservancy would not be the same as a conservation authority, which the region does not have.
“There is still a gap there,” she said. “Conservation authorities typically deal with flood waters, high water marks and planning issues, whereas the conservancy does not deal with any of that.”