Making the Decision to Start a Land Trust

Is Starting a Land Trust Right for You?

There are several factors to consider when deciding whether or not to form a new land trust. To help with this decision, you should consider the following steps:

    • Assemble a group of individuals who believe in the proposed land trust’s cause and mission and are willing to dedicate themselves to its initial undertakings. These founding members will likely form the organization’s first board of directors.  A board of directors is the principal decision-making body and a legal requirement for incorporation and charitable registration.
    • Complete the checklist found in Appendix 1: Guide to the Formation of an Effective Land Trust to initiate discussion and work toward clarifying the issues or needs that your land trust will address.  This checklist will help answer the initial question, “Is starting a land trust right for you?” and will point you to the next steps to consider.
    • For Indigenous-led land trusts (ILTs), consider the opportunities and limitations of the land trust model, both for lands that may become part of a Reserve and for lands that may be held separately for the community (see sidebar »).

An Indigenous-led land trust (ILT) provides opportunities for Indigenous communities to expand their land base and access, exercise their responsibilities for land, connect community members with the land and traditional practices, share land-based teachings and knowledges, and revitalize culture. However, this is within a state-based, colonial structure. It contains legal limitations, such as that Bands cannot hold lands directly, and private lands held by trustees or corporations may not qualify for some incentives and may be subject to property taxes and state rules. Moreover, ‘owning land’ may be a foreign concept to the Indigenous worldview, thus there may be a need to assess community comfort with an incorporated entity holding title to private land.

An ILT could be part of a community’s suite of partners in carrying forward its goals or there are other alternatives to be explored, such as a land sharing network where private landholders provide access for Indigenous land users to practice their traditional activities.


Other Land Conservation Options/Organizations

Establishing a land trust is no easy feat. It is an involved process, a long-term commitment and may not be the only option in certain situations. There are a number of ways in which a group or individuals can work to protect land without necessarily forming a new land trust. Land conservation can be advanced by becoming involved in your province or territory’s land use planning process and participating in discussions, public meetings and appeals. If there are just one or two properties involved, then you may be better to partner with an existing organization to achieve your goals, possibly as a sub-committee or branch of an organization. This saves the dollars and volunteer effort needed to set up and operate a new organization.  Alternatively, you might want to bring conservation opportunities to the attention of other organizations operating in your area that might have an interest. The following may be helpful to contact:

    • Local, provincial, territorial or national land trusts;
    • Indigenous communities and organizations;
    • Local conservation or watershed agency;
    • Local or regional governments and their land holding programs;

    • Province or Territory department responsible for natural resources, environment, culture, agriculture, Indigenous or rural affairs; and/or

    • Local community foundations and other known community groups who might also have insights.

Once you have identified the organizations in your area of interest, you could then:

    • Identify the organization(s) with goals that align closely with protecting the distinctive values of interest to you in the community.
    • Research and initiate informal conversations with contacts from each organization to gain an understanding of the group dynamics and momentum and ask how holding and caring for land might fit with or complement their work. This will enable you to gauge the potential interest in partnerships.
    • For Indigenous-led land trusts, you may wish to speak with other similar land trusts and inquire how they have addressed opportunities and limitations with the land trust model; ACLT is gathering information and examples to help new ILTs.
    • Discuss your findings with your proposed land trust’s founding members and determine how to move forward with each partnership opportunity.

    • Initiate formal discussions with groups focusing on the most likely partnership first. 

    • Pursue partnerships if both groups realize the potential for benefits.
    • If a partnership is formed, it should be formalized in a written agreement between the partners.

In pursuing partnership opportunities, be aware of how the current reputation, record of success, momentum, dynamics, operations, volunteers, board, and members of a potential partner organization will respond to the introduction of a new group of interest and expertise and a new, potentially time-consuming and resource-intense, land holding program.  Will a renewed energy complement the existing purpose or draw from it?  Will the partnership create the desired land conservation organization?  Will the ultimate result be an effective land trust? 

These steps are not overly time-consuming nor are they a heavy draw on resources.  Even if they do not result in formal partnerships being established, the exercise should help foster good working relationships and open the lines of communication with others working in your area.  Each experience brings heightened knowledge and understanding, which may help inform outreach and communications moving forward with the formation of the land trust.  A further benefit will be the increased awareness and buy-in from like-minded community members.


The Lone Pine Land Trust and the Northumberland Land Trust merged together in 2021.

The Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik (PRGI) and the Nature Trust of New Brunswick (NTNB) partnership:

    • Due to the ongoing impacts of colonization, the Peskotomuhkati Nation remains an unrecognized First Nations community in Canada, with their lands stolen and disrespected throughout the territory since first contact.  For the past 5+ years the Peskotomuhkati Recognition Group Inc. – Peskotomuhkati Nation at Skutik (PRGI) and the Nature Trust of New Brunswick (NTNB) have been building one of Canada’s most unique land protection and stewardship partnerships to return land back to its rightful protectors.
    • A mutually beneficial relationship, the PRGI has pushed NTNB in its appreciation for Indigenous protection methods and cultural values while entrusting the organization with 7 (and growing) properties until the development of their Indigenous-led land holding organization. The journey has been one of relationship and trust building; board and Chief/Council buy-in; CRA approvals and navigating legal agreements and transfer plans; changes to colonial ideas of conservation; and creative brainstorming to overcome system obstacles.  Beyond the tangible conservation learnings, and the establishment of the Skutik Indigenous Protected and Cultural Area (IPCA), we have, together, built friendship, allyship, capacity, knowledge and appreciation for each other which will extend beyond the life of a ‘project’ as we protect lands for the next seven generations.

Indigenous Conservation and Meaningful Engagement

Historically, land trusts are rooted in European legal systems of private property ownership that do not incorporate Indigenous knowledge and legal frameworks[1]. As the number of conservation organizations has grown across Canada, vast expanses of land have been set aside for protection from people, effectively perpetuating the settler-colonial values of nature as separate from humans and systematically restricting Indigenous peoples’ access and traditional use of their ancestral territories[2],[3]. Indigenous peoples are the original stewards and protectors since time immemorial of the ecosystems land trusts work to conserve, and Indigenous-led knowledge and conservation efforts are key to combating climate change and environmental degradation. Indeed, Indigenous territory covers approximately 20% of the Earth’s land surface and harbours 80% of the remaining global biodiversity[4]. The Western conservation model rooted in colonial ideals of pristine wilderness to be left untouched, with limited or no human interaction and relationship, is beginning to be re-examined and amended in recent years. Many existing land trusts have been seeking meaningful engagement with Indigenous Nations while Indigenous-led land trusts have been emerging as a tool for self-determination and land back[5]

Indigenous-led land trusts may apply some of the approaches outlined in this Guide, but some aspects may be different (e.g. purposes, land holding and care, and tax implications), as highlighted throughout this Guide.

As you consider establishing a land trust, it is worthwhile to be aware of Canada’s history and the ongoing impacts of colonialism on the territories where you live and work, to seek to build relationships with Indigenous communities, and include Indigenous voices, practices and knowledge in your organization from the very beginning. For those less familiar with Indigenous communities, consider the following:

    • Learn about the Nation, its communities, culture, needs and interests.

    • Do your research about any established Treaties, Treaty negotiations or legal Land Claims currently underway or protocols applicable in your area.
    • Read through and apply relevant items from ACLT’s and others’ list of resources on best practices for meaningful Indigenous engagement.
    • Read through some recent examples of land trusts engaging in land back.

New Brunswick

Photo: Victoria Spitsyna | Courtesy: Nature Trust of New Brunswick
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