In 1962, a group of naturalists in southern Ontario was alarmed by development activities that they saw encroaching on important habitat for plants and animals. Recognizing that this was not just a local, but a national, issue, they created the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) to acquire and protect land under threat. Fifty-five years later, NCC reaches from coast to coast to coast and has protected 2.8 million acres (more than 1.1 million hectares) of Canada’s most important natural habitats.
Bruce Falls was one of NCC’s founding members. A professor of zoology at the University of Toronto, he was active in field research on birds and small mammals and had been involved with the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (FON) for several decades, including serving as president.
“I was part of many efforts to conserve natural areas through the Federation,” he says. “We were concerned about land use development and saw the need to protect areas. One of the first campaigns I was involved in saw us raising money to buy a property in an area known for its orchids. That area later became part of Bruce Peninsula National Park.”
The FON set up a committee, chaired by Dr. Falls, to consider the merits of a national land conservation organization. They looked to examples in other nations – including England and the US – for conservation models, and launched NCC in 1962.
He remembers an early campaign in Mississauga, Ontario, where a new subdivision was planned in a marsh area. “Although we didn’t entirely succeed, we made enough fuss that part of the marsh area was protected,” he says.
Then, as now, NCC made use of data, the best available science and partnerships to identify areas in need of protection. “In those early days, our focus was on areas that naturalists were familiar with and that were under some kind of threat. There were a lot of emergency cases that needed fast action.”
In an interview for NCC’s 50th anniversary in 2012, Dr. Falls said that many early projects were partnerships with small conservation authorities that had identified local areas in need of protection and required financial support to acquire and conserve the land. “There were often matching government grants, so NCC’s money was matched by the government and we were able to protect areas and get stuff done.”
As the organization developed, it increasingly relied on its own research and data to identify priority conservation areas. Dr. Falls’ involvement with the International Biological Program in the 1960s and early 1970s – an inventory of Canada’s natural areas – was instrumental in prioritizing areas of scientific interest.
He also points out that the complementary skills of the early NCC team members were essential to the fledgling organization’s success. “For instance, Robin was more business oriented, and he was excellent at negotiating things like conservation agreements,” says Dr. Falls, referring to Robin Fraser, whose legal background was helpful when NCC was purchasing property and developing mutually beneficial agreements with property owners who donated their land to the organization.
The first NCC office in Toronto was a small operation of a few people, including chairman Aird Lewis, volunteer Charles Sauriol (who later became office manager) and a secretary. Today, NCC is Canada’s largest national land conservation organization, with 10 regional offices, more than 280 employees and close to 2,500 volunteers.
In December 2016, Dr. Falls received the Order of Canada for his significant contributions to conservation and for his 35 years of field studies and ground-breaking research on birds and small mammals.
As NCC celebrates its 55th anniversary on November 28, Dr. Falls says that land conservation remains as vitally important as ever. “Natural areas are important for the species, the landscape and our communities. It is our duty to protect the other species on Earth and to set aside the natural areas that sustain them.”
In their own words
“Philanthropy, in my mind, is a lifelong adventure and a search for the organization or cause that inspires true passion and gives one a great sense of personal reward. The Nature Conservancy of Canada has delivered that passion and reward to my wife and myself over many years.”
Ian and Judy Griffin (Leaders in Conservation)
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