Forever Muskoka

The Upjohn Nature Reserve was logged and farmed through to the 1950s. The land was donated to the Muskoka Heritage Trust last year, says trust director Kristie Virgoe.

By donating property to the Muskoka Heritage Trust, you preserve the region’s magnificence for all future generations

By Patti Vipond

It’s not something you consider when friends are at the cottage for the weekend, or when you’re teaching your kids to dog-paddle.

Most often, it comes to mind when you have a quiet moment alone to savour the serene beauty of your corner of Muskoka: if only this land could stay as lovely and natural forever, you think.

Elizabeth Mason’s quiet observation of her cottage property on Chief’s Island, with its tranquil reach down to Lake Joseph, brought that thought to her.

After the passing of her father, Col. Douglas H.C. Mason, Mason and her brother sold a few lots on the storied 250-acre island. But two years ago, she ensured that some property would stay in its natural state forever by donating 23 acres of land with 1,650 feet of shoreline to the Muskoka Heritage Trust in Bracebridge.

“It gave me peace of mind,” said Mason. “I look down at that land and I know it is just as it was when my great-grandfather James Campbell bought the land in 1874, and it always will be the same. Everyone at the Muskoka Heritage Trust was incredibly helpful. The staff and management team were wonderful.”

The donation became the Campbell-Mason Nature Reserve through the federal Ecological Gift Program. Last year, Mason donated another 11 acres of land with 1,730 feet of shoreline to the nature reserve. She also plans to donate a conservation easement to the Muskoka Heritage Trust (MHT). A conservation easement is land whose future use is restricted, usually to prevent development. It is attached to the property’s title and is binding on all future owners. As undevelopable land, an easement is valued at a lower tax rate.

“When you have known Muskoka for any length of time, and in my case I have a long history, you know it’s a treasure,” says Mason. “I feel very fortunate to be able to donate land. It is a privilege to be able to do this and I think the more people who can do it, the better.”

When an owner donates property or a conservation easement to the MHT, the owner retains ownership and the trust becomes its legal titleholder and protector in perpetuity. The ecological value of each offered property is assessed, and those accepted are visited annually by MHT representatives who report to the owner on the state of the flora and fauna. Currently, the MHT protects 19 nature reserves (1,570 acres) and seven conservation easements (90 acres), which include 24,250 feet of shoreline and 215 acres of wetlands.

“The land trust helps people to build heritage goals,” says Kristie Virgoe, the new executive director of the MHT and the Muskoka Heritage Foundation. “Everyone’s reason for wanting to protect their property is personal to themselves. Maybe their family has owned the land for generations and the kids are not interested in keeping it. Maybe they see development on the lake and decide they want to keep their property as is. It could be where their son swam for the first time. When they find out about land trusts, they decide to protect their property. It’s not just about tax benefits.”

In 1952, Peter Goering’s parents bought 50 acres of land on the west side of Lake of Bays, just south of the former Britannia Hotel, to build a cottage for their family.

When Goering owned the cottage years later, he thought about the best way to keep the land for his children and for generations to come. His family loved the property’s trees, plants and wildlife and wanted to preserve it in its natural state.

Initially, Goering put part of the property into the provincial managed forests plan that gives tax relief to owners who do not develop the land and reports annually on the state of the forest. Through this program, Goering and his family qualified to become one of Ontario’s first conservation easement donors, donating 34 acres with 1,750 feet of shoreline.

“The Nature Conservancy gave us an award to recognize the family for dedicating the land as a conservation easement,” said Goering. “The riparian edges at the shoreline are nicely looked after by the trust. What happens on the land closest to the water is most important to the health of a lake, so this really helps.”

The forest management plan has brought the Goerings closer to their land through observation of the life happening within and upon it.

“Learning about the property gave us all a richer cottage experience,” says Goering who is a Muskoka Heritage Foundation director.

Whether owners donate a property or give up development rights to portions of their property in a conservation easement, ownership remains with the owner. The trust becomes the land’s legal titleholder and perpetual protector. In both cases, owners enjoy tax advantages that often make it possible for the next generation to keep the family cottage.

But until 2010, American land owners were hobbled by Canadian capital gains taxes when they tried to donate their Canadian properties. That problem was solved through the tenacious efforts of the American Friends of Canadian Land Trusts. The group of Canadian and American conservationists became a U.S. charity in 2006 and was designated as a prescribed donee in Canada in 2010. Now cross-border land conservation is a tax-free process for Americans because the land is a charitable donation.

So what does this mean for Muskoka?

“We anticipate a boom in land donations and conservation easements from American cottagers in Muskoka, but it hasn’t happened yet,” says Virgoe. “Our organization has a very good relationship with the American Friends of Canadian Land Trusts and other American trusts. Surprisingly, land donations from Canadians are booming despite the economy.”

American Friends began in 2005 through concerns about Canadian capital gains tax. When an American donated to a Canadian trust, tax was paid on the difference between the current price of the land and the price when it was bought – a big problem for families on the lakes for generations. Donation to a Canadian charity and a Canadian tax receipt meant trouble with the IRS.

“We had to get the attention of the federal government, in particular Mr. Flaherty,” said John Finley, president of American Friends and a director of the MHT. “There was no hesitation as soon as the government knew what the rationale was.”

As a result, American Friends have completed three Canadian land donations, in Manitoba, Nova Scotia and at Ingersoll Island, which is west of Parry Island in Georgian Bay. Nine more properties are in process, including a property slated to become part of the Bruce Trail. Muskoka has yet to receive a land donation from an American cottager.

“We’ve had a number of overtures from American residents over the past ten years but when they ran into the tax roadblock, they lost interest,” said Finley. “I’m sure there will be American donors in Muskoka now that the tax issue is out of the way.”

Although donated lands remain private property, they can be designated as public areas. The Dyer Memorial on the Big East River near Huntsville is one such property. Others have public trails.

“We have started community access programs where appropriate so that people can touch, see and get to know the plants and trees,” says Virgoe.

In other words, so people can appreciate the natural environment, just as they did when James Campbell first set foot on Chief’s Island nearly 140 years ago.

For more information about donating property in Muskoka, visit the Muskoka Heritage Trust website at www.muskokaheritage.org or call 705-645-7393.

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