Of all the properties The Land Conservancy of B.C. holds, none is more complex than Wildwood, a 31-hectare woodlot known as Merv Wilkinson’s ecoforest.
The TLC board has been grappling over the best management and ownership structure, but is confident that a resolution will be reached soon for this much-loved property. There is an agreement that a special-purpose trust must be set up with the task of defining how the property is to be managed.
Wilkinson owned the land for more than 60 years and developed a way of harvesting the timber through single-tree selection while retaining a natural forest structure by cutting less than its annual growth.
He wanted to see his method continue. He wanted Wildwood to demonstrate that one could derive some revenue from logging while maintaining the forest’s ecological integrity, a bold alternative to industrial clear-cutting.
In 2000, Wilkinson asked TLC to purchase the forest and continue his practices and TLC did so on that understanding.
When we took on the property, we thought TLC would hold Wildwood forever.
In 2001, to honour Wilkinson’s wishes to have the Ecoforestry Institute Society as forest managers at Wildwood, TLC and EIS entered a memorandum of understanding that included a management board with Wilkinson and representatives of EIS and TLC. For 14 years, this team and volunteers from both EIS and TLC carried out an educational and harvesting program in accordance with their interpretation of responsible ecoforestry and Wilkinson’s wishes.
But in 2013, TLC was unable to pay its creditors and all of the property became subject to possible foreclosure.
TLC went to the Supreme Court of B.C. to seek the assistance of the Companies Creditors Arrangements Act, which mandated TLC divest itself of its assets to pay creditors.
Because TLC is a charitable land trust, it also has an obligation to protect the properties to the greatest extent possible.
We have also been working with the attorney general of B.C. to ensure that TLC is in compliance with the Charitable Purposes Preservation Act to ensure donors’ intentions of charitable gifts continue.
With Wildwood, the issue is complicated by differing interpretations of what constituted Wilkinson’s legacy. His style of forestry was constantly evolving, and he was always learning more from others and his forest. The board recognizes that everyone is interested in a plan for Wildwood that reflects his ecoforestry practice and serves the best interests of Wildwood.
There is a widespread love of this forest and the late ecoforestry pioneer. Both TLC and EIS share that love.
In 2014, Tisha Wilkinson, Merv’s daughter, and Mark Randen, a sawyer at Wildwood, proposed an alternative to managing Wildwood. They offered $860,000 — the amount TLC paid Wilkinson for the land — with an agreement to a covenant that would legally bind them to restrictions on development, an annual allowable cut and a style of forestry based on their interpretation of Wilkinson’s recommended harvest level, and that permitted only ecoforestry as a land use.
TLC’s board accepted that offer, but the offer was withdrawn because of significant concerns. Those concerns were expressed by EIS, donors to the original purchase of Wildwood, academics and citizens who felt that a sale to any private party put the charitable purpose at risk, removed the land from public access and might compromise Wilkinson’s legacy.
Since then, EIS has offered the board $600,000 to place Wildwood in a trust and define the management structure.
Both TLC and EIS committed to a process of mediation through the office of the attorney general. This provided an opportunity for a frank discussion of their positions and to evaluate the advice of the AG to consider establishing a special-purpose trust to protect both Wildwood and Wilkinson’s legacy.
The TLC board faced the dilemma of having Wildwood remain in the public domain while considering two offers with well-reasoned arguments.
Neither TLC nor EIS wish for this issue to go to court. The values held by all parties are sufficiently similar that we are confident a compromise will be reached once all options are laid out.
The TLC and EIS boards are confident that under a special-purpose trust, the concerns of both sides will be addressed and TLC’s commitments to donors, creditors — and to Wilkinson — can be met. We intend to meet with all parties early in June and with our membership on June 12 to lay out our plans.
Both TLC and the EIS are mutually supportive of this approach to place Wildwood in a public trust and are confident that the concerns of all parties can be met through this process, and that Wildwood will be protected well into the future.
Briony Penn is chairwoman of The Land Conservancy board and Barry Gates is vice-chairman of the EcoForestry Institute.