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Conservation sites near Penticton snagged in legal proceedings

Lauren Meads of the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls with Houdini, the resident Great Horned Owl. The Land Conservancy of B.C. which owns the SORCO property is struggling financially but is hoping not to have to sell the land. - Western News file photo
Lauren Meads of the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls with Houdini, the resident Great Horned Owl. The Land Conservancy of B.C. which owns the SORCO property is struggling financially but is hoping not to have to sell the land.
— image credit: Western News file photo

Four ecological preserves south of Penticton are among those owned by a cash-strapped land trust that’s selling off  heritage properties elsewhere to help get its financial affairs in order.

But the manager of The Land Conservancy of B.C. insists the group will do all it can to protect its conservation sites, like the home of an owl rehabilitation centre at Vaseux Lake.

“Nobody wants to see those sold,” said John Shields.

TLC was granted creditor protection in B.C. Supreme Court in October to gain some breathing room while it sorts out $7.5 million in debt owed to about 200 vendors.

Shields said the group has reduced its workforce from 50 people to seven, and closed three regional offices to centralize operations in Victoria, but it wasn’t enough.

TLC’s problems started when donations dwindled several years ago following the recession and the organization tried to borrow its way out of trouble. TLC owns 48 properties, 41 of which are conservation areas.  The rest are heritage sites, which the group is now trying to unload.

“There’s a very, very good chance that there’s enough value in the (heritage) properties that we have in the portfolio that are able to be sold that we’ll realize the recovery of the amount that we need to pay our debts,” said Shields, who’s awaiting court approval for two deals on Vancouver Island. He noted the court also has final say over the fate of the conservation areas, but is confident they’ll be protected.

“We will do everything we can to preserve the ecological properties,” said Shields.

Doing so could include swapping assets with the B.C. government or partnering with other non-profits, such as the South Okanagan Rehabilitation Centre for Owls at Eagle Bluff on Vaseux Lake.

TLC leases that site to SORCO and the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society, both of which fund their own operations and are carrying on with business as usual.

“Nothing has changed. We’re still doing what we do,”  said Jim Wyse, who sits on the board of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society.

He said the groups have discussed assuming ownership of the property, but talks stalled when the court process began.

Dozens of other land trusts active in B.C. are also watching closely to see if they will need to help pick up the pieces.

“There are certainly some nice, very valuable properties that TLC has in the Okanagan and surrounding areas that we would be concerned about,” said Dick Cannings, a Penticton-area naturalist and regional board member of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

“But we haven’t really come to any agreements with them about whether we would take them over or whether we would preserve them in other ways.”

Cannings was careful to note that other land trusts are on more stable financial footing and the public shouldn’t be shy about continuing to donate.

Other properties owned by TLC include a 24-hectare larch forest at Lehman Springs near Osoyoos; a 16-hectare sheep habitat at Peachcliff near Bighorn Mountain Estates outside Okanagan Falls; and the 45-hectare Similkameen River Pines site.

 

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