12/23/2011 06:11 EST | Updated 02/22/2012 05:12 EST

U.S. landowners in Canada now able to donate property for conservation

WASHINGTON - Polly Naughton was just seven years old when she fell in love with rugged open waters of Georgian Bay after her American parents visited a cottage near Parry Sound, Ont., in the 1930s.

Polly's father, Paul Palmerton, worked for an electric company in New York and was invited to a Canadian associate's cottage on Kumfort Island, west of Parry Sound, in 1934.

"It was a 700-mile trip on dirt roads for a portion of it," Naughton, 84, a Boston-area grandmother of nine, recalled in a recent interview.

"But of course, once we were there, we loved it; my mother in particular. And she said to my father: 'This is for us.' And two years later, we bought an island ourselves, and the land and the area have been part of our lives ever since."

That's why Naughton and her 88-year-old sister, Mary Nelson, have been determined for years to donate a substantial chunk of Ingersoll Island, another island they later bought in the same area, to a Canadian conservation organization. They wanted to keep the pristine land out of the hands of big developers as real estate prices soared in the area.

They've only recently been able to accomplish their goal, thanks to a partnership between Canadians and Americans that resulted in an organization called American Friends of Canadian Land Trusts.

Canadian conservation organizations had long sought a legal and financial mechanism to allow American landowners to donate their land.

The Nova Scotia Nature Trust blazed the trail, working to determine how these cross-border gifts could function within both U.S. and Canadian tax laws. In 2005, American Friends was formed by a coalition of conservationists in both countries.

It took five years to cut through red tape in Canada and the United States and secure the charitable status in both countries that removed the tax barriers preventing Americans from donating their land to Canadian nonprofit organizations.

The first two donations came from the former Palmerton sisters and Merloyd Lawrence, who protected the land she owns in Nova Scotia by donating a conservation easement that permanently restricts development.

Lawrence, a Boston book publisher, fell in love with her slice of the Canadian wilderness in the 1960s, bought land on Little Annapolis Lake in southwest Nova Scotia in the early '70s, and over time was able to acquire all the parcels of land surrounding the lake.

She built only a small cabin, with wood brought in by horse and hauled across the winter ice. To this day, her property is accessible only via a foot trail.

Lawrence long thought about ensuring her land was permanently protected, but the tax impediments facing Americans who owned land in Canada prevented her from doing so until recently.

Her advice to other Americans: "If they really love a place, if they want it to stay the same, unspoiled and just as they have always enjoyed it, this partnership with Canadian land trusts and the American Friends organization is just a wonderful opportunity."

"It's the only way to ensure that their descendants won't come to a time where they'll want to sell and have it changed and developed."

The Palmerton clan and Lawrence are far from the only Americans to discover the joys of the remote Canadian wilderness. From the family of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to movie stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, many Americans have bought property in Canada's cottage country.

John Finley, the president of American Friends and also a director of the Muskoka Heritage Trust, says the organization has been "delighted with the tremendous response" since the program launched last fall.

There are already 10 additional properties in four provinces that various American land-owners are hoping to protect through gifts to American Friends.

Naughton says there's little wonder Americans are keen to ensure their land remains unspoiled. She still recalls happy childhood memories of the Parry Sound area, and says she's delighted it's remained so untouched thanks in large part to conservation efforts by area townships.

"The water is so beautiful, and the views — we would run out to the west rock every night and watch the sunset when we were kids," she says.

"I personally don't care about fishing but the men loved it, and picking berries — it really was, and still is, such a magical place."

The cottages have been passed on to the grandchildren, she adds, who still make the trek every summer to revel in Georgian Bay splendour. Years ago, the grandkids even ensured Naughton's elderly mother had one last visit, decades after she first became entranced by the area.

"Mother was 97 the last time she went up," Naughton says. "The grandsons put her in a chair and used two oars to make an old-fashioned chariot, and carried her up to the cottage so she could enjoy the view."

Nelson, 88, is sadly beginning to fear she'll have to stop making the voyage to the cottage soon because she's not so steady on her feet, Naughton says.

"So I go to my gym class to make sure I'll be able to walk up the rocky hills to the cottage," she said with a laugh. "I dread the day I can't go anymore."