01/28/2014 11:57 EST | Updated 03/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Canadians Love Their Land

Canadians love their land. A recent Ipsos Reid poll reveals that more than 9 in 10 of us value the protected natural areas close to our homes.

In 2006, a group of concerned Canadians already understood this emotional tie that crosses regional and political boundaries.

I was proud to be part of this group of conservationists, CEOs, community leaders, and supporters of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) who met then to think about how we could do more to advance private land conservation. Among the many questions we discussed, we asked how public and private dollars could be leveraged to protect the iconic landscapes we love. How could we become better stewards of our natural heritage and bolster Canada's reputation as a global leader in conservation?

These ideas fell on fertile ground, and took root. In March 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched the Natural Areas Conservation Program -- an innovative and highly successful partnership between the Government of Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. The program kicked off with the largest ever investment in private land conservation by any Canadian government.

A Canadian success story

This unique public-private partnership is a Canadian success story and one you should know about.

The initial goal of the program was to conserve 2,000 square kilometres of ecologically sensitive land close to where Canadians live, work and play -- and where biodiversity is most imperiled. NCC committed to raising matching funds of at least $1 for every dollar invested by the federal government.

Connecting Canadians to nature

So, how did we do? To date more than 3,600 square kilometres have been conserved through the program, providing habitat for 160 species at risk. That is the equivalent of 1,000 NHL-sized hockey rinks conserved each and every day for the six years the program has been in existence. Land is acquired through donation, purchased at fair market value or protected through signed conservation agreements.

We are conserving the land that connects Canadians to nature. This includes working landscapes where agricultural activities coexist with conservation. It is land that is close to urban and suburban communities. It is land close to people. About 82 per cent of Canadians live within 100 kilometres of a project conserved under the Natural Areas Conservation Program.

The power of partnership

We've done all this through partnership. While federal funds ($245 million, to date) have supported the program, it has been administered by NCC in collaboration with Ducks Unlimited Canada and regional and local land trusts. Federal funds have been matched from other sources to achieve more than $600-million of on-the-ground conservation, so far. Individual Canadians, communities, corporations and every provincial government have contributed to the success of the Natural Areas Conservation Program.

Private land conservation initiatives are highly effective at delivering tangible benefits for nature and for people. Natural land close to urban centres provides clean water, air, and soil for communities. It sequesters carbon. The 'great outdoors' brings families and friends together and can provide health benefits through opportunities for increased physical activity.

The federal government alone cannot secure our natural legacy, particularly on the private landscape. This can best be achieved by providing incentives for organizations to leverage government funding and deliver conservation where it will have some of the greatest impact. The Natural Areas Conservation Program is an example of what can be accomplished when government recognizes the importance of conservation and the power of incentives to deliver results effectively and efficiently.

Big Valley, Saskatchewan (Photo by Cherie Westmoreland)

Building a natural legacy for all Canadians

Canadians have been shaped by our geography. It is woven into our culture, our art, and our politics. Canadian nature is envied the world over. We are blessed with 10 per cent of the world's forests, 20 per cent of its freshwater and 24 per cent of its wetlands.

Throughout our history, Canada has demonstrated global leadership in conservation. Our national parks system is more than a century old. Canada has committed to conserving 17 per cent of our terrestrial areas and inland water and 10 per cent of our marine and coastal zones by 2020.

The Natural Areas Conservation Program demonstrates responsible stewardship of our natural heritage and sets a global example of conservation through collaboration.

This post originally appeared in The Hill Times on Jan. 27, 2014.

Written by John Lounds, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC). This post originally appeared on Land Lines, the NCC blog.