Tasmanian Land Conservancy was founded in 2001, with just $50 in the bank and a handful of volunteers. Nine years later, it has secured one of the biggest philanthropic conservation deals in Australia’s history. Rochelle Nolan reports.
Going … going … gone!

In June 2010, forest products and timber processing company Gunns Limited announced the sale of its 28,000 hectare native forest estate spread across Tasmania. This was the largest property offering ever made in the Apple Isle.

The Tasmanian Land Conservancy (TLC) decided to jump into action and investigate this once in a life-time opportunity to purchase much of the land for conservation purposes – an initiative now called the New Leaf project.

Chief executive of TLC, Nathan Males, said the organisation identified properties with world heritage values in the estate and began negotiating with Gunns. “I was conscious, however, that Jan Cameron of the Elsie Cameron Foundation was also interested in the properties.”

“We were aware of her interest in carbon markets, and didn’t want to bid against other people looking to purchase properties from a conservation view point,” said Males.

A winning partnership

Cameron and TLC attended the auctions together. “At the auction, Jan was in some cases the only person bidding and, as the highest bidder, had the right to negotiate with Gunns,” said Males. “This gave her the opportunity to think more broadly rather than just about individual opportunities. She decided that, rather than do it personally as an investment opportunity, she would purchase the properties philanthropically.”

Two other philanthropists, Robert and Sandy Purves, decided they too would like to help TLC acquire some of the land. TLC had a pre-existing, long-term relationship with Robert Purves, which Males said was not necessarily funding based.

“Robert had expressed interest in TLC’s work over the years, and had played the role of advisor and friend to the organisation,” said Males. “Robert and his sister Sandy decided to fund the protection of a property in memory of their mother, who was responsible for inspiring their passion for nature.”

Part gift, part loan

Leading a group of philanthropists, the Elsie Cameron Foundation and Rob and Sandy Purves Environmental Trust have helped TLC secure 39 properties -1% of Tasmanian freehold land – at a cost of just over $23 million.

The gift structure consists of a $4.7 million gift and $13 million loan from the Elsie Cameron Foundation, while the Robert and Sandy Purves Environmental Trust has made a $500,000 gift towards the acquisition of the Skullbone Plains property, as well as a $625,000 loan.

The unusual structure of the gift was necessary because the properties were up for immediate auction – and therefore had to be purchased immediately, said Males. “TLC will fundraise to cover some of those interest free loans over five years. The loans are structured so both are secured by properties and are not recallable in cash.”

Innovative and risk-averse fundraising plans

TLC has some innovative plans in place to help repay the loans. It has set a $3 million fundraising target, and will begin by asking supporters to fund three hectares of land over three years, at $735 a hectare. “That’s a big ask and a considerable contribution for lots of our supporters,” said Males.

“We’ve already received a number of forward pledges for June 2011 and June 2012, which are very welcome, and we’ll soon begin having one-on-one conversations with major donors.”

Another part of the plan to repay the loans is to ‘revolve’ some properties. This involves placing strong conservation covenants on the land, and then on-selling certain properties.

Although Skullbone Plains won’t be one of the properties to be on-sold, Robert Purves says the idea is a good one. “Revolving the land means it will have the benefit of protection without TLC having to tie up phenomenal capital in maintaining it. It’s an effective way of preserving the land without TLC facing the huge cost involved in managing the landscape.”

TLC hopes to raise $20 million over 20 years, with the bulk of fundraising to occur inside five years to meet the terms of its philanthropic loans. Leftover funds will be invested in the long-term management of the properties.

Keeping the land accessible

Males said it was important from the outset that the conservation deal was not about locking the land up. “We’re looking to build a science and education centre on one of the properties, and to create a school program where kids can come and learn about the environment. We want the land to be open for education, tourism and economic use,” said Males.

A new era: exploiting assets, not harvesting them

The forests are also capable of generating income through opportunities such as carbon trading. Purves said this kind of thinking is indicative of Tasmania moving into a new era. “Tasmania is starting to see that its greatest asset – its beauty – is an asset that can be exploitable, not just harvestable. This is a generational change, and I believe the New Leaf project is part of that.”

Purves said the deal absolutely propels the TLC forward as an organisation. “The project is both an innovative and risk-averse way of getting the maximum land possible into conservation. It’s very exciting, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Tasmanian Land Conservancy

Year founded: 2001
Vision: For Tasmania to be a global leader in national conservation
Number of donors: 3,000
Annual funds raised: $1 million
Communication and fundraising: direct mail, regular giving, events
Number of fundraising staff: 3 (full time equivalent)

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