MOUNTAIN VIEW COUNTY — Conservation work was not always on the mind of a local resident who was recently named a recipient of the Order of the Bighorn award, which is presented to Albertans who have contributed to protecting natural spaces.
“I grew up in a community of first-generation farm families where nature sort of always seemed pretty much endless when I was young and growing up,” said Olds-area resident Jim Smith, who was among four others presented with the award that includes a medallion and bronze bust of a bighorn sheep.
“I guess it occurred to me somewhere along the line as a young man, that I saw nature fairly rapidly getting converted and that nature was indeed not endless,” Smith recollected during an interview.
“I kind of reached the conclusion that maybe it wasn’t necessary to convert all the natural habitat either to feed the world or to ensure the survival of the family farm,” he told The Albertan.
That epiphany inspired him to embark on a path of conservation.
Earning a multi-disciplinary doctorate from the University of Calgary hosted through the Haskayne School of Business, Smith said his chosen post-secondary education path combined environmental science, rural sociology, and business.
“As I became a dad, I said, ‘Gosh, is there something I can do in my small way to maybe help to ensure that we leave a decent environment for those who follow?’”
Over the years since, he has striven to professionally apply his knowledge on a multitude of endeavours, some related more than others to land conservation, which he along the way developed a special interest in.
One thing led to another, and Smith eventually found himself making use of his experience by getting involved with the volunteer effort in Mountain View County to found the Legacy Land Trust Society, which he served as chair for about five years.
Although the society in 2013 became recognized as a registered non-profit organization in Alberta, it wasn’t until 2015 it received charitable status and was able to begin conservation projects.
Having since moved on to leave the society in the capable hands of other like-minded individuals, Smith expressed confidence in the group’s continued efforts as well as gratitude for the ongoing dedication of volunteers.
“Makes me happy to see that a lot of the projects that got started when I was there have been finished, and a bunch of new ones have come on board,” he said.
“I think we’re helping to make a difference in our communities.”
Throughout the years, Smith said he often heard from farmers and ranchers who with the benefit of reflection and hindsight later in life realized they might have safeguarded more of their natural systems intact as part of their operations.
In fairness, he added various policies and incentives, coupled with the human need to optimize income to feed one’s family and educate children, always factors into making decisions that impact the land.
Mulling over those many heartfelt conversations got him brainstorming some options that could provide landowners with other choices.
“I came to think of the notion of voluntary private land conservation,” he said.
That approach enables a society to work with landowners who want to preserve at least a portion of their property for posterity by helping to shoulder some of the financial burden that comes with dedicating a section or all of an owner’s land into a non-income producing use.
Among those who have donated land to the society are Smith and wife Hazel, who contributed a 140-acre conservation easement from their property located northwest of Olds between Eagle Hill and Red Lodge Park.
“Over the years, you build kind of a conservation ethic,” he said, and this was one way for the couple to do just that.
“The Little Red Deer River runs through the place. Rivers tend to be threads of life through just about any kind of landscape,” he said.
Along the way taking the time to carefully observe their land’s features and wildlife, Smith said he counted in excess of about 80 bird species either right on their property or within a mile or so, not to mention a myriad of other different kinds of animals, amphibians and plants.
“We just felt that that’s something that we could do to make a contribution there, and respect and continue to make use of the agricultural components, but also to permanently ensure that the natural areas are left natural areas, regardless who follows,” he said.
But until he heard the news about being named a recipient of the Order of the Bighorn award, Smith said he had absolutely no idea.
“It came out of the blue at me — I had no knowledge of it. So, it was a delightful surprise,” he said. “I’m really humbled by this, it’s a pretty special honour.”
The importance of conserving land speaks for itself.
“From my perspective, there are so many values that flow from land,” he said. “Land provides just an incredible array of benefits and services to societies and to our communities.”
From food and clean water to wildlife including birds, animals, and even insects, all life depends on a healthy environment, he said.
“I look at pollinators, and we have to remember, that probably just about one third of every bite we take off our plate, is probably compliments in some way, of a pollinator,” he said.
Yet nature can also provide people with different perspectives as well as a spiritual connection to the world around them, he said.
“Nature can encourage, stimulate, foster art and creativity and inspiration,” he said, adding wild lands also still have plenty to teach humanity from a scientific point of view.
“Increasingly, it’s becoming recognized for its role in climate mitigation, whether it’s for flooding, soil erosion, wildlife loss, or climate change itself,” he said.
When speaking with and helping landowners to achieve their objectives, Smith said those factors frequently come up.
“They feel really good about helping to do what they can to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem," he said.