It’s fortunate that Cathy Armstrong has a well-stocked toolbox. When she took on the role of executive director of The Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC) in December 2014, the organization had been in creditor protection since the fall of 2013, owing more than $8-million for lands it had bought to protect. By early 2017, TLC had sold or transferred properties or had some loans forgiven, emerging from the dark days of debt and infighting.
Today, TLC’s bank balance shows a surplus, even as the organization continues to tackle everything from illegal tree chopping to brokering deals with developers.
“This job has taken every tool out of my toolbox,” says Armstrong. “I come from an eclectic, varied background, but I didn’t have conservation experience.”
Born and raised in Abbotsford, she was a school trustee for 12 years and the president of the advocacy group Canadian Parents for French (BC/Yukon). From 1996 to 2000, she was an event coordinator for the city of Surrey, a realtor and the owner of Magnolias Bistro & Meeting in Abbotsford. She holds a bachelor of science degree in psychology from UBC.
In 2005, she and her husband moved to Victoria where Armstrong decided to contact a former political opponent, John van Dongen. (She had been an MLA candidate and ran against van Dongen.) He got her a job, first with the ministry of agriculture, then with the solicitor general’s office.
After the change in government, Armstrong had to dust off her résumé. “I was swept out with a bunch of people,” she recalls. Hired as an office administrator at the TLC to cover a maternity leave in 2014, eight months later she had already moved into the role of executive director.
As property is devoured to feed the house hungry, Armstrong’s appetite is focused on the land. “I touch trees as I walk,” she says. Being surrounded by wilderness is her balm. Widowed in February, the mother of a daughter and son, Armstrong says camping with her family was a big part of her family’s life and somewhat of a balance to her work and volunteering.
And while turning the TLC around has been a challenge, it has been extremely rewarding, allowing her to make a difference. “TLC has become a place for me to pursue things that are part of a bigger picture,” Armstrong explains. “It’s so enriching, actually saving land. I feel so honoured.”
How did you eliminate TLC’s $8-million debt within four years?
The board chose creditor protection. It is enormously complex, enormously difficult. We had to develop a plan on how we would address the debt and show it to the creditors. The B.C. Supreme Court oversees the process and appoints a monitor, a Vancouver accounting firm, who then reports back to the court.
They can turn you into bankruptcy if, at any point, they decide this is not going to work. We had to analyze every property. I feel my ability as a creative problem solver, thinking up weird and wonderful ways to get things done, in addition to my ability to convince people, and just be professional, were helpful. In 2017, the court gave us our certificate of completion, meaning we satisfied the creditors to the extent that we could.
One important part of TLC’s work is the covenant program, where property owners can protect their land in perpetuity. Does it work?
We have 150 covenants. They were put into law in 1997 when we started, part of why we became what we are. They are an effective tool, in addition to land purchases. However, last summer, for the first time, a covenant was challenged in court, by a landowner. He’s older now.
He still lives there, but the people who are going to inherit his property realized that without the covenant, they would get a lot more money for the property. So, the family was trying to get us to remove it — in many ways trying to coerce us — threaten us into it. We just kept saying no. In court, we gave all our reasons why the covenant should not be extinguished. The justice gave a very scathing judgment that was 100 per cent for us.
Another effective mechanism we have are levies and fines, built into the covenants. For example, if someone says they’re going to mow all the trees down, they are going to get hit hard financially. Every infraction is $10,000 and it’s per year. So, if you cut down 25 trees, it’s at least $10,000 per tree, and we can also go after you for damages.
We’re in a situation right now on Salt Spring with a covenant. A neighbour wanted to improve their view and cut down a massive amount of trees on our covenant. The neighbour thought nobody would care because the person who owned the property had just gone into a nursing home. The week after she went into the home, all the trees were cut. We will win. We’re going full bore on it. They’re going to have to pay. It’s going to be several hundred thousand dollars.
TLC protected the 27-acre Millstream Creek Watershed in 2021. How do you keep it as an island of green in an ever-encroaching environment?
We tend to get involved with smaller pieces, more unusual pieces. The science would show you little pockets matter. So, the little urban green spaces do have significance, ecologically, system-wise and health-wise for the people who have access to them.
They are also a refuge for birds. For Millstream, we’re trying to protect the salmon-bearing creek. So, we’re cleaning up the creek on our property, and we released coho [salmon] in there this past year.
Tell me about baby boomers and TLC.
There are moments of opportunity, and I think right now we’re in one. Boomers are now focusing on their legacy. Calls we’ve been getting are from people in their 60s and 70s who hold property of various kinds. Their kids don’t want to continue their parents’ stewardship. These people want to find a place to make sure that their property doesn’t get damaged in the future.
What is the story about Halibut Island/SISȻENEM, a 9.67-acre island off the east coast of Sidney Island and its ownership?
It’s a beautiful, pristine place. The owner, Hilton Burry, passed away and gave it to his kids, but they had no interest. They just put it on the market. Burry lived there for 50 years. He had a small travel trailer and he had his own workshop.
He lived very lightly, with little paths that he stayed on. He didn’t trample plants and never moved anything. There are things sitting on the surface like fossils. That place is so valuable on so many fronts.
How was it decided to give Halibut Island to the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council?
Dr. Tara Martin [professor of conservation decision science in the faculty of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia] came with her vision for the property.
She wanted it conserved for research purposes because it has high significance, but that also it be returned to the [SÁNEĆ] First Nation. Our board and staff decided to support that, and Dr. Martin also had donors. This whole thing came on a silver platter for us. We also had people who wanted to give money for the acquisition.
Dr. Martin went to the SÁNEĆ and shared her idea, and they were all over it. From the time she knocked on the door and we were buying an island, it was about 30 days. It cost $1.5 million.
What are the environmental threats facing the area, the province?
The crisis right now is the loss of green space; the encroachment upon natural areas where we’re building out. I’m talking provincially. We’re building out to the edges so we’re impacting those ecosystems. We’re destroying wetlands. They’re the most important thing. They’re the highest biodiversity.
They’re where everything happens, and we just fill them in and pave them over, ad nauseam, and build single-family homes or small complexes, deeper and deeper into our forests. Then our forests start to burn, and then our slopes start to degrade and then the water starts to go. It’s catastrophic. So we have to stop. If it’s your property, get a conservation covenant on it. Make sure what exists can continue.
What does the future hold for TLC?
The last five years have been about getting back on our feet. We’re about to start the next phase of our strategic planning and where the energy is coming from is around reconciliation. I see some big opportunities on that with land trusts, because land trusts have interests in so many places, on so many properties and lands, and I think that we could be a fulcrum for providing some access. So, it might be for hunting.
It might be for harvest. It might be for ceremony. It is about finding ways that we can give opportunities for First Nations to get connected to their lands in a meaningful way, rather than just the treaty process.