The students in a fifth-grade class at Cambridge Elementary School in British Columbia, Canada were on an environmental mission in June. At their annual summer fair, they sold food, crafts, games and face-painting sessions to help save an expanse of forest from the chain saw.
Their efforts, and those of hundreds of other people, have paid off. In an unusual crowdsourcing campaign, more than 1,000 students, philanthropists, sailors, businesspeople and others raised 3 million Canadian dollars, or $2.3 million in American currency, that the British Columbia Parks Foundation needed to buy nearly 2,000 acres in Princess Louisa Inlet. Known as the “Yosemite of the North,” the stunning glacier-carved gorge had been eyed by developers this year.
“We hope that this gift will help you purchase the land and keep it wild forever,” the fifth-grade students said in a letter accompanying the $1,109.38 check they sent to the foundation in June. “One day, we might all have the chance to visit this beautiful piece of wilderness, knowing that we played a role in saving it for future generations.”
Princess Louisa Inlet lies in a region known as the Sunshine Coast, one of the most pristine areas of Canada’s Pacific Northwest, where forest meets fjord and waterfalls topple over sheer granite cliffs. The land has important cultural significance to the shishalh, an indigenous community, and its thickets of cedar and Douglas fir are home to grizzly bears, mountain goats and eagles.
At the end of last year, the private owner of the land, a company that the parks foundation has not publicly identified, announced that three plots of land strung along about three miles of the inlet’s southern coastline would be put up for sale. The land was publicly listed in early 2019. Interest and offers from forestry companies and developers followed, the foundation said.
So the parks foundation sprang into action. In March, it started discussions on buying the land with a representative for the owners. In May, the parties concluded a purchase agreement. All that was left was to come up with millions of dollars. So in June, the foundation turned to the public — to tourists who had previously visited Princess Louisa Inlet, as well as schools, businesses and charities.
The fifth graders’ teacher, Mehlin Yoo, said in a statement that her class had been inspired by a news video and enthralled by anecdotes from a student who had visited the wilderness. Other donors included a philanthropist, business owners and past visitors like Margo Wood, who had sailed several times between the inlet’s canyon walls, soaring some 5,000 feet high.
“I was stunned by the beauty of the area and the peace,” said Ms. Wood, 85, of Vancouver, who first sailed there with her husband in 1959. “That wonderful feeling that you get is like being in a church. But not a man-made one, a natural church.”
Donations also poured in from Germany and Japan and, slowly, the money was raised.
It took three months. “You did it,” Andrew Day, the chief executive of the foundation, announced online last week.
In an interview on Monday, he said that about 10,000 boats visit the inlet each year. He said the leadership of the foundation, a nonprofit that was set up in 2017 to acquire and transfer land to parks, had a “kind of intuition” that grass-roots fund-raising might work, similar to the spontaneous outpouring of donations after the Notre-Dame cathedral fire in Paris in April.
Contributions ranged from 1 dollar through the website to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Princess Louisa deal, which also includes the right to veto any development on about 900 acres of private land on the north side of the inlet.
“There are lots of examples where people have stepped forward,” he said. “These forests are our cathedrals.”
While many conservation groups have regular private donors, the campaign to drum up funds to buy such a large area of pristine private land to turn it into a public park appears to be unprecedented, he said.
Smaller areas of private land have been donated as parks in British Columbia, but “this level of donation has never happened before with a land acquisition for parks,” he said, adding, “There seem to be relatively few examples internationally of crowdsourcing campaigns to purchase private property to convert into public parkland.”
In 2016, fueled by donations as small as $20 from students, raised more than 2 million New Zealand dollars, or about $1.5 million, to convert the 17-acre Awaroa beach in New Zealand to a public beach.
On Wednesday, officials from the foundation plan to meet with members of the shishalh, also known as the Sechelt First Nation, to discuss the next steps for how the land will be used, Dr. Day said.
The foundation said it planned to convert the land to public use through a Class A designation, the highest level of protection for a park, by preserving its natural environment. It would also prohibit industries like logging, mining and hydroelectric development from using the land.
Benjamin Lightburn, an entrepreneur from Vancouver, said he had seen on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s website in August that the foundation was 100,000 dollars short of the final amount needed. So he covered it.
“These protected areas are our crown jewels, and I think it is madness to consider letting them go for short-term economic gain when they provide much more in perpetuity,” he said. “In 100 years, will future citizens look back and wish we had created more parks or logged more timber?”