Land’escapes turning 67,235 acres of Hastings County back to nature

·11 min read

Editor's Note: The original version of this article was first published on August 11. This revised version acknowledges that at least some of the hunting camps on this land have said that they've not had amicable and productive conversations with Ben Samann with regard to renegotiating the terms for them to stay and hunt on this acreage. Although this acreage is private property and Mr. Samann can use it and have whomever he wants on it as he sees fit, we regret that the hunters' comments and points of view were missing from this story for a more fulsome picture of this issue. The Bancroft Times had always intended to tell the hunting camps' side of this story at a later date and will be speaking with them about the progress of their continuing negotiations with Mr. Samann to stay on the land to hunt in this paper in the coming weeks.

Ben Samann is the new owner of 67,235 acres of land in Hastings County, formerly owned by the Forest Land Group and known before that as the Domtar lands. He intends to turn the acreage into a nature reserve with a membership only park and parcels of land available to individuals and organizations for the stewardship program. He speaks with The Bancroft Times about his new land purchase, what he intends to do with it under the Land’escapes name, and his plans to conserve this acreage, which is the size of two Frontenac Provincial Parks, for future generations to enjoy.

Samann, who has owned and operated the 165-acre Viamede Resort near Peterborough for over 10 years, is also an avid nature lover and conservationist. His new venture, Land’escapes, was an opportunity he says that came up and was impossible to say no to.

“It’s over 67,000 acres of unbelievable landscape. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for somebody who loves nature, loves the idea of conserving this land. It’s never going to come up again. It’s a passion project is the short answer,” he says.

Samann says he started talking with the previous owners of the property, the Forest Land Group, in the summer of 2020 and by the end of February of this year, they had a deal. While nothing exists quite like this anywhere else, Land’escapes was inspired by carbon capture projects across Canada, like the NCC Darkwoods Conservation Area in British Columbia. Samann is the sole owner and interest in the property, and he reveals that he and his team from Land’escapes took possession and got onto the property for the first time in mid-June. He says that the primary problem with the property is its huge size.

“There’s been a lot of weird uses over the years. Basically, people have been treating it like Crown land for a very long time and we’re actually positively surprised. We’ve just started blocking off what I’ll call the trespassing entrances where there’s ATV trails coming off of Crown land or public roads, people coming onto this property on ATVs, dirt bikes, generally trespassing and the moment we started putting up signs and fences, that’s almost entirely stopped. Here we were thinking we’d have a big fight and people have been respectful of that and that’s amazing,” he says.

Samann says that for the most part, they’re finding that the community is really supportive of their efforts. However, there have been some challenges, many of which he thought they’d be facing. He says they’re still a bit short-staffed on the administrative side, they’re trying to figure out the best way to communicate with their neighbours about what they’re allowed to do and not allowed to do, and they still haven’t made it through the entire property to survey it yet.

“But things are going well. The community is supportive,” he says.

Another issue that has arisen are the hunting camps that were already on the land, some for decades. Samann says that while he had expected more conflict with the camps, they have been fantastic and quite receptive.

“That’s not to say that there aren’t some challenges, some renegotiations, but fundamentally I’m thrilled. Everybody’s cooperating. There’s was a bit of miscommunication early on because there’s one overarching hunt club on the property, and we were having a hard time communicating between us and the hunt camp captains with the hunt club in the middle. And so that kind of caused some drama. There was a rumour for a while that everybody had to vacate the property and removed all their buildings by July 2 and this was in mid-June. And obviously that caused everybody to panic. And to this day, I don’t know where that rumour came from,” he says.

Samann says that they are talking to the individual camps and changing some rules but for this year at least, they’ll be able to use the property to hunt.

“Some of them have been using them as cottages for a long time. We’re not quite ready to commit to year-round use of various areas. We’ve gotten the conversation started and that’s what matters,” he says.

Next year, Samann says they’ll figure out what the longer-term agreements with the hunting camps will look like and what changes may need to be made.

“But it’s going to be amicable. We’re working with OFAH and they’re advising us on what the hunters need and what they generally want. So, it’s all going smoothly. We’ve got a lot of fantastic conversations going and that’s awesome,” he says.

At least some of the hunting camps on this land have said that they've not had amicable and productive conversations with Samann with regard to renegotiating the terms for them to stay and hunt on this acreage. The Bancroft Times will be speaking with these hunters and telling their side of the story of their ongoing negotiations with Mr. Samann in the paper in the coming weeks. Although this acreage is private property and Mr. Samann can use it and have whomever he wants on it as he sees fit, The Bancroft Times regrets that the hunting camps' viewpoint was missing from this story.

One part of Samann’s vision for his new property is called the Stewardship Program. This is an annual licensing agreement to access a dedicated parcel of land for the usage of the steward, while the license holder helps Land’escapes manage the property and works toward their conservation goals. Individuals can participate from $5,000 per year, while organizations are asked to contact Land’escapes to provide a request for proposal. More details on the stewardship program can be found at landscapes.org/stewardship-program/

The other part of Samann’s vision for this new nature reserve is The Park, scheduled to open in the spring of 2022. It will be over 26,000 acres accessible initially to 100 members, and eventually to 250 members for low impact, private recreational use. This would include camping, hiking, paddling, mountain biking, bike packing, photography and nature appreciation. The cost each year will be $10,000, which he acknowledges is expensive.

“We’re running with that because we want to make sure we have numbers that are very low. My vision is that it’ll be a community of people who are all serious about the backwoods, all serious about conservation. And there’s going to be some perks you can only have with small numbers,” he says.

Samann says that one of his visions is if you’re in one of the Land’escapes campsites on a lake, you should not be able to see or hear another campsite. He says that at some point they may be able to raise the number of sites from 250 to 500 as they go along, which would mean more members and that prices would go down a little bit.

“This is going to be a membership where you have access to this spectacular park, a third the size of Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, and you have ready access to a well-appointed campsite. I do think that it’s expensive but I do think for the people for whom these backwoods experiences are really valuable, it’s going to be a great value,” he says.

On the Land’escapes Facebook page, in a post from June 30, they inform readers that their Courrer des Bois program volunteers are out exploring The Park to find the best routes and campsites for their members when they eventually sign up. Samann explains that there are four full-time staff on site plus a group of casual help, random people in their network who want to help explore. He says they’ll probably be expanding by another four people or so full-time.

“They’re all experienced backwoods trippers with diverse skills. Some of them worked at Parks Canada, others in forestry, others as canoe trip guides or summer camps or whatever. The focus is on getting into the field for a few nights to just scout routes of interest, and quite frankly, the stories we’re getting in our group chat, with pictures, are fantastic,” he says.

Further details on the park and its membership perks can be found at landescapes.org/the-park/

On their website, Land’escapes says that they have actively sought out Indigenous partnerships and advice to inform their conservation management plan and advise them on ideal scenarios for access to the lands, which Samann confirms. He said they began the outreach through the most official channels they could find back in March 2021. After a few months they started to make significant contacts with Indigenous leaders in the area, like the Grand Chief of the Anishnabek Nation.

Samann said that he and his team had a phone call on July 22 with six or seven Indigenous Chiefs and offered them access right away to the land for finding plants or sustainable harvests, however he acknowledged it will take longer to come up with an official legal agreement with them for longer term use.

“I’ve invited them all for hikes on the property with me for longer discussions. They’re very excited because I don’t think they’ve ever been consulted on this property nor on any other property of this scale. So, to get what seems like a very heartfelt invitation to come on to the property and start working with us I think went a long way in assuring them we respect their rights. I don’t even know what the legal obligations are to consult with them but the fact is they’re going to be great stewards of the land and be able to help us learn about it and its history. It’s going to be a great partnership with them, it really is,” he says.

In addition, according to a press release issued by Land’escapes on July 30, they will also be reaching out to research institutions, other stakeholders and land trusts like Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve Ltd., to get advice on discrete practices and holistic approaches to make the restoration of this acreage to smoothly.

Samann admits that there are still a lot of unknowns about this new initiative, such as whether there will there be more public access eventually. He thinks that there maybe more public access over time, however, being such a new project, he just doesn’t know for sure yet.

“We’re already talking with some of the locals about having the ability to go hiking on the property, low impact hiking with your dog sort of thing, and I hope we can extend that. But we also need to make sure the people on the property are respectful and treating it in a way we want it to be treated and protecting our own interests. But I’m very excited to get to know the community and I’m very excited to be able to bring a very new business. I don’t think this exists anywhere, so I’m excited to be able to do this in Hastings County and near Bancroft and bring on board local people and local experts,” he says. “There’s just so much potential here, there really is.”

Michael Riley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Bancroft Times

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