Groups that fought to preserve Nova Scotia park hail province's pledge to protect it

·4 min read

HALIFAX — The Nova Scotia government's decision to protect a section of rugged Crown land along the province’s Eastern Shore from development is being hailed as proof that public mobilization can make a difference.

The announcement Tuesday that 266 hectares of Owls Head in Little Harbour, N.S., will be designated a provincial park followed a more than three-year public battle to reverse a controversial decision by the former Liberal government, which in March 2019 quietly removed the area of coastal barrens and wetlands from a list of lands awaiting legal protection.

“It does show that government will listen and use the science and move on it,” wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft said in an interview Wednesday. “But what happened under the previous government was pretty egregious.”

It wasn’t until later in 2019 that the Liberals' delisting of Owls Head was made public — the CBC first reported the news after viewing documents obtained through an access-to-information request. The documents indicated the government at the time was considering a proposal from a private developer that wanted to build as many as three golf courses on the land.

The developer, Lighthouse Links, abandoned those plans in November 2021 because of opposition by environmentalists and what the company said was a lack of support by the new Progressive Conservative government.

Bancroft and the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association ultimately sought a judicial review of the government’s decision, but their court application was rejected in July 2021.

In her decision, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Judge Christa Brothers said the court couldn’t intervene because the government had acted within its lawful authority. That decision is being appealed, and a hearing is set for October; however, Bancroft said he’s encouraged that Natural Resources and Renewables Minister Tory Rushton has also committed to transparency and to receiving public input on how public lands are used, managed and protected.

“If that follows through we can drop the legal case, which I’d be quite happy to do,” Bancroft said about the minister's pledge.

The government has said that some survey work and administrative steps are necessary before the park designation is complete. Once that happens, Owls Head will be managed as a natural park reserve, meaning the public will have access to the land, but there will be no services offered such as washrooms and parking areas.

Chris Trider, who helped spearhead the Save Owls Head Provincial Park Facebook campaign, said those who wanted to protect the area from development are grateful “a whole lot of people got involved.”

“At one point the Facebook group had over 10,000 people,” Trider said.

A landscape architect who formerly worked as a parks planner with the provincial government for 21 years, Trider said the government’s pending designation and management classification is “ideal for the area.”

“A nature reserve is on the high end of protection and the low end of development,” he said. “It can have some limited sustainable public access … but this is an intact ancient landscape.”

Chris Miller, executive director of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, described the new park designation as the “best possible outcome” for Owls Head.

“It’s an ecological hot spot with all sorts of really important coastal ecosystems and wildlife,” Miller said.

It's not surprising how the public reacted when the land was removed from the list of territory awaiting protection, he said. “The fact that the previous government did this in secret without public consultation was really aggravating and there was a very strong public backlash to it."

Although many had referred to the area as Owls Head provincial park, it has never been officially designated as such.

Bancroft said another 120 areas across the province have yet to receive official parks designation by the provincial government, adding that more needs to be done to reverse a “battle nature has been losing.”

“I think this is a nice start — Owls Head — in recognizing that these places are significant to a portion of the wildlife that is already being challenged,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 15, 2022.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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