The Local Climate – Owls Head

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For years now, members of the conservation community and even anonymous government employees have expressed to me their worry that exactly this would happen – that years of lethargy from our provincial government would result, finally, in their abandoning the Parks and Protected Areas Plan.

If you’ve never heard of this plan or are confused as to its significance, you’re not alone. It hasn’t exactly been a talking point of the reigning Liberals because, while it represents an important milestone in our efforts to preserve provincial biodiversity and combat climate change, to our leaders it’s a thorn in their side, placed there in 2013.

The Parks and Protected Areas Plan is, more or less, a list, of the most ecologically significant properties in Nova Scotia, assembled after some six years of research and consultation by scientists, academics and shareholders within government and without. I’ve spoken to a few of the people who helped craft this list, all of whom assure me that no property was included without very good reason. Each, they say, contains a vital fragment of our shattered natural heritage.

When the Plan was published, our provincial government committed to formally protecting each and every property on its list with an order in cabinet. Ever since then, these lands have been set aside, in a kind of limbo where they cannot be damaged by government or industry, but still await their day in front of cabinet.

For some, the wait is over. In December of 2015, for example, government officially protected 65 of these sites in a single month. Smaller batches have come through since, such as three in November of 2018, including the Wentworth Valley Wilderness Area (2,000 hectares), Chase Lake Wilderness Area (849 hectares) and the 203 hectare Steepbank Brook Nature Reserve. Just this past fall 17 new or expanded sites were announced, including Cape Split Provincial Park, Holden Lake Wilderness Area and the Ashfield Nature Reserve. As I write this another announcement is brewing, but press times being what they are, I won’t include it here. This leaves just shy of 200 more properties languish on the list, still only quasi protected, waiting for cabinet to make them official.

But for years now, whenever these properties are formally protected, our provincial government doesn’t mention the Parks and Protected Areas Plan. Instead they refer to a another goal, one which they’ve conjured seemingly from nowhere – protecting 13 per cent of Nova Scotia, a goal not just fictional, but meaningless.

If you were to protect each and every property listed under the Parks and Protected Areas Plan (which we’re required to do) we would surpass 13 per cent and land closer to 14 per cent. But our leaders keep repeating 13 per cent, over and over and over again, in what some suspect is a disingenuous effort to undermine the Parks and Protected Areas Plan, opening some of its listed properties up to industrial activity.

Our provincial government confirmed this fear last March when, behind closed doors, they began the slow process of selling one of these listed properties (ostensibly untouchable) to a developer, whose intention is to clear its provincially significant ecology and built a few golf courses atop the carnage. So carefully hidden was this breach of trust that we only found out last month, thanks to the investigative reporting of CBC’s Michael Gorman.

The property in question resides on the Eastern Shore, a stretch of coastline called Owls Head, containing within a significant blend of headlands, coves, heath, bedrock ridges, specks of temperate rainforest and species of concern. It also provides Nova Scotians public access to the coastline, in this case to the 100 Wild Islands just off shore.

Even before its inclusion under the Parks and Protected Areas Plan in 2013, Owls Head was designated a “provincial park reserve,” which basically means it’s a provincial park in the making, again, just waiting for its protection to be made official by cabinet. It’s this designation which our government stripped away in March without telling anyone.

Their reasons for this delisting and forthcoming sale were predictable and infuriating. Minister of Lands and Forestry, Iain Rankin, said Owls Head wasn’t necessary in order to reach their made-up goal of 13 per cent, and, even more egregious, that the property wasn’t actually that ecologically valuable, a claim which has flabbergasted the people who performed the groundwork which put it on the list, such as Chris Miller of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

“It’s really quite offensive,” he told me earlier this month. “This sets a very dangerous precedent for all the parks and protected areas in Nova Scotia. If it can happen at Owls Head, it can happen in Cape Breton, Antigonish, the southwest…it can happen anywhere in the province where these [protected areas] have been identified but not officially established.”

At the moment, Owls Head remains publicly owned, but the progress of its sale is not yet known. When the news broke, Chris was inundated with messages from people asking for an explanation and how they might help, and he’s directed them to their MLA and to Iain Rankin himself. The provincial government needs to reinstate Owls Head as a provincial park reserve or better, said Chris, and quickly.

Whatever local opposition has arisen for this sale – and there’s plenty – isn’t just about the 268 hectares of Owls Head. The fight is, and has always been, to preserve and fulfill the entire Parks and Protected Areas Plan under a government determined to shove some of our most vulnerable ecosystems back into the economic arena. Dooming a publicly owned, ecologically significant slice of coastline to the construction of a golf course is ludicrously shortsighted and threatens to undermine a Plan which was always intended to be the flood, not the ceiling.

The international community, Canada included, has committed to protect 17 per cent of land and fresh water by the end of 2020. Negotiations are underway right now to strengthen this target, with our federal government indicating goals of 25 per cent by 2025, and 30 per cent by 2030. We here in Nova Scotia have fallen tragically behind, and the sale of Owls Head would signal our dangerous indifference to that fact. We need to protect more land, not less.


Owls Head. Photo Courtesy of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.