Saving our natural heritage can’t be optional

An old growth Eastern hemlock growing on protected land alongside the St Mary’s River. Photo: Zack Metcalfe

The sanctity of Nova Scotia’s protected areas has taken a beating in recent years, especially those of the Eastern Shore, their significance dragged through either corporate or political mud in order to justify their dismantling, a sharp contrast to the multitudes of money and time once invested in their longevity.
Consider Owls Head, the provincial park reserve slated for enduring protection by virtue of its unique ecology. Our provincial government quietly stripped its legal safeguards then cunningly defended the action as economic development. At present they’re negotiating the sale of Owls Head to a developer, keen to turn this unspoilt wilderness into a golf course.
The uproar against this impropriety has been spectacular, resulting in hundreds of disappointed letters to the provincial government, coming from private citizens and from groups so humble as the Nova Scotia Wild Flora Society. Will the government change course or double down? Either way, this is a blow to the security of protected lands across Nova Scotia and it’s not the only one.
The Nova Scotia Nature Trust (NSNT) has been diligently acquiring and protecting land along the St. Mary’s River since 2006, to date holding 540 of its hectares to protect from human interference forever. The mandate is a lofty and admirable one and one of the most important undertaking I can name in this age of climate change and mass extinction.
One of NSNT’s properties, hosting rare old growth and floodplain forests, doesn’t yet have a name. A stretch of highland nearby is called Cochrane Hill, and so, in acknowledgment of the region’s extensive human history, they thought of calling it the Cochrane Hill Nature Area. Reasonable enough, except before this name became official it was taken by a another local project altogether.
The proposed Cochrane Hill Gold Mine, presently muscling its way through environmental review, would come with a project footprint of 240 hectares alongside, and uphill, of the St. Mary’s River. It would entail an open pit mine, tailings ponds, and innumerable chemical consequences I won’t go into. For now, it’s enough to know that the proposed mine would require the realignment of Hwy. 7 straight through the aforementioned stretch of unnamed NSNT land.
Yhe mandate of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust would make consent for such a project impossible, sacrificing old growth hemlocks and resident wildlife to the dead heat of asphalt. In order for the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine to proceed as proposed, therefore, its sponsor, B.C.-owned Atlantic Gold, would need the Nova Scotia provincial government to seize this land away from the NSNT under either the Highways Act or Mining Act. The word for such a theft is “expropriation,” an ugly mechanism which has allowed for the occasional bit of public good and a whole lot of public bad.
The investments made by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, provincial government, and citizens in an expansive network of protected areas along the St Mary’s River is incalculable. The understanding of everyone involved is that these lands would remain safe forever, preserving what remains of our natural heritage and not expending it in a blaze of industrial stupidity.
Most people involved think the provincial government is unlikely to expropriate the land and I admit it’s a more egregious move than I can see them making, but with the ordeal of Owls Head and the McNeil government’s track record, who knows?
Land protected as a provincial park (even a provincial park reserve) has become, in a modern sense, sacred. These designations bring a sense of comfort, of completion, of legally assured sanity, but these feelings are apparently not universal. The gall of a provincial government delisting a provincial park reserve, or a corporation proposing highways through nature trust property, speaks to a different and alarming perspective on their part. Where protection is inconvenient, they seem to think it’s optional.
Maybe the force of public pressure will restore Owls Head to its proper place among the protected lands of Nova Scotia, and maybe it will do the same in shielding the lands of the NSNT, but there is a culture of denigration at play here, seeing the protections many people have fought very hard to instill as somehow less than legitimate.
At times like this, when government culture needs to shift, it’s important to write the aforementioned letters to relevant representatives, but it’s also important to make a statement. Personally, I’d recommend donating to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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