Owls Head Provincial Park and Legal Designation

Written by Karen McKendry, Ecology Action Centre

Owls Head Provincial Park has been proposed for legal protection as a park for a long time and effectively used as an unmanaged park since at least the 1970s. But why was it not legally protected before? And why does that matter? And what’s this plan that Owls Head was listed in?

The PAPA Plan and the process

Bog & Huckleberry Heath
Bog & Huckleberry Heath, Caitlin Porter

Nova Scotia’s Parks and Protected Areas Plan (the “PAPA Plan”) was officially developed from 2009 to 2013, but its roots are older than that. At the time the plan came together, the Department of Natural Resources (now called Lands & Forestry) was doing a review and plan for its provincial parks. At the same time, Department of Environment and Labor (now Nova Scotia Environment) was planning for new protected areas (Wilderness Areas and Nature Reserves). These two planning processes came together to form the PAPA Plan.

Nova Scotia Environment’s identification of priority lands for nature conservation was partially based on an earlier analysis, called the Colin Stewart Forest Forum. This multi-year initiative identified areas of Crown land and land owned by large forestry companies that were of high conservation value. Many of the priority lands identified in the Forum were included in the PAPA Plan, along with other sites. One of the sites identified as “Tier 1” (top priority for conservation) from the Forum’s work was Owls Head.

Eastern Shore Seaside Park System
Owls Head identified as Tier 1 Conservation Lands through Colin Stewart Forest Forum

The provincial government, and outside partners, have done a thorough investigation of sites first proposed in the Colin Stewart Forest Forum, and then the Plan. This work included complex GIS analysis that examined conservation features like older forests, wetlands, and habitat for species at risk. Input was provided by conservation partners and the forestry industry’s largest landholders. Government and the forestry industry worked with non-governmental organizations on the Forum – its approach, the data it used, and its outcomes. The work of the CSFF informed the early work on the Plan. A draft version of the Plan was released in 2012, and it was consulted on with the public, the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia (through the Made in Nova Scotia consultation approach), and industry. Public consultation included 27 public meetings, and the government received feedback via letters, emails, phone calls, and in-person meetings. The final version of the Plan (2013) incorporated this feedback. This Plan was vetted by government staff, decision makers, industry, and people in Nova Scotia.

Sites in the Plan

corema dwarf heath on bedrock ridge
Corema Dwarf Heath on Bedrock Ridge, Caitlin Porter

The Plan identifies sites on Crown land that could be protected for nature conservation purposes, but these lands would also support “recreation, tourism, research, and education.” Sites from the Plan have been designated (i.e., legally protected) in order to help the province reach its 2015 goal of protecting 12% of Nova Scotia’s landmass as formal protected areas (other lands contributed to this as well). There is actually enough land identified in the Plan to get to 13.9% protected areas in Nova Scotia.

The PAPA Plan lists 406 sites on Crown Land. Of those, 205 are parks. These include parks already designated under the Provincial Parks Act, newly proposed parks, and 97 park sites that had never been legally designated (approved by Cabinet and listed under the Provincial Parks Act regulation). Owls Head Provincial Park, site #694 in the plan, is proposed for legal designation as a park.

Not all sites in the Plan would contribute to meeting Nova Scotia’s current goal to protect 13% of the land base for nature conservation purposes. But the Plan does propose that the management intention of each site should be solidified through designation (PAPA Plan Goal 1, Action 1).

Owls Head as part of a park system

Corema Flowers
Corema Flowers, Caitlin Porter

Owls Head was first formally identified as an area of high recreation and conservation value in the late 1970s, through the Department of Natural Resource’s park planning work. It was a part of a larger plan to develop an “Eastern Shore Seaside Park System.” Only some parts of this park system were implemented – Clam Habour Beach Provincial Park and Taylor Head Provincial Park were legally designated, and infrastructure built and maintained at the sites. Inland wilderness in this proposed park system, like Ship Harbour Long Lake Wilderness Area, were formally protected, but not all aspects of the park plan came to fruition (namely a proposed campground at Lake Charlotte). Nothing was formalized for Owls Head at this time. People continued to use the Crown land at Owls Head as unmanaged park land.

Other analyses of the Eastern Shore pointed to headlands like Owls Head as outstanding nature conservation features. Analyses by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust from 2012 to 2015 identified hundreds of Eastern Shore islands as conservation priorities for the 100 Wild Islands campaign. Undeveloped headlands with the same and similar ecosystems (like Owls Head) are part of the conservation vision in the area too. The Nature Trust’s campaign has largely succeeded in raising the funds and completing the legal work to formally protect much of the private land in the 100 Wild Islands focus area for nature conservation purposes. At the same time, the Province designated all Crown-owned islands in the 100 Wild Island focus area (i.e., the “other half” of the 100 Wild Islands) as the Eastern Shore Islands Wilderness Area. However, Owls Head once again missed the legal protection boat, despite now being identified for its value for nature conservation, in addition to its value as part of a provincial park system.

Legal designation

Corema - Broom Crowberry
Corema – Broom Crowberry, Caitlin Porter

Formal protected areas are legally protected through different laws in Nova Scotia. Sites listed under the regulations of the Wilderness Areas Protection Act are “designated.” The laws and regulations of that Act apply to those lands. Provincial Parks are designated under the Provincial Parks Act, and are listed in the Act’s regulations. Owls Head has not gone through this designation process yet.

The PAPA Plan was completed, consulted on, approved by all provincial departments, went to the provincial cabinet. The members of cabinet approved the Plan, in its entirety, in 2013. This does not mean that each site was legally designated at that time. What it does seem to mean is that Cabinet would need to approve substantive changes to the Plan, including the removal of a site from the list of sites proposed for designation.

In 2019, work was completed within the provincial government to recommend that Cabinet remove Owls Head from the PAPA Plan. The recommendation was brought forward by the Department of Lands & Forestry, after input was sought from the Department of Environment, Office of Aboriginal Affairs, Finance and Treasury Board, and Communications Nova Scotia. Cabinet was informed of the conservation values at the site (i.e., habitat for an endangered species, rare ecosystem), and of an eco-tourism planning initiative already underway in the area, called the Wild Island Tourism Advancement Partnership. The reason for requesting to “de-list” the site from the Plan was to facilitate the advancement of a proposal to develop golf courses on the property. The golf course proposal was supposedly brought forward by a group outside of government, initially to Lloyd Hines, the Minister of Natural Resources in 2016.

Why legal designation matters

Owls Head Aerial, Caitlin Porter
Owls Head Aerial, Caitlin Porter

If Owls Head had been legally designated under the Provincial Parks Act, the park would have had to follow a different process to be legally “de-designated.” The Provincial Park Act states that the Governor in Council (which is Cabinet) has the power to “terminate the status of a provincial park or any part thereof.” If Owls Head had been legally designated as a provincial park, a proposal would have to have gone to Cabinet to have this status terminated. There may not have been any public consultation about this proposal. The decision would have been made public, through an Order in Council and publication in the Royal Gazette.

This process is dissatisfying. The process for potentially removing the designation of a park would be improved by requiring public consultation during the process. Public consultations are of value in part because they can bring in new information to light, and can help the public understand the government’s approach to a situation. They can help ensure transparency in decision-making, and that a diversity of perspectives of considered.

Protected areas are badly needed in this day and age. They can help maintain and restore wildlife populations and are the places where the ecosystem services that keep us alive (e.g., provision of clean water, pollination, soil creation) are kept largely intact. Protected areas can also provide a multitude of social benefits, including long-term jobs in rural communities. Now is the time for more nature conservation, not less.

Written by Karen McKendry, Ecology Action Centre

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