What’s This All About?
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Where is Owls Head Provincial Park?
Owls Head Provincial Park is a coastal property nestled on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Due to its proximity to the 100 Wild Islands and the Eastern Shore Islands, and its inclusion in the Eastern Shore Seaside Park System, Owls Head is a very important piece of a larger puzzle. The Eastern Shore Seaside Park System is a great opportunity to invest in park infrastructure and make the area a leading nature tourism destination.
Below is a map of the proposed Eastern Shore Seaside Park System from 1975. Only some of the parks have been formally protected thus far. (Click to enlarge the map)
Who owns Owls Head Provincial Park?
Owls Head Provincial Park is “Crown land,” meaning that it belongs to all Nova Scotians.*
The McNeil government secretly delisted and offered to sell Owls Head Provincial Park to Lighthouse Links Development Company, but after nearly two years of unwavering public resistance, the company withdrew, citing “lack of government support.” Now, the Houston government has made Owls Head Provincial Park an official provincial park.
*While the official term is Crown Land, we would like to clarify that this is unceded Mi’kmaq land.
Is Owls Head Provincial Park protected?
Yes! We’re happy to announce that Owls Head is now an official provincial park! We applaud Premier Houston for taking the necessary steps to right this wrong and commend the people of Nova Scotia for their extraordinary campaign to save this public park.
Wasn’t it called a “provincial park” before?
Yes, government documents, maps, and plans (such as Our Parks and Protected Areas Plan) have referred to the site as “Owls Head Provincial Park” for many years. To make it even more confusing, some of the government’s documents even mistakenly identified it as having already been legally designated (protected).
Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Kevin Coady agreed that the public “had every reason” to believe that Owls Head Provincial Park was a designated provincial park.
“The evidence on this Motion clearly establishes that Owl’s Head was portrayed to the public as a Provincial Park. Government documentation and maps, going back as far as 1978, refer to the area as “Owl’s Head Provincial Park”. Further, it was managed by Lands and Forestry to maintain its reserve status. The public had every reason to assume Owl’s Head was a Provincial Park and, therefore, attracted protections not available on Crown lands.”Bancroft v. Nova Scotia (Land and Forestry) 2020 NSSC 214: Interlocutory Decision, Page 3
Unfortunately, Owls Head Provincial Park wasn’t the only pending park that had the name—but not the permanent legal protection—of an official provincial park. As lawyer Jamie Simpson pointed out, “we need to permanently protect those 100 other ‘parks in name only.’
How can we tell if other parks are protected or not?
View Nova Scotia’s Interactive Parks and Protected Areas Map. Search for a provincial park, wilderness area, or nature reserve. If it comes up as “NS Lands Proposed or Pending Protection,” then it’s not legally protected yet.
What does “delisted” mean?
Simply put, the McNeil government removed Owls Head Provincial Park from Our Parks and Protected Areas Plan. They did so without public notice or consultation.
“The first step that must be taken before the transaction can proceed is DNR obtaining authorization from Cabinet to remove the Crown lands from the Parks and Protected Areas Plan (PAPA). The PAPA was issued by the Minister of Environment and the Minister of Natural Resources in 2013 and lays out the commitment by the Province to work towards protecting lands identified in the Plan. All other processes are subject to this step being successfully completed.”The Honourable Margaret Miller (then Minister of Natural Resources) to Mr. Beckwith Gilbert in 2017
Could other parks with “proposed or pending” protection be secretly delisted & offered for sale?
Unfortunately, yes. Many of what Nova Scotians consider provincial parks aren’t legally protected parks at all. In many cases, citizens have no idea that nearby “provincial parks” aren’t formally protected.
There are approximately 125 provincial park reserves, nature reserves, and wilderness areas still awaiting formal protection. But the government can protect each of them with an Order in Council, as it did for Owls Head Provincial Park.
Otherwise, “the exact same state that befell Owls Head could potentially happen,” explains lawyer Jamie Simpson, who is representing the applicants. Furthermore, “we have no assurance that the department would let the public know that a sale was pending.”
How can we stop this from happening again?
Our legal system is a combination of common law and civil law. Thus, there are two different ways that we can resolve this legal loophole:
1. Civil law: By introducing and passing a bill to remove the legal loophole
2. Common law: Setting a new precedent through the courts
The Owls Head Act, introduced by the NDP, would have dealt with this very issue. Unfortunately, the bill was defeated by the PC Party.
“Our Owls Head Act says that whenever there is a piece of Crown Land in Nova Scotia that is pending protection as a wilderness area, or as a park, or as a nature reserve, that that pending protected status cannot be rescinded by the government without there being a process of public engagement, public consultation, and the sharing of public information. […] Because after all, that land was put on the protected list, in the first place, as a result of extensive public consultation.”NDP Leader Gary Burrill
Or through the common law:
The common law is law that is not written down as legislation. Common law evolved into a system of rules based on precedent. This is a rule that guides judges in making later decisions in similar cases. The common law cannot be found in any code or body of legislation, but only in past decisions. At the same time, it is flexible. It adapts to changing circumstances because judges can announce new legal doctrines or change old ones.Where Our Legal System Comes From, The Government of Canada
The applicants (Bob Bancroft and Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association) are heading to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal to fight for Owls Head Provincial Park and a new age of environmental law in Canada. You can learn more and support their campaign here.
Can I visit Owls Head Provincial Park?
Yes, Owls Head is a provincial park and is open to the public. The best way to explore is by kayak as there isn’t any trail infrastructure, as former DNR park planner Christopher Trider explains:
Sadly, successive governments failed to honour the commitments made in the Eastern Shore Seaside Park System. Our elected officials failed to properly invest in the important tourism and public infrastructure for the Eastern Shore that the park system represents. So we don’t have these trails, access points, or camping opportunities.
Once Owls Head Provincial Park is sold and developed, its ecological integrity cannot be restored. To me, as a landscape architect, these ridges and their plant communities are a priceless natural heritage landscape that should never be so senselessly destroyed.
The Natural Environment Park concept provides the greatest benefit to the greatest number of Nova Scotians and preserves an important ecological resource. The Eastern Shore Seaside Park system park could still be built, if the Rankin government is willing to commit to the environment and sustainable economic development.Christopher Trider
If you are a scientist or photographer wishing to email the park, please send us an email to arrange a guide.
The coastal headlands and lush eelgrass meadows make for a beautiful kayak outing. You can launch your kayak by the government wharf in Little Harbour or check out these great local companies:
Eleanor and Jenn—Sea Kayak Instructors
Why was it so important to protect Owls Head Provincial Park?
- To ensure better government transparency and transparency
- To avoid setting a precedent wherein other pending parks could be secretly delisted and offered for sale
- To protect biodiversity and carbon sinks
- To preserve coastal access
- To respect and implement the Eastern Shore Seaside Park System, Our Parks and Protected Areas Plan, and the Halifax Green Network Plan.
Did the government really purge information from its website?
Yes. In an unprecedented move, the Liberal government sanitized its own websites of information about Owls Head Provincial Park after Michael Gorman broke the story of the secret delisting and proposed sale. The government surreptitiously removed the Owls Head Provincial Park Protection Values Sheet. The government also removed Owls Head Provincial Park from the online Parks and Protected Areas map.
“The provincial government claims that Owls Head was labelled a provincial park as the result of a clerical error. If so, the error went uncorrected for about 45 years. Until a couple of weeks ago, Owls Head Provincial Park had a page on the provincial government’s website, but that’s been scrubbed.”Jim Vibert: Owls Head becomes ground zero of land protection battle with province
In the government’s online map, Owls Head Provincial Park is still surrounded by a dark line, indicating that it is part of the “Lands in the final Parks and Protected Areas Plan (2013).” Reporter Tim Bousquet reported, “Owls Head Provincial Park Reserve has existed since the 1970s; that’s why it’s on the basemap.”
What was the proposed development, anyway?
While the sale price ($306/acre) was ludicrously low, the cost to develop the site would have been exorbitant.
The price to build the first golf course was an estimated $12.6 million. That’s because the topography of this site is not suitable for development.
“The above costs are much higher than the typical course because it would have to be built on ledge and sand is not easily available. The largest component consists of $5 million for earth moving/ledge removal and covering the area with sand, which must be trucked onto the site.Lighthouse Links Development Co.
[…] We believe that significant savings, not accounted for in KemperSports estimate, can be achieved by building a sand plant to convert the ledge that is removed during golf course construction to sand.”
Richard Bell of the Eastern Shore Cooperator aptly described this plan as “literally grinding the park as it now exists into biological, ecological, and geological oblivion.”
“Media coverage since the December 19, 2019 revelation of the secret delisting of the park has focused on the creation of three golf courses. But the July 22, 2018 proposal shows that what Lighthouse Links is proposing is really a very large luxury housing development, with a few golf courses on the side.“Sweetheart Deal for Owls Head” by Richard Bell (The Eastern Shore Cooperator)
Lighthouse Links confirmed, “A successful real estate development program is expected to be necessary to help offset the high cost of the golf course construction.”
In addition to 1-3 golf courses, the Letter of Offer stated, “development of a recreational and residential community” would have included a clubhouse, single-family homes, and short-term accommodations.
When it comes to a park reserve with a 45-year history and a rare ecosystem, the core issue wasn’t golf course development. Nova Scotians deserve transparency, public consultation, evidence-based decision-making, and environmental leadership from their government.
Lighthouse Links Development Company withdrew from the Letter of Offer on November 24, 2021. To read our press release on this development, please click here.
What’s happening with the court case?
“Neither the Province’s previous misrepresentations about Owls Head, nor its history of public consultation in relation to parks and protected areas, entitles the applicants to be consulted before decisions are made about the protection or sale of Owls Head Crown Lands.” (Our emphasis in bold)Judicial Review Application Decision, Paragraph 186
Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Christa Brothers recognized several important points in the applicants’ case but ultimately ruled that there is “no recognized common law duty of procedural fairness owed by the Crown to the public at large.” Many believe it’s time for that to change, including Bob Bancroft and Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association, who are headed to the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.
“The underlying question in this appeal is whether Nova Scotians ought to be informed before the government makes decisions affecting the fate of ecologically important lands, especially those lands that have been identified as protected. We believe the answer is yes and that the courts play an inherent role in promoting fair government decision-making.”Lawyer Jamie Simpson
To contribute to the court appeal, click here
To read our statement on the NS Supreme Court’s decision, please click here
To read the court’s decision, please click here
To read the Applicants’ pre-hearing brief, click here
Why is Owls Head Provincial Park deserving of environmental protection?
Planning to develop Owls Head Provincial Park– which has significant wetlands, coastal barrens, and offshore eelgrass beds – is an unfathomable decision in our current climate crisis. In short:
- The property has significant ecological value, including endangered animal species and a globally rare plant ecosystem.
- Offshore are eelgrass beds. Eelgrass is a type of seagrass, and it is far more important than you might think. You can read more here.
- Owls Head Provincial Park has significant wetlands. Like eelgrass, wetlands provide a wide range of ecosystem services (services that benefit nature and humans alike). These include maintaining watershed health, minimizing erosion, filtering water, protecting coastlines from storm surges, and “storing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, potentially moderating climate effects.” (Nova Scotia Wetland Conservation Policy).
What species of conservation concern are present?
Many species depend on Owls Head Provincial Park, including over 90 species of birds. These species include:
- Barn swallows (endangered)
- Piping plovers (endangered)
- Endangered leatherback sea turtle (endangered)
- Coastal broom crowberry ecosystem (globally rare)
- Ruby-crowned kinglet
- Common eider
“The Coastal Broom Crowberry Heathland Ecosystem is, in particular, among the rarest in NS and one of the few that is globally significant. This site appears to be one of the more important locations for the ecosystem in the province, particularly with the ecosystem’s low level of protection.”Sean P. Basquill, Provincial Biologist, Ecosystems and Habitats Program (revealed through FOIPOP 2020-0081-DLF)
“Vegetation on the bedrock ridges of Owls Head is dominated by a shrub called Broom Crowberry (Corema conradii). Broom Crowberry is endemic to northeastern North America, meaning this species can be found nowhere else in the world. […] If our province does not make an effort to protect this species, there will be no other opportunity elsewhere to protect it.”Biologists Caitlin Porter & Dr. Jeremy Lundholm
To learn more about the property’s avian diversity, click here.
The provincial land parcel and land directly adjacent include occurrences of two SAR [species at risk] – Piping plover (nationally and provincially endangered) and barn swallow (nationally threatened, provincially endangered). Other species of conservation concern (not legally listed but on provincial GS list) include Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Common Eider. Part of the area is mapped in our significant habitat database for nesting piping plovers.Sean P. Basquill, Provincial Biologist, Ecosystems and Habitats Program (revealed through FOIPOP 2020-0081-DLF)
Broader ecological values at the landscape scale are similar to other coastal areas of Nova Scotia. The sites provide important foraging, breeding, and migratory habitat for birds and other faunal species. The relatively cool humid climate supports combinations of boreal and temperate plants and lichens, found nowhere else in Canada.Sean P. Basquill, Provincial Biologist, Ecosystems and Habitats Program (revealed through FOIPOP 2020-0081-DLF)
“The marine environment around Owls Head supports meadows of eelgrass. Eelgrass is formally considered an Ecologically Important Species (ESS) for its functional role in protecting shorelines and supporting marine biodiversity. Eelgrass requires pristine water conditions and is not tolerant of nutrient pollution. (DFO 2009)”Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown land, page 14
Recently, CPAWS NS recorded and observed an endangered leatherback sea turtle near land. Read about it here.
How do we know? Have there been any studies done there?
Yes! Biologists from the Ecology of Plants in Communities (E.P.I.C.) Lab at St. Mary’s University have been conducting years of research at Owls Head Provincial Park.
If you’re interested in their findings, check out the “Report on the Ecological Importance of Owls Head Crown Land.
Owls Head Provincial Park is also mentioned as a habitat of the Broom Crowberry Coastal Barren in the newly released “Barrens Ecosystems in Nova Scotia: Classification of Heathlands and Related Plant Communities” (Porter, Basquill, and Lundholm). It’s an excellent publication available here.
In addition to these studies of wetlands and coastal plant communities, there have been studies on offshore marine ecosystems and avian diversity.
CPAWS NS and a team of expert volunteers identified over 70 species of birds (including the provincially endangered barn swallow) during a few visits in 2020.
In 2020, marine biologist Dr. Kristina Boerder and a team of volunteers completed numerous underwater transects in their research on the offshore eelgrass beds. To learn more, check out our interview with Dr. Kristina Boerder here.
Why is it important that Nova Scotia protect more coastal land?
“Coastal ecosystems are among the most productive yet highly threatened systems in the world. These ecosystems produce disproportionately more services relating to human well-being than most other systems, even those covering larger total areas [yet they] are experiencing some of the most rapid degradation and loss.”– Millenium Ecosystem Assessment, Marine and Coastal Ecosystems & Human Well-being
- Owls Head is a representative coastal landscape. Coastal ecosystems are underrepresented in Nova Scotia’s protected properties.
- More and more Nova Scotians are losing public access to our shores and beaches.
- National and international targets both call for the conservation of 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020 (Department of Fisheries and Oceans).
- Read more here.
Why do some people care when they’re not from the community?
“I’m from the South Shore and I do not presume to speak for the community of Owls Head / Little Harbour. However, the issue over the sale of this land is about so much more than a localized community problem. The land is Crown land, land that according to the Nova Scotia website is owned by everyone who lives in Nova Scotia. Negotiations for the sale of this land have been conducted in secret between two Americans and our government. The land and the waters along the shore constitute “globally rare” ecosystems that stand to be destroyed by development.– Peter Barss, Save Owls Head supporter
In short, this issue is emblematic of the disregard for environmental health that has pushed the world into an environmental crisis. We should all be concerned and we should all do what we can to slow and maybe stop this headlong rush toward environmental and social catastrophe. I was at the rally because I have grandchildren and I want them to have a world where plants cling to rocks that were given form by glaciers ten thousand years ago and a world in which meadows of seagrass nurture creatures that live in the sea.”
What does the ‘Save Owls Head’ movement support?
The following is a statement from group co-leader Christopher Trider. His statement encompasses the wider desires of many who support saving Owls Head Provincial Park.
- We support the completion of the Eastern Shore Seaside Park System that includes:
- a natural environment park with low impact walking trails and coastal access at Owl’s Head,
- destination camping and lakefront public day use at Lake Charlotte,
- improved public access to wilderness canoeing and hiking.
- We support the development and implementation of a comprehensive economic development model for the Eastern Shore that:
- includes ecotourism
- provides year-round sustainable employment
- protects the world-class natural resources and beauty of the area
- We support transparency, honesty, and integrity in government.
- We support investment in the renewal and improvement of the public facilities at Clam Harbour Beach.
- We support the protection of globally rare ecosystems and endangered species.
- We support the Parks and Protected Areas Plan, as announced and as a public policy document that includes Owl’s Head provincial park [#694, pp.54]
- We support investment in the infrastructure to restore and develop public access at Long Beach, East Chezzetcook as part of a broad program of public investment aimed at improving the public outdoor recreation, education and tourism opportunities along the Eastern Shore.
- We support the Nature Trust, conservation groups and private individuals involved in the 100 Wild Islands project.
- We support the establishment of the Eastern Shore Islands Wilderness Area.
- We support entrepreneurs and businesses that want to develop and grow a sustainable, year-round green economy along the Eastern Shore.
Christopher Trider worked for DNR (now known as Natural Resources and Renewables) for 21 years. One of Christopher’s key roles with the provincial government was to assess coastal properties that the province might acquire. In his own words:
“I know how hard they are to find, I know how hard they are to come by. I know how important these properties are for the long-term public good.”
What Can I Do to Help?
This movement depends on the passion and persistence of concerned citizens like you. Please visit our Take Action page for some suggestions on how you could get involved.
Disclaimer of Sorts: Our answers above are based on historical records, government documents, scientific articles, and scientific studies. We make an effort to update this page when new information comes to light through Freedom of Information Requests and the judicial review.
Accuracy is very important to us, so please email our content editor (firstname.lastname@example.org) should you spot an error.