Opinion submitted by Chris Miller
Executive Director of CPAWS-NS
The Chronicle Herald/Saltwire
December 2, 2021

Originally published here

How to get iron-clad legal protection for Owls Head provincial park

CHRIS MILLER • Guest Opinion

Chris Miller, Ph.D. is a protected areas expert and the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – Nova Scotia Chapter

Re: “Owls Head: Company abandons resort plan” (Nov. 24 story). The sale of public lands at Owls Head Provincial Park was doomed from the beginning. 

Most Nova Scotians simply won’t tolerate our parkland – coastal parkland at that – being sold off to private interests, no matter the reason. 

I think the Nova Scotia government knows this as well. 

Why else would they do their dealings for Owls Head behind closed doors and go to such great lengths to avoid public consultations ahead of delisting the park? Even after decisions were made, there were no press releases, no announcements, no speeches by the minister. They wanted it kept quiet, so that’s what they did. 

If the CBC hadn’t broken the story, we still may not know that Owls Head was on the path to being sold off to a developer, despite being managed as a provincial park for almost a half century. 

The delisting of parkland in Nova Scotia is exceedingly rare. The last time the government tried to do something like this was way back in the 1990s with the delisting of Jim Campbells Barren Wilderness Area in the Cape Breton Highlands. 

When the public found out about that delisting, there was a huge public backlash, just as there was with Owls Head. 

Nova Scotia’s parks and protected areas are important. These are places where we go to be outdoors with friends and family. They help clean the air and water. They contain important ecosystems and provide crucial habitat for lots of different species. We need these places for our health and well-being. 

That’s why the sale of public lands at Owls Head Provincial Park was doomed from the beginning. It matters too much to too many people. Our parks are not a commodity to be traded or sold. On the contrary, these are places that are to be treasured and must be carefully looked after for future generations. 

With the withdrawal of the “letter of offer” for Owls Head, the Nova Scotia government must now ensure that these public lands receive the legal protection that was promised a long time ago. Owls Head needs protection under the law so that future governments will not be tempted to sell off this ecological jewel for any reason. 

The change in government following the provincial election has resulted in a renewed interest in protecting Nova Scotia’s natural heritage. The protected areas target has been increased to at least 20 per cent of the provincial landmass and that target has been enshrined in law. Premier Tim Houston has also promised to clear the long backlog of sites promised for protection in Nova Scotia’s Parks and Protected Areas Plan. This is a good step. 

What might legal protection for Owls Head look like? 

Well, it could simply involve the government designating the public lands as a provincial park under the Provincial Parks Act, as was always intended. Despite being managed as a park for nearly 50 years, the legal designation was something that was always missing. This left Owls Head vulnerable to backroom trading and created a loophole that the previous government exploited. 

A better approach, however, might be for the government to simply declare the public lands at Owls Head to be part of the nearby Eastern Shore Islands Wilderness Area, which would allow for hunting and fishing and all of the uses that are currently occurring at Owls Head, but would stop secret land deals and golf course developments. 

At the moment, the Wilderness Areas Protection Act is the only piece of protected area legislation in Nova Scotia that has an absolute requirement for public debate before any future delisting could even be considered. This accountability was inserted into the legislation as a direct result of the delisting of the Jim Campbells Barren Wilderness Area long ago. The Provincial Parks Act does not have such a provision. 

Regardless of the type of protected area designation that the government applies, legal protection is needed for Owls Head. That is the right conclusion for this entire debacle. Set Owls Head back on the path that was intended so many decades ago. Enough time has been wasted. This needs to be done urgently. 

And, in the future, if anyone comes asking to buy one of Nova Scotia’s parks, the only answer they should receive is, “No, our parks are not for sale.” Full stop. 

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