February 26, 2020
The Nova Scotia House of Assembly
Late Debate (Adjournment Debate)
The Honourable Iain Rankin, Minister of Lands and Forestry

Resolution for Late Debate, as submitted by Gary Burrill:

Therefore be it resolved that the government could have done a much-improved job in its handling of the question of the Owls Head Provincial Park.

The Speaker: The honourable Minister of Lands and Forestry.

Minister Rankin: I won’t be nearly as funny on this file, but I’ll do my best to try to clarify some of the facts around the process of how we look at considering economic opportunities that deal with Crown land in the province. The fact of the matter is that this land is not legally protected, whether it was considered protected, whether it was on maps identified as Owls Head Provincial Park. It was on a list of potential areas to be considered for protection.

There were governments after governments that had a chance to protect that, including the NDP Government that was involved in putting together the Parks and Protected Areas Plan. They chose over the four-and-a-half years that they were in power not to proceed with protecting that piece of property. There is a long list of other land areas across the province in that plan. Government has shown a commitment to looking at that.

It’s not only that list. We have protected over 100 different sites from that plan since we came into government in 2013. We have also looked at other areas in the province that warrant consideration for looking at the biodiversity features on the land, wildlife on the land, and consideration from the community. Not only that, we’ve added to areas that had been protected land from that plan.

We had a potential opportunity brought forward to us by elected members who represent constituents in that area, including the Member of Parliament and the MLA and neighbouring MLAs, who have said there is strong local support for a potential project. The process for us to go forward would have been to look at -okay, it is on the list of potential protected areas, so we should check in with policy and Treasury Board because it is a policy shift in how we treat that area. That’s why it went to Treasury Board. It’s not a public meeting. Treasury Board and Cabinet never has been a public meeting. The Opposition and others can call it a closed-door meeting to suit their narrative, but that is the process that we decided to go through that would be prudent so that other elected members at the table could weigh in to see if it was worth consideration.

Our mandate under Lands and Forestry, and Environment, is to protect 13 per cent. We’re well on our way to get to 13 per cent. We’ve never had any non-governmental organization come in advocating for the protection of Owls Head as a priority. They always had a list of different priorities, which we paid special attention to. I think of Wentworth Valley. I think of the Mabou Highlands. I think of McGowan Lake. I think of a long list of other ones -Rogue’s Roost in an area near mine. Those types of areas that were advocated for and prioritized by the environmental groups have been looked at and we looked at the other areas that would be prioritized for a range of values to look at protection. The internal staff also do that, and I have never seen on one list, since I’ve been in the Departments of Environment or Lands and Forestry, this potential area being prioritized above others for protection.

Then, once we had authority from a submitted letter -that’s how everything goes through Treasury Board -to consider the application, once that application starts to proceed, there are a number of steps that this developer would need to go through, and actually wants to go through because he has been quite clear from the start that he wanted to have public support for a potential project. He wanted to give back to the community to help with economic opportunities in an area that doesn’t have a lot of opportunities.

We decided to put together a requirement in the application that he would have to put together a public engagement plan that we would approve before he would actually start that plan. Unfortunately, we’re at a juncture now where there has been a pause and we don’t know if that developer wants to continue on with the project potential. If he does, we’ll continue on with the regular process that we have been engaged in from the start. That doesn’t preclude the obligation for the Crown to consult with the Mi’kmaq.

It’s not only the local voice that has been lost in this. It’s still early in the process but there’s also the voice of our Mi’kmaq partners, who have a right to start to engage if there was a potential sale in any Crown land, what their view is on the matter, if there is a position that they could either support or not support a potential project. That’s not to say that they would or not, it’s just a step in the process that we didn’t get to yet.

Yes. The information did get broadcasted out to all Nova Scotians and there are varying views of different groups. There are some Nova Scotians that don’t want any of the land that’s on Crown land used for any economic potential. On the government side, we think that we can do both. We’ve shown that we’ve been able to protect the environment in a myriad of ways. When we came into government, the protected lands in the province was less than 10 per cent. It’s now very close to 13 per cent. We are nearing our goal. That puts us behind only British Columbia and Alberta for a percentage of land protected.

We know we have work to do. It becomes more of a challenge for us because our Crown land percentage is just over 30 per cent. I know there’s discussion from the same group of people who are against this project that we should be protecting 30 per cent. I think it’s important to have all of the information before you make that type of statement. If you want to protect all Crown land, that means no forestry, mineral development, and a lot of other things that people rely on for their livelihood, especially in rural Nova Scotia.

Those discussions just need to take place when we’re trying to balance the need to support economic opportunities, as well as protect the highest conservation values in the province. This government stands for both. I know that there are people that only are one side of this discussion. I think that we’ve shown in many of the major decisions that have gone through for considering economic opportunities that we have always looked at the evidence and how it would be in the overall public interest. In this particular case, I think it would be not in the public interest for a politician to say, we won’t consider a project just because it is on a list for potential protection.

Again, the facts matter in the case of looking at a development proposal. If there’s value that we can look at for a project that may actually help in terms of looking at initiatives for ecotourism, which is a vision of the project -the 100 Wild Islands is a great opportunity for the area to look at bringing people to the area. How does that work and how does that coincide with a potential golf course?

Again, I’m not speaking to those who are completely against development or those who are completely against golf courses per se. Most reasonable Nova Scotians, I think, would want any government to explore any opportunity in any area if it would help the community and also help conserve the general environment.

Editor’s Note: Minister Rankin said, “We’ve never had any non-governmental organization come in advocating for the protection of Owls Head as a priority.”

But Owls Head Provincial Park had already been awarded a Tier 1 (top-priority) conservation rating from the Colin Stewart Forest Forum Final Report.

The reason that environmental groups hadn’t been actively fighting for Owls Head Provincial Park Reserve to be protected wasn’t a lack of conservation values, as Minister Rankin suggested. Rather, it’s because Owls Head Provincial Park Reserve was considered a low risk compared to other sites. The park was part of Our Parks and Protected Areas Plan and thought to be safe from development. It simply doesn’t make economic sense to develop a property of granite ridges and wetlands. Sure enough, it’s estimated that it would cost $12.6 million to build the first golf course due to the challenging terrain.

– Lindsay Lee

Late Debate Series

Late Debate: Gary Burrill, Leader of the NDP of Nova Scotia
Late Debate: Brad Johns, Progressive Conservative Environment Critic

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