Undo the theft. Give us back Owls Head

By Earth Scientist Elizabeth Kosters

adjunct professor at the earth sciences department of Dalhousie University

Canada has only just begun to reconcile with the First Nations who lived in these lands long before us. We robbed them of their livelihood and resources for our own exclusive benefits. We clear cut forests, poisoned the water and locked First Nations people away in residential schools and on reserves. First Nations people first and foremost teach us to respect the earth so it can benefit the generations after us.

CBC journalist Michael Gorman [revealed in December of 2019] that Owls Head was taken off the list of to-be-protected Provincial sites so it could be sold for a pittance to a foreign billionaire. No public consultation, no media release, nothing: a deliberate attempt at total secrecy, a betrayal of democracy.

There are about 150 sites in Nova Scotia listed for eventual protection. As I write this, twelve sites are up for approval and the public is invited to comment. Researching these areas on the government website is very educational because it demonstrates how incredibly fragmented our land designations are. How odd, in such a thinly populated part of the world. How odd that 70% of the land in this thinly populated province, is privately owned. Truly, it’s the world upside down.

Nova Scotia protects 13% of its land, a bit more than 7,000 km2. Many countries pledge to protect about the same proportion of their land surface, but surely that’s a strange idea? Let’s compare Nova Scotia with Ireland and Denmark, two countries with which we have a few things in common: we’re all north Atlantic jurisdictions surrounded by saltwater where fishing is big and where tourists flock, be it for a limited time in the year because of our otherwise hostile climate (ever heard of anyone going to Ireland or Denmark in winter? Me neither).

 Nova ScotiaIrelandDenmark
Area in km255,28484,42142,933
Population979,0004,900,0006,000,000
Population density (humans/ km2)  18  58  140
% / total area protected13% / 7,187 km214.4% / 12,157 km214.5% /6,225 km2

Nova Scotia’s population density is roughly 1/3rd of that of Ireland and only 1/8th of that of Denmark. These countries have more population pressure than Nova Scotia, yet manage to protect the same percentage of land as Nova Scotia aims to do. Surely a jurisdiction with so few people as ours can protect more? Why should we only protect 13%? Why not a 25% (the goal of our Federal Government) or even half? Imagine, setting aside half of our land for protection. Our population density in non-protected areas would double, but it would still only be ¼ of that of Denmark or ⅔ of that of Ireland. And imagine, we would have the other half of our glorious, amazing, beautiful province protected. We would allow forests to re-grow, to be sustainably harvested (small-scale only), fish and moose to return and we would be able to marvel at it and be a role model for the rest of the world who would come to learn from us. Imagine the spin-offs.

Is this a weird idea? The world has lost half of its wilderness since I was born not quite 70 years ago. The rapid decline of biodiversity and coupled terrifying rate of extinction isn’t escaping anyone’s attention. In order for humanity to have a chance at a future, it needs biodiversity. The organization “Nature Needs Half” states: “setting aside 50% of the planet for nature is the fastest, most efficient action we can take towards solving the twin crises of climate change and extinction and protect the livelihoods of all people.” Surely, Nova Scotia is in an excellent position to be a trailblazing world leader in this effort.

Various land designations around Owls Head Provincial Park. From the Nova Scotia Protected Areas Consultation website quoted below

Mr and Mrs Gilbert, an American billionaire couple who sentimentally claim that Owls Head Provincial Park is the most beautiful place on earth, have quietly been buying up properties in the area for two decades. This is not a wealthy part of Nova Scotia. I imagine the median income of permanent residents here is about $40,000. There aren’t many jobs and people have been forced to leave. This is tragic, and it happens all over rural Nova Scotia. Along our South shore, neo-colonizers have been pushing out locals on a large scale, jacking up real estate price and property taxes to levels that locals can’t afford anymore. Just look up Strum, Spectacle and Kaulbach Island for examples of pure obscenity. Shouldn’t Nova Scotians be able to live and recreate affordably in their own Province?

If the Gilberts truly believe that the Owl’s Head area is the most beautiful place on earth, then why didn’t they donate the lands they purchased so far to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, guaranteeing preservation in perpetuity? Doing so would have encouraged the Province to fast-track the definitive protection of Owl’s Head. That would have been the logical thing to do. My late Wolfville neighbour Jack Herbin made the first donation to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust back in 1995 by gifting them the Brothers’ Islands in Minas Basin. Wolfville friends of mine donated their South Shore Island to the NSNT in 2010, around the same time that Farley and Claire Mowat donated their 200 acres near River Bourgeois on Cape Breton to the NSNT. Said Farley Mowat: “Nova Scotia is like every other part of the western world, teetering on the edge of falling into some developer’s hands and being destroyed for money.”

The Gilberts are foreign billionaires who have managed to acquire power over the future of a handful of citizens of our Eastern shore, only to benefit themselves. Many in the community believe that there will be jobs from the proposed golf course development. I doubt that this will ever be the case, but even if it does, the result of their efforts will be that the locals become dependent on foreign patrons. They will basically be forced into all but indentured labour as they will have no other job options.

Google Earth images of the region. The distance from greater Halifax to Owls Head Provincial Park is ca 100 km.

Instead, imagine that Owls Head was a Provincial Park. Imagine how many local cafes, restaurants, B&Bs and shops would spring up! As well as kayak rental, guided fishing trips etc. Businesses that people own themselves, not as dependents from some foreign patronizing billionaire who slowly emptied the lands of its residents. There’s no question that the Gilberts just want to get richer because why otherwise would they want to destroy nature? The physiography of Owl’s Head, consisting of steeply tilting sandstones alternating with slightly softer slates, results in a tight and rugged relief of several meters of hard rock with a unique small-scale biodiversity. This relief is not conducive to golf course construction at all. The headland will have to get blasted to smithereens and the sandstone crushed to make for golf bunkers and softly rolling relief. Gone will be the shorebirds, the kelp forests, the Ospreys and all other fragile coastal habitats. “Selfish activity within the group provides competitive advantage but is commonly destructive to the group as a whole,” writes world-renowned Harvard ecologist and evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson.

In analogy with E.O. Wilson’s observation, our history of land abuse provided a short-lasting competitive advantage for the colonizers but has now become destructive to us as a society. Allowing fragile public lands to be owned by foreign land grabbers, who will turn it into a sterile resort, accessible only to an exclusive elite for a limited time of year, perpetuates and reinforces colonial culture. Also, this is a wet, cool, foggy coast and I know for sure that golfers don’t like that kind of weather, as confirmed by avid golfer and Nova Scotia lawyer Dale Dunlop here.

Real leadership is providing what all people need, not what some people want. The community of Little Harbour doesn’t need low wage seasonal jobs from a foreign enterprise that will cater only to other (foreign) billionaires. All Nova Scotians need more public spaces, more wilderness, more parks, more trails, more publicly accessible coastline and more opportunities to create their own livelihoods and be in charge of their own resources and their own destiny.

Undo the theft. Give us back Owl’s Head.

Earth scientist Elisabeth Kosters sent this open letter to Premier Iain Rankin and Kings South MLA (and Nova Scotia Minister of Environment and Climate Change) Keith Irving on March 22, 2021. It has been republished with her permission.

Elizabeth says: “The theft of Owl’s Head came out of left field. I have visited the Eastern Shore extensively. I have friends there. I have kayaked its shores and walked its coastline. It’s a pretty empty part of our already empty Province. But the land grabbers thought that too and manipulated our authorities in giving it away. This act of betrayal prompted this letter. I’m not the only one who is upset – fortunately. We hope we can turn the tide.

To read Elizabeth’s follow-up letter, please click here.

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