For years, Evan Hansen had welcomed hikers crossing his South Rawdon property to see the Wood Brook and Greenhill waterfalls.
But now, he says, the falls have just become too popular, and he can’t take the disruption anymore. So he’s posted “no trespassing” signs. Wood Brook falls are on Hansen’s land (“probably within 100 yards of my house,” he said in an interview) and Greenhill falls are close by.
Hansen owns 180 acres, and described it as “a beautiful area, hemlocks hanging over the brook. It’s very undisturbed wilderness.”
Hansen explained his decision in an open letter posted to several popular Facebook groups devoted to local waterfalls. He pointed to problems including garbage, feces, people putting up flagging tape or cutting their own trails through his woods, damage to his property, and illegal campfires.
He wrote, “During the drought and fire ban this summer, at least two campfires were attempted. One on a high rock ledge in pine needles. The burn circle extended six feet. The other, a green maple tree was cut but because it was green it would not burn fully. There has always been a problem with fires but during a drought it causes a lot of anxiety for myself and my neighbors. Fear of being burned out is real.”
And he worries about public safety. “There have been days where there might be 8 or 10 vehicles parked on the pavement on the main road, which is extremely dangerous because it’s between two blind hills,” Hansen told me. “And people don’t normally hike alone…. That kind of traffic in a single day on private property takes a toll.”
I heard a long sigh over the phone when I called Hansen and asked to talk about his letter. It’s not hard to find Facebook posts with people upset about lack of access to properties that once welcomed hikers.
“When I posted that letter, it was to speak my side and provide visibility so people wouldn’t waste their time driving out,” said Hansen, an electrical engineer who grew up in Elmsdale. He said he worried about getting a lot of negative feedback, “because that’s the way it goes on Facebook,” but instead was surprised by how understanding people were.
Hansen said traffic to waterfalls on private land used to be sustainable. But he sees two problems. First, increasing awareness of the sites, thanks to social media and Benoît Lalonde’s bestselling 2018 guidebook Waterfalls of Nova Scotia. And second, a lack of knowledge about proper outdoor etiquette. The two issues, he thinks, are related.
“The problem is the ability of the internet to target large numbers of people to a specific location. That’s unprecedented… That’s the first problem: the pure focus and the number of people they can put on a natural area,” Hansen said. Nova Scotia Waterfalls, the largest of the local Facebook groups devoted to the subject, has over 42,000 members. Another related group has over 12,000 members, and there are smaller groups as well.
It’s not just that these groups have the potential to bring thousands of people to a particular location. It’s that those coming may not have great outdoor skills or experience.
In the past, Hansen said, “you would have a nature conservancy club, people with a common interest who go on hikes together, and they police each other.” Or, people looking for a waterfall “would ask a neighbour, or look on a topo map, find an area that looks promising, and hike there to find it.” Now, he said, the problem is that most people will not put in that effort and hikers are often “not conservation oriented… So it’s a problem both in terms of scale and the audience that it brings.”
Stresses caused by increased interest in waterfalls are being felt closer to the city as well. Access to Pockwock Falls, off the Hammonds Plains Road in the western part of the Halifax Regional Municipality, has been a source of tension.
In an interview, Councillor Pam Lovelace, whose district includes Pockwock Falls, said, “When you have a popular trail, you get a lot of people in an area not designed for a lot of people and vehicles.” And, she added, “the other issue is garbage… There’s an incredible amount of garbage back there.” Some of this is litter, and some is from years of illegal dumping.”
Lovelace said municipal compliance staff had been out to the trailhead “educating people on parking properly on the side of the road so as to not impede other vehicles and emergency vehicles, to not park on private property and to not park and block people’s driveways…. You would think that would be obvious.”
In a post to the Nova Scotia Waterfalls Facebook group, Lovelace wrote:
Hello, I would like Pockwock Trail users to know that HRM Transportation staff will be working in the Upper Hammonds Plains community to mitigate conflict at the Pockwock Falls trailhead with respect to parking.
The trail is a HRM right of way and was the old road to Kemptown at Wrights Lake. The road was once crown land, but it’s not now. There is private land on either side of the ROW, so please be careful not to park on private land or block driveways.
Please leave no trace when using the trail by taking out what you bring in.
Lovelace also thinks it would be helpful if people had more knowledge of the communities they were visiting when they go hiking to waterfalls. “With the Pockwock waterfall, people need to be aware of the history of the community. It’s a Black heritage community. That trail actually goes to the top of Wrights Lake, and at the top of the lake there was a burgeoning mill community at Kemptown — it’s the Kemptown road.”
For his part Lalonde, by day a scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, is sympathetic to Hansen and others who live near falls — but he thinks the issues go beyond the publication of his book, which he said has sold about 7,000 copies.
“Is having a book on waterfalls driving more people to see waterfalls and contributing to these kinds of issues? The simple answer would be yes, obviously, because the more people know about anything in life the more traffic you’re going to get,” Lalonde said in an interview. But he noted that one person posting in the Nova Scotia Waterfalls Facebook group “has more reach than anything I’ve published.” (The group’s admin declined to be interviewed.)
He added, “It’s really unfortunate, because waterfall hunting — getting out in nature off-trail — is a wonderful activity. You could literally send 10,000 people on a trail and not know anybody was there. But you can have one bad apple, cutting down a tree or writing graffiti — I think we are seeing more of those. And I find traffic in the wilderness is getting more and more heavy every single year. I remember moving to Nova Scotia 20 years ago and going to Cape Split on a weekend and pretty much having the place to myself. Now it’s like a conveyor belt of people. There is nothing wrong with that — there is an explosion in self-propelled nature adventure — but I think it’s unfortunate there are people out there who don’t respect it.”
Lalonde said he has an etiquette section in his book, which essentially comes down to following “the ‘leave no trace’ etiquette. It’s not rocket science, I don’t understand what people are not getting about it.”
Landowners like Hansen can post “no trespassing” signs, but they still have to rely on the goodwill of hikers to respect them.
Under Nova Scotia’s Protection of Property Act, passed in 1989, recreational activity on private land will not be prosecuted, even if the land is posted.
Heather Fairbairn, speaking for the Nova Scotia Department of Justice, explained the relevant provisions of the act in an email:
As outlined under the Protection of Property Act, section 3(1) (e) pertains to entry on a premises where the entry is prohibited by notice. As outlined in section 3(2), such notice may be given orally or in writing. In accordance with Section 3(3), where the notice is in writing, the sign shall be posted so that it is clearly visible in daylight under normal conditions from the approach to each usual point of access to the premises to which it applies. As outlined under section 15, there is no prosecution for recreational activity.
The Department of Justice’s Summary Offence Ticket booklet does list offences for which tickets for $237.50 can be issued, including entering enclosed premises, removing posted signs, or not leaving when asked.
Access to private property is also allowed under the Angling Act, with restrictions. Essentially, if you have a fishing licence and rod, you can walk along the banks of a river, perhaps to access a waterfall. Fairbairn writes:
The rights and responsibilities of anglers are outlined under the Angling Act, which states under Section 3(1) any resident of the Province shall have the right to go on foot along the banks of any river, stream or lake, upon and across uncultivated lands and Crown lands for the purpose of lawfully fishing with rod and line in such rivers, streams or lakes.
Although hikers will not be prosecuted for accessing posted private property for recreational purposes, Lalonde said he does not condone it.
“My rule of thumb is if I go to a place and I see a “no trespassing” sign or a gate, that stops it for me. I know the rules in Nova Scotia allow you to access that land anyway, but I don’t advocate that at all. If you are an asshole, basically you can say I’m following the Angling Act, and if I have a fishing licence I can access any river or stream in Nova Scotia and there’s nothing you can say,” he said. “The point is, if the landowner is putting up a sign, I stop there… If you really want to go and there is signage preventing you, knock on some doors, go find the person and ask for permission.”
For his part, Hansen is sympathetic to people wanting to get out into nature. He said he understands the motivation for not charging people for recreational use of private land, because “it’s a fundamental privilege in Canada that everyone has access to nature. But,” he added, “Those laws don’t account for the damage that can be done by internet resources.”
“I used the only tool in my toolbelt which was to post the property,” Hansen said. “To own a property like this is a dream, and I consider myself a steward of it, and it’s getting willed to the Nova Scotia Nature Trust. What options do I have? I can’t pick up bags of garbage or have people yell at me for having my dog off leash on my own property… Unfortunately those who show respect have to stay away now too.”
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