Environmentalists who celebrated extra cash in last year’s municipal budget for park land protection are worried a reduced budget for next year means the city is again forgetting about Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes.
Halifax regional council is working on the capital and operating budgets for the year ahead, meeting weekly over the next few months. The 2019-2020 capital budget included $7 million for park land acquisition. For 2020-2021, that line item is just $500,000.
“It’s surprising, it’s disappointing, it’s disheartening,” said Raymond Plourde, wilderness co-ordinator with the Ecology Action Centre.
The city has promised a park at Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes for more than a decade.
The provincial government protected 1,300 hectares of land in the area, located between Bayer’s Lake and Hammonds Plains, in 2009. It increased the wilderness area to more than 1,700 hectares in 2015, creating a protected area about the size of peninsular Halifax.
The municipality‘s role is to create a buffer zone surrounding the wilderness area in the form of a park. For years there was little progress, but in 2016 council refocused its efforts following significant public opposition to a controversial report recommending development in the adjacent area, voting to direct staff to start buying land.
“I’m afraid that Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes and the solemn commitments of a few years ago are just being forgotten by this council,” Plourde said.
“We see an incredibly unambitious park land acquisition fund this year, a pittance of what we were told we would see in the coming years.”
The municipality purchased about 80 hectares of land in the Hobson’s Lake area in 2018, marking its first purchase for the park.
With $7 million budgeted for park land acquisition, 2019 was a banner year for Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes purchases, with Halifax using federal money and its own to secure about 130 hectares of land for the proposed park from two sellers.
“Last year was a really important year for conservation,” said Chris Miller, executive director of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
Miller celebrated the 2019-2020 budget as “welcome news” for the park, and noted that the city carried forward another $2.7 million from previous years as well. He hoped the purchases would continue at that pace.
“The current level that’s proposed for the next fiscal year is too low; $500,000 is not enough in order to complete the land purchases for Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes,” Miller said.
The $500,000 isn’t just for Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes either. That money also has to go to a park around Sandy Lake in Bedford, trails in several areas, and other parks in places like Lake Echo, Porters Lake, Cole Harbour, and Eastern Passage.
“That’s too much to accomplish with $500,000. Those are all worthwhile projects. So the only real solution to that is to increase the level of investment for these things,” Miller said.
Municipal spokesperson Brendan Elliott said there was a spike in the park land acquisition budget in 2019-2020 for “significant known acquisitions,” including those in Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes and the new park on the Purcell’s Cove backlands.
“While $500,000 is proposed in next year’s capital budget, the municipality continues to be active in obtaining lands that are identified in the municipality’s regional plan or that are the subject of direction from Regional Council,” Elliott said in an email.
Elliott said the municipality also has money in reserve accounts that can be used if a property comes up for more than $500,000.
But Plourde worries council is distracted with another reserve withdrawal — $20 million for a CFL stadium.
“All that air seems to have gone out of the tires since this stadium thing has become the shiny bobble that seems to have attracted their attention and, worse, our taxpayer money,” Plourde said.
Miller is concerned that the city won’t be able to tap into more federal funding.
“I don’t think we should leave any money on the table, particularly since Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes is so important and there’s so much public support for acquiring those properties,” he said.
“Now is the time to be investing in those land purchases. The price of land is only going up, so if you buy now, it’s much better than waiting five or six years to do it.”
Miller also wants to see Halifax contribute to a fundraising campaign by the Nova Scotia Nature Trust, which is aiming to raise $2.1 million to fill in the disjointed provincial wilderness area with a 230-hectare parcel.
“It’s such an important connector piece for the entire Blue Mountain–Birch Cove Lakes,” Miller said.
Budget deliberations are expected to last until April, when regional council will approve capital and operating budgets adding up to nearly $1 billion.