Halifax regional council unanimously rejected a recommendation from staff and voted on Tuesday to spend $750,000 to help the Nova Scotia Nature Trust fill a big gap in the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes wilderness area.
Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes is the picturesque area between Bayers Lake and Hammonds Plains. Within that area, 1,700 hectares, or 4,200 acres, is a provincially-protected wilderness area. The municipality has bought a few parcels of its own over the last few years, aiming to create a municipal park acting as a buffer around the wilderness.
And last fall, the Nova Scotia Nature Trust announced it was fundraising to buy a piece of land to bridge a gap in the wilderness and create a 12-kilometre stretch. It calls the 232-hectare, or 575-acre, area the Blue Mountain Wilderness Connector.
The Nature Trust approached the city after coming to an agreement with the landowners, Robin Wilber and Bill Fenton, that they would donate a portion of the appraised value of the land, about $400,000 of the total of just over $2 million.
The ask for the city was $750,000.
“Supporting this project is an easy win for Halifax,” Nature Trust conservation project coordinator Allison Thorne told council’s environment committee in March. “It’s been recognized by the city as a high-value area for conservation as far back as 1971.”
But in a report to council’s meeting on Tuesday, municipal manager of policy and planning Richard Harvey recommended against providing the funding.
Harvey’s report said there was “merit” to the Nature Trust’s request.
“However, the municipality’s financial situation is a challenge in supporting the request,” Harvey wrote.
“The magnitude of the grant would normally be through the annual budget process or through reserve withdrawals, such as strategic reserves. The financial situation as a result of Covid-19 means not only are this year’s revenues impacted, but the future is unknown. Until there is a better understanding of the municipality’s finances on a longer term, it is recommended that Regional Council not approve the request from the Nature Trust, regardless of the merits of the lands as outlined above.”
Coun. Richard Zurawski, who’s Timberlea-Beechville-Clayton Park district includes part of the wilderness area, called that an excuse, and urged his fellow councillors to reject the staff recommendation.
“I am worried that we are going to lose this opportunity because if we don’t take this money the Nature Trust has given to us, add to it the $750,000, the entire park infrastructure, the ability to have Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes park is in jeopardy,” Zurawski said Tuesday.
The report wouldn’t even have come to council in time if not for Mayor Mike Savage and Richard Zurawski asking staff to fast-track it.
The Nature Trust initially needed a commitment from Halifax by June 1. That deadline was extended to July 31.
“I’ll be very honest, I’m a little disappointed. This wouldn’t be on the agenda today if I hadn’t found out last week that there was a potential closing date of the end of July,” Savage said.
“I don’t know if the date is malleable … I don’t want to take the chance on potentially losing this deal.”
Aside from the COVID-19 argument, Harvey said the land was outside the area council had identified for the municipal park.
“The subject lands are identified with a broader BMBCL area that encompasses the adjoining designated provincial lands, but they are outside the conceptual boundary of the Regional Park shown on Map 11 of the Regional Plan,” Harvey wrote.
“Consequently, they have not been the subject of municipal acquisition efforts or planning. Within the context of the existing Regional Plan, the municipality continues to place an emphasis on the BMBCL park boundaries that are identified on Map 11.”
Raymond Plourde, wilderness coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, rejects that argument. His group posted a detailed rebuttal to the staff report over the weekend. Addressing the map, it says:
The title of the map indicates that the Regional Wilderness Park includes all of the map, including the elements that extend westward to and including Cox Lake Provincial Park Reserve, Provincial Wilderness Area land, and the Nature Trust proposed conservation lands. The subject lands are within the Core Wilderness that is vital for a large-scale, resilient park proposed in the definition of a Regional Park.
Plourde also notes the municipality has already purchased land outside the concept boundary in Map 11, as seen in a map shown on the municipality’s website.
“We believe that staff simply do not understand the history and background and are ultimately wrong,” Plourde said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting.
Along with other activists in groups like Friends of Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lakes, Plourde spent the weekend organizing supporters of the park and encouraging them to contact their councillors. He said nearly 1,000 people did so using a form on the Ecology Action Centre’s website.
The outcry was reminiscent of the 1,500 people expressing their support for the park following a report recommending the city allow development within the boundary.
“This is a park that has seized the imagination of an entire municipality,” Plourde said.
“Anybody who wants to threaten this park, whether they be bureaucrats, whether they be politicians or developers, take note, that if this park is threatened … the citizenry will rise up in big numbers to defend it.”
Plourde was “delighted” with Tuesday’s outcome, but concerned the ambiguity with the maps wasn’t cleared up.
Zurawski gave notice of motion at the end of the meeting to try to fix that ambiguity. At the next council meeting, on Aug. 18, Zurawski will move that “for clarity of staff and certainty for the public, that council make clear that the full working outline as represented on Map 11, including the western lands to Cox Lake represent council’s ideal or aspirational vision for the future of Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes park.”
In a statement, Chris Miller, executive director of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, applauded council’s decision.
“We are pleased with the decision of Regional Council today. This has been a difficult year and many people have found some measure of comfort by spending time in nature. We need places like Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes for our health and well being. Today is a good day.”
Assuming the sale goes through, the Nature Trust will own the land and be responsible for stewardship — “to retain their ecological integrity and provide opportunities for wilderness recreation, including hiking, canoeing, and nature appreciation,” according to the staff report.