Nearly four years after directing city staff to start buying the land to make it happen, Halifax regional council wants to see a plan for the long-promised park at Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes.
The picturesque area between Bayers Lake and Hammonds Plains — 1,700 hectares, or 4,200 acres, of which is a provincially-protected wilderness area — was facing significant risk back from encroaching development back in 2016. Galvanized by that threat and a consultant’s report that recommended in favour of allowing subdivisions to reach further into the wilderness, the public came together to demand that council protect it.
Council voted in September 2016 to deny a request from one developer, Annapolis Group, and forge ahead with buying up the land to circle the provincially-protected wilderness with a buffer zone in the form of a city park — something the city has planned to do since 2006.
Since 2016, the city has made a few land purchases, totalling about 210 hectares, or 500 acres. But advocates for the park worry there’s no overarching plan, that those purchases are happening haphazardly and infrequently.
It doesn’t help that this year’s budget for parkland acquisition is now only $100,000, cut from $500,000 due to COVID-19, and cut from $7 million the year before.
Now, the councillor for part of the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes area, Richard Zurawski, is looking for a formal plan.
Zurawski brought a motion to council’s meeting on Tuesday asking for a staff report outlining that plan, including “projected land acquisition needs for the creation of the park, expected costs associated with land acquisition, projected costs of maintenance of the park before, during and after the acquisition of the necessary lands, staff requirements to maintain the park, boundaries of the park, timeline for the creation of the park, potential sources of funding for the creation and maintenance of the park, and mitigation of threats to park at this juncture.”
“The staff report is required because of the changing nature of our municipal budgets, and because of threats to the existing forests from fire, pests, and overuse,” Zurawski’s motion concluded.
Speaking during Tuesday’s meeting, Zurawski said he’s heard of several small fires in the wilderness area recently.
“If we do get a fire there, not only will we lose the potential park, it’ll also be a threat to a lot of residents in and around that area, including Kingswood, Timberlea, the new Larry Uteck subdivisions and Saskatoon Drive,” he said.
Overuse without a plan is another major problem for the wilderness area, as Chris Miller, executive director of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, explained in a recent Halifax Examiner story:
In 2014, he said the provincial government asked him for help with an issue.
“A whole bunch of unofficial trails were being created without approval,” Miller said in an interview last week.
“That’s really important from an ecological perspective because Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes is experiencing a lot of public use and that risks damaging the ecological integrity of the place that we’re actually trying to protect. If that use is occurring on trails that aren’t designed in the proper way, then the damage is much worse.”
Miller gives the example of a trail up a steep slope. That trail will eventually erode and spread out, destroying a larger area. A planner would avoid it altogether.
“In Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes right now, there’s a lot of examples where the trails just run straight up really steep slopes, and of course the damage is spreading and getting bigger as more and more people use that area,” Miller said.
“Another example would be wetlands. It’s really crucial to avoid wetlands and areas that are wet. They’re really important for conservation and trails should avoid those as much as possible. A number of the trails in Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes that were informally built over the last number of years go right through the middle of a lot of these wetlands.”
With the pandemic “changing the nature of how we value and use our green spaces and public spaces,” Zurawski said “the potential for the park is enormous.”
“We see that in the increased use. What’s happened is, with the lockdown, more and more folks have decided to make use of our wilderness reserve, and they’ve been going through private property, they’ve been going in through many, many other areas that just don’t have proper access to the potential park,” he said.
He wants the report coming back to council, and the subsequent plan to be made public, given the city’s desire to buy the land is its “worst-kept secret.”
“I think we need something that’s definitive at this particular time so we can stop nailing Jello to the wall,” he said.
The motion passed unanimously.