A years-long impasse between an aquatic club, a conservation group and the provincial government has come to a head — leading to the blocking of one of the most popular Blue Mountain Birch-Cove Lakes trailheads.
Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes is the picturesque area between Bayers Lake and Hammonds Plains — 1,700 hectares, or 4,200 acres, of which is a provincially-protected wilderness area.
The trailhead at the end of Saskatoon Drive is on land leased by the Maskwa Aquatic Club on Kearney Lake. The club recently put up no trespassing signs in its parking lot. “Unauthorized access for recreational or any other activities is strictly prohibited,” reads one sign.
This is just the latest hit to public access to the trails and lakes in the area. In late March, hikers found no trespassing signs on property lines of the private lands next to the wilderness area, owned by developer Annapolis Group Inc.
But this blockage is different: the public is being barred from using publicly owned land to access publicly owned and protected wilderness.
Maskwa leases its land from the provincial Department of Lands and Forestry, and the canoe and kayak club posted on its Facebook page, explaining that the lease “states that the property can only be used for the private activities related to the Maskwa Aquatic Club.
“The lease includes the land for the clubhouse, parking lots, docks, beach and access to the Blue Mountain Trails trailhead,” the post said.
The club put up the signs due to increased use and a lack of social distancing during the pandemic, and after restrictions loosened, it said its signs were vandalized and the chain across its parking lot pulled down.
“While we appreciate the desire for entrance to the Blue Mountain Trails, we are unable to open the access point to the public,” the post said.
The group Friends of Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes tweeted that the club had effectively closed off access to the trails.
“Hope we can find a solution!”
A five-year impasse
A solution is a long time coming for Chris Miller — five years, to be exact.
Miller, the executive director of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, CPAWS, has been working to protect the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes wilderness area for more than 20 years.
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.”
CPAWS, Maskwa, and the Halifax Northwest Trails Association joined forces in 2014 and developed a plan. The government laid out the steps, including research, hiring a trails planner and undertaking two rounds of public consultation.
By 2015, the plan — for multiple stacked trails looping at varying lengths from Maskwa while protecting ecologically sensitive areas — was complete.
“Public use of Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes has surged and it’s occurring without an official trail system in place. We anticipated that surge,” Miller said. “We planned for it by doing the trails planning. And then in 2015, when we were ready to start implementing the plan, everything stopped.”
CPAWS and Maskwa had started process to fundraise and get the trails built, and then Miller said the Department of Lands and Forestry, then called the Department of Natural Resources, put a stop to the plan — “even though they were involved in developing that plan.”
“It’s been five years we’ve been trying to sort out this mess and now here we are, five years later and the surge is happening and people are using Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes at very high levels and there’s a lot of damage that’s occurring to the protected area,” Miller said.
The Department of Lands and Forestry interprets its lease with Maskwa to mean that the land is for “exclusive use” by the aquatic club, meaning it’s not to be used for public access to the wilderness area.
“They are the ones that are saying that the public can’t use the public trails on those public lands, and that’s not right. That’s not right at all,” Miller said.
“It’s a bit of a mess in there and it needs to be fixed … and we actually have a pretty good plan in place, but the government has refused to implement it. And the reason why they’ve refused to implement it … is that they have concluded that the public is not able to use public lands within the Maskwa lease area.”
Maskwa has tried to encourage the creation of the trails, Miller said, and now they’ve now been put in the “impossible situation” of having to block access to the land.
“Most of the public won’t understand that it’s not Maskwa’s fault,” Miller said. “The government has refused to allow Maskwa and others to develop a proper trails plan there despite the government reaching out to us and saying, ‘We want your help in developing a system of trails here.’”
An easy fix
The new signage has exposed the long-standing impasse, and now Miller believes it’s time to fix it.
“This is not rocket science,” Miller said. “This is a really simple fix to an important problem and this is the time that it has to happen.”
Miller sent a letter to Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin last week, copying Environment Minister Gordon Wilson, area MP Geoff Regan, area MLA Rahah Dicostanzo and area Coun. Richard Zurawski, breaking down the situation and calling for action.
Several attempts have been made, since (2015), to find a solution to this impasse, including amending the Maskwa lease to allow public trails within the lease area, or modifying the lease boundary to exclude the public trails entirely, or some combination of both. Months dragged into years, and we still don’t have a permanent solution to this problem, despite considerable energy on the part of many individuals to find a workable solution.
Miller believes Maskwa’s lease is currently being revised, and he’s worried it won’t be fixed.
We are writing to you today because it has come to our attention that the Nova Scotia government is in the final stages of issuing a new lease to Maskwa. We also note that new signs have appeared at Maskwa saying that the public is not allowed to use these public lands. These two points together make us very concerned that the Nova Scotia government is preparing to issue a new lease to Maskwa that doesn’t actually fix the problem of the existing lease, which blocks public access to these public lands and prohibits the implementation of a proper network of public trails for BMBCL. We hope that is not the case.
The letter goes on to ask the government to either modify the lease to permit public access and let CPAWS, Maskwa and the Halifax Northwest Trails Association implement their trails plan, or to add the Crown land unused by Maskwa to the wilderness area.
On that second point, Miller has two reasons he’d like to see the land added to the wilderness area.
The first is ecological: there are “unique ecosystems” in the area and it’s home to some of the only deep soil and old growth red spruce forest in the area.
The second is practical.
“From a management point of view, I’m absolutely fed up with the Department of Lands and Forestry. I don’t want to work with them on trails planning,” Miller said. “They have created this mess.”
He’d prefer to work with the Department of Environment, which manages protected lands like the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes wilderness area.
“They know what they’re doing and they’re the people that should be the sole division in government that’s responsible for this project.”
The Halifax Examiner emailed spokespersons from both departments seeking a response to Miller’s letter. Department of Lands and Forestry spokesperson Lisa Jarrett responded.
“There is a current land lease in place, which is intended for the sole use by Maskwa, as the leaseholder,” Jarrett said in an email.
“Maskwa has requested changes to reduce the area of land in their lease. That work is in progress.”