A photo of a crop of rocky land jutting out to the coast. A few people are standing atop the rocky area where there is also a tower.
Owls Head. Photo: CPAWS

Owls Head is officially Nova Scotia’s newest provincial park.

In a news release on Tuesday, the province announced protection of 266 hectares of Crown lands at Owls Head in Little Harbour.

“The designation of this land as a provincial park is a clear indication of our promise to protect more land in Nova Scotia,” said Tory Rushton, Minister of Natural Resources and Renewables. “We are committed to transparency and giving the public an opportunity to provide input on how public lands are used, managed and protected.”

The release said the department will manage the park as a natural park reserve. The public will have access to the area but there won’t be any services, including garbage collection, washrooms, or parking.

The designation comes more than two years after the provincial Treasury Board quietly removed Owls Head from a list of provincial properties awaiting designation. While Owls Head was long known as Owls Head provincial park, it didn’t have official park status. Michael Gorman at CBC broke the story about the removal of the Owls Head from the list, which took place after months of lobbying by a private developer, G. S. Beckwith Gilbert, the president of Lighthouse Links Development, who wanted to build up to three golf courses in the area.

Theresa Pelley from West Chezzetcook was one of more than 200 people who attended August’s ‘Save Owls Head’ rally. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

News of the removal of Owls Head caused considerable outcry in the community and across the province. As Joan Baxter reported in February 2020, concerned citizens set up a Facebook page. The Eastern Shore Cooperator created its own “Owls Head resource page” on its website. And the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) launched an action page urging people to send letters to the Nova Scotia government. Signs saying “Stop the Government Sale! Save Owls Head Provincial Park” popped up in Owls Head, Little Harbour, and throughout HRM. Owls Head has a globally-rare plant ecosystem and is a habitat for species at risk, including the endangered barn swallow.

In July 2021, Justice Christa Brothers dismissed citizens’ request for a judicial review of the delisting and potential sale of Owls Head Provincial Park. As Zane Woodford reported:

Biologist Bob Bancroft and the Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association asked the court to review the government decision last year, and made their case in court in April, as Jennifer Henderson reported for the Examiner. The applicants argued that the government had a duty to consult with the public before agreeing to sell the property, even though it wasn’t technically protected.

In a written decision released Friday but dated Monday, Justice Christa Brothers argued that the court would be setting too much of a precedent, that accepting the argument would mean decisions about any land “identified as having public value beyond the value of Crown lands generally” would be subject to a public process.

“Judicial acceptance of this ‘public trust doctrine’ would mean that Owls Head, and any other lands the government has recognized as having such public value, could not be sold without public consultation,” Brothers wrote.

“I conclude that recognition of the public trust doctrine proposed by the applicants would not represent the kind of incremental change to the common law that this court is permitted to make.”

In the timely decision, Brothers wrote that if citizens have a problem with politicians’ decisions, they should head to the polls.

“Elected officials on occasion make decisions, and use procedures, that leave some constituents feeling betrayed and even incensed. Where those officials exceed their power, judicial review may provide a remedy,” Brothers wrote.

In August 2021, citizens held a rally in downtown Halifax to round up support to save the park.

In September 2021, CBC reported that Gilbert and Lighthouse Links had decided to put the plans for golf courses on hold until they met with officials with the new Houston government.

A group of women dressed in traditional Mi'kmaw attire celebrate at a gathering.
Grassroots grandmothers during a water ceremony at Owls Head provincial park in October 2021. Photo: Contributed

Sydnee Lynn McKay, who grew up in Little Harbour, founded the first Facebook group to save Owls Head and get official designation for the park. The Facebook group has more than 10,000 members, and McKay said they gathered more than 10,000 signatures on petitions over the last two years. McKay said she is “overwhelmed” about today’s news.

“I am really happy and excited,” McKay said in an interview with the Examiner. “All I can say is congratulations to everyone for their hard work. As a province, we do have to stick together on issues such as this.”

McKay said to celebrate she was going to invite the Grassroots Grandmothers to Owls Head provincial park to perform a water ceremony.

“We’ll have a feast, share some food, and do some prayers on the land, and be grateful,” McKay said.

McKay said the designation means the flora and fauna in the park will be protected, and groups like CPAWS can still do scientific research in the park.

“Our voices were heard,” McKay said. “Don’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe in.”

Meanwhile, Chris Miller, executive director of CPAWS-Nova Scotia, said the designation was the “best possible outcome for Owls Head.”

“It corrects the wrong,” Miller told the Examiner in a message. “It ensures that the coastal ecosystems and wildlife will be protected. It guarantees that this very special place will remain in public ownership.”

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Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. Journalism (the information) + Engaged Citizens (the power) = More Effective Democracy (the decisions)

    The bad guys almost got away with this one.