Let’s go back to 2013, when our provincial government, in partnership with numerous stakeholders, created the Parks and Protected Areas Plan.
It was an inspired document, identifying huge tracts of land that were ripe for formal protection either as wilderness areas, nature reserves, or provincial parks, most of which were mapped, surveyed, studied, and consulted upon ahead of time, gift-wrapped and, in most cases, simply awaiting an order in council to make them official.
This plan committed us to protecting all these identified lands by 2020, going so far as removing them from the economic arena and prohibition destructive practices like forestry and mining until their protection was final. They’ve been waiting in limbo ever since, and we’ve been slowly chipped away at the list.
In December 2015, for example, government designated 65 of these sites in a single month. Smaller batches have come through since, such as three in November 2018, including the Wentworth Valley Wilderness Area (2,000 hectares), Chase Lake Wilderness Area (849 hectares) and the 203 hectare Steepbank Brook Nature Reserve.
Just this month, another 27 sites (14,400 hectares) were slated for official protection by the end of the year, much of which coming from the Parks and Protected Areas Plan. This is very good news and well worth celebrating. A few of these 27 sites have been working toward protection for 20 years, the efforts of locals, charities, and government alike. With these secured, we will have officially protected 12.7 per cent of our provincial landmass.
But during this most recent announcement, and in fact every time it comes up, our leaders avoid mention of the Parks and Protected Areas Plan, instead saying their overall goal is to protect “13 per cent of the province,” a statement that is disconcerting, and decidedly untrue.
Remember that in 2013 we committed to protecting every scrap of wilderness identified in the Parks and Protected Areas Plan, and if you add those lands still awaiting protection to our existing total, you get a little over 14 per cent. So, in fact, our legislated goal is 14 per cent of Nova Scotia and not 13. In case a single percentage point sounds insignificant to you, it amounts to a sum of land larger than Kejimkujik National Park.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is a Canadian charity and watchdog organization that promotes the protection of national wilderness and makes sure that lands already protected are being managed to a high standard. Their Nova Scotian chapter was as thrilled as myself when these 27 sites were announced on Oct. 1, but likewise concerned by mention of a mere 13 per cent.
“It’s deeply concerning,” executive director Chris Miller told me, explaining that 13 per cent is a meaningless target with no basis in legislation, rendered irrelevant by the superior targets written into the Parks and Protected Areas Plan. Our government’s insistence on 13 per cent suggests they are planning to stop short of designating all 75 sites still waiting in limbo, perhaps pushing some of them back into the economic arena in spite of their resident species-at-risk, old growth forests, and representative ecosystems.
“I think it would be an absolute tragedy if the government stopped at 13 per cent,” said Miller. “It would essentially mean a bunch of sites promised for protection get thrown under the bus and returned to industry. That means sites set aside for protection (under the plan) would suddenly be available for clearcutting and mining.”
When it comes to the dual crises of mass extinction and climate change, there is perhaps no more important undertaking than the swift and permanent protection of intact wilderness, a fact taken more and more seriously by governments near and far. The international community, for example, set the target of protecting 17 per cent of our planet’s landmass by 2020, a commitment Canada signed onto and is working toward, though slowly.
Conservation is not without its victories and the 27 sites announced on Oct. 1 are no exception. I’ve explored many of them and can attest to their spectacle, maturity, and biological wealth. Of particular note are the McGowan Lake Wilderness Area, Cape Split Provincial Park, and St. Mary’s River Provincial Park, each of which has captured my imagination in recent years and never let go. I am grateful to the political momentum that finally allowed for these investments in a sustainable future, and earnestly hope that our courage and good faith will not fail at 13 per cent.
The Parks and Protected Areas Plan is set for completion next year, a deadline which is still entirely achievable, and there is not a single undeserving site on its list. They are all integral to our natural heritage, and may only see protection with the careful watch of organizations like CPAWS and, of course, an informed public. Not only must we insist that our leaders designate every one of these sites by the end of 2020, we must then insist that they aim higher, taking on Canada’s 17 per cent commitment locally, or doing better still.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist, and author active across the Maritimes.