Commentary by Dale Smith Saltwire - Dec.12, 2022
Originally published here
Dale Smith, retired, served as manager of parks planning with the Natural Resources Department and as director of protected areas with the Environment Department.
The Cabot Group’s proposed golf course development would not only be devastating in its impact on West Mabou Beach Provincial Park but also threatens all provincial parks in Nova Scotia.
The immediate upwelling of public opposition fully attests to West Mabou Beach’s renown as a crown jewel within our provincial park system. Adding insult to injury, the proposed development brazenly focuses directly on, and would run roughshod over, the most ecologically significant and sensitive elements of the park: its extensive dune system and habitats of rare plants and animals.
The recent contention around golf course proposals for West Mabou and Owls Head surely must have Nova Scotians, locally in the Mabou area and across the province, wondering if our provincial park properties will ever be truly protected from the ambitions of private developers and the presumed entitlements of political operatives.
The provincewide controversy regarding Owls Head erupted in December 2019 following the public revelation of a deal, hatched several years previously, to sell Crown land at that location to enable a private golf course development inspired by Cabot’s success story in the Inverness area.
Although many Nova Scotians understood the provincial land at Owls Head to be a park reserve, this land had never been formally designated under the Provincial Parks Act. Iain Rankin, lands and forestry minister at the time and later premier, steadfastly clung to this technicality in defending the sale agreement, a position some feel contributed to his government’s fall in August 2021.
The incoming Houston government had campaigned on pausing the Owls Head sale, pending public consultation and environmental review. However, when in office and faced with ever-more strident and entrenched public opposition, the commitment to designate was announced in June this year and subsequently confirmed publicly by newspaper advertisement on Nov. 1.
It is noteworthy that, while the Owls Head deal lurked unseen in the shadows (before being publicly exposed), then-minister Rankin turned his back to Cabot’s initial gambit to gain access to West Mabou Beach in 2018, based on its protected status as a designated provincial park.
Rankin subsequently provided assurances of the province’s commitment to protect the park:
“It is the intent of this government to keep West Mabou Beach designated as a provincial park to ensure the preservation of the coastal beach and dune system in perpetuity,” he wrote in an email to the West Mabou Beach Committee.
“The purpose of designating land under the Provincial Parks Act is to preserve unique, rare, representative or otherwise significant elements of natural environment and historic resources of Nova Scotia and that all provincial parks are dedicated in perpetuity for the benefit of present and future generations of Nova Scotians.”
In contrast, Tim Houston’s response to media inquiries about the current Cabot proposal asserted that “if something comes forward, we will look at that” and “there will be extensive public consultation before anything would even be considered.”
The premier’s remarks are, at best, worrisome. If a proposal were to be received and given consideration, the natural integrity of West Mabou Beach immediately would be placed in jeopardy. Furthermore, the precedent set effectively would nullify the perceived protection gains afforded by the designation of Owls Head, and all existing designated provincial parks would be signalled as being open for business.
At the same time, hopefully, there also are grounds for optimism.
To its credit, the Houston government has in fact followed through on the Owls Head designation, has passed progressive legislation to increase land protection and has committed to the development of regulations to protect our iconic ocean shorelines.
Even more encouraging is the premier’s clear position, when in Opposition, as conveyed in an email to the Margaree Environmental Association criticizing Rankin’s fence-sitting regarding the protection of Owls Head:
“My position is that any property on a protected list should stay on a protected list, unless a court directs otherwise.”
Premier Houston, so far you have the high ground on this. Just say no to Cabot.