[Editor's Note: The Cooperator is launching a web page dedicated to the Owls Head controversy. We will be posting articles from the Cooperator, and links to government documents, news stories from other media, and material from the Save Little Harbour/Owls Head From Becoming A Golf Course. This page already has links to interviews with exclusive interviews with MP Sean Fraser, MLA Kevin Murphy, the NDP's Gary Burrilll, and the PC's environment critic, Brad Johns. If you know of information that should be included, email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.]
By Richard Bell
The revelation that the province’s Department of Lands and Forests has been secretly planning to sell Crown land on Owls Head to a wealthy American couple who own Lighthouse Links Development Company to build as many as three golf courses has stunned Nova Scotians.
For more than four decades, members of the public had every reason to assume that Owls Head would eventually become a fully protected provincial park. As late as the week of January 6th, a Department of the Environment online map of protected areas showed the area as “Owls Head Provincial Park” as late as January.
But on December 19, 2019, using information gleaned from a FOIPOP, the CBC’s Michael Gorman reported that the government had secretly taken Owls Head off a list of protected lands back in March 2019, and was making plans to sell the 285 hectare parcel to a wealthy American couple who want to build as many as three golf courses on the site.
Gorman’s research showed that the government had used a bureaucratic device called a “minute” letter in order to make this change in secret, avoiding the publicity that would have accompanied an Order in Council.
The outcry against the government’s decision was fast, and continues to grow rapidly. Eastern Shore activist Sydnee Lynn quickly threw up a Facebook page on December 19, Save Little Harbour/Owls Head from Becoming a Golf Course. In less than three weeks, the site has already gathered almost 800 members.
As far as the Cooperator has been able to determine, provincial governments have almost never even tried to delist land that had been put on a list to be further protected in the future. The province did issue a public Order in Council in 1996 to delist Jim Campbells Barrens, but the outcry was so great that the government rescinded the order.
The government argues that the land has little ecological value, and that developing golf courses there would produce an economic boom on the Eastern Shore. In the two accompanying interviews, MLA Kevin Murphy and MP Sean Fraser, both of whom knew about the proposal for several years before Gorman’s story broke, look at the project as one that could create hundreds of jobs, while insisting that nothing should be done without a thorough environmental assessment first.
One of the people challenging the government is Chris Trider, who brings an unusual combination of former golf course superintendent together with 21 years (retired) working as a coastal park planner for the Department of Natural Resources.
In an interview, Trider emphasized the larger implications of the decision: “The really frightening thing is this decision sets a real, real nasty precedent. There’s lots of Crown land on that list that’s been waiting to be formally protected by Order in Council. What we’re seeing in Owls Head is that all of that land, hundreds of parcels, may be subject to secret backroom deals with developers.”
Chris Miller, executive director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, is also deeply concerned about the implications of this delisting. “This decision is a smoking gun,” Miller told the Cooperator. “It tells us that the government has been dragging its feet about protecting areas that everyone thought were protected, while the government has been planning to open those areas to forestry, mining, or golf courses.”
Miller also criticized the government’s presentation of the 13% protected areas, pointing out that the province was treating the number as a ceiling, not a floor.
But the federal government’s national goal is 17 % right now. And in the most recent federal campaign, Trudeau promised to raise that goal to 25% by 2025, and 30% by 2030, driven by the importance of preserving undeveloped land to meet the larger strategic goal of fighting climate change.