by Brad Donaldson (photos courtesy of Kelci Wood)
It’s been ten years since the city of Halifax announced the designation of the Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area as protected public land, harbouring the area from independent developers. Since then, 3242 acres (roughly two-thirds the size of the Halifax peninsula) have been protected, but 1308 acres still remain privately owned.
Prior to this decade-old headline, the Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes region has gone through a lengthy, and sometimes strenuous, series of development-versus-protection discussions.
For example, Annapolis Group—who owns 965 of those 1308 privately owned acres—has owned land in the area since 1956 and been an active voice on the developmental side of the coin.
But where does it all stand now?
To catch up on the current situation, I spoke with Chris Miller, a National Conservation Biologist with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS).
“Birch Cove Lakes was my playground [growing up],” says Miller, who grew up in a nearby neighbourhood. And even from a young age, he recalls people “fighting for a new quarry that was proposed in the Blue Mountain area.”
Continuing the theme of unrest, when Miller returned home from grad school in the early 2000s, there was a proposal to run a highway through the area, which is when Miller began campaigning to try and protect it.
Reflectively, Miller says that the challenge has shifted since his involvement began. In the beginning, the focus was on communicating the area’s natural importance, but now with more money and proposals rooting down to overrun the area, it’s about communicating those messages to the government where the tough the decisions are made.
While talking about his childhood paradise, Miller emphasizes the importance of getting the whole picture when trying to understand the complex and historic situation, and not simply choose one blip in the timeline and draw conclusions.
It’s more intricate than that. Nothing up until now is because of one person or one organization, especially the advocacy and protection of the area.
Miller stresses this point—the collective and collaborative efforts—as he shares a favourite advocacy memory from the summer of 2016, when 1420 Haligonians wrote letters to the city to fight urban development of the area.
Shortly after, on September 6th, 2016, fifteen of sixteen city councillors voted in favour of blocking the development, undoubtedly feeling what Miller calls “the weight” of the public’s opinion.
Near the end of our talk, Miller rolls out maps of the Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area that topple off the edges of the table. There are markings for trails with deliberate challenges and difficulties to suit all users. Doing so would create even more inclusivity for visitors, with front country and back country options
The builders and planners are ready for the green light from the city following the 2016 Facilitator’s Report by Heather Robertson. Mentioned in the report was Regional Council approving “Terms of Reference for Regional Park boundaries negotiations,” an idea that has been around since the 1970s.
Yet, more than a year after the report was published, we’re still waiting for the last few hundred acres to be acquired—the land where, when finally acquired, the long-awaited regional park would be added.
There are options to acquire these last acres: outright land purchase is one, but an expensive one. Trading the land for another area that developers would be interested in, one better suited for urban development, is yet another option. As Miller says, “It’s not just about stopping things; it’s about building things, and finding the solutions to make that happen.
“It’s important now [to the city], but it’s going to become even more important in the future. And I think what’s important is that everybody has the ability to go there, not just the people that can afford to buy a house there. That’s the fight. The area’s as much about people as it is about nature. They’re not two separate things. They go together.”
Even through unavoidable frustration, Miller is still optimistic. He’s witnessed the people of Nova Scotia, and their desire to make a difference, while determinedly looking for opportunities to work with the city instead of against them.
Unsurprisingly, he still gets out to enjoy the lakes and trails as much he can, still in awe that it exists in the first place.
“It really shouldn’t even be there…it’s phenomenal.”
And hopefully this phenomenon can one day become fully protected.