Wilderness areas have been a reality in Nova Scotia since December 3rd, 1998, when the Wilderness Areas Protection Act came into force and simultaneously designated the first 31. These areas, unlike parks which can be partially dedicated to recreation, are strictly for conservation on the ecosystem scale, protecting entire landscapes and the vital processes therein.
The Wilderness Areas Protection Act didn’t establish any long term goals, however. These would come later, with our growing understanding of species decline, climate change and the role of land protection in combating both. In 2012 the sitting NDP government set a goal of “at least 12 per cent” of the province by 2015 into provincial law, and in 2013 published the Parks and Protected Areas Plan, which put a suite of potential protected areas on hold, ready for designation to meet this and future goals.
12 per cent was achieved by cabinet two days before deadline, on December 29th, 2015, after a marathon of 65 designations that month. From 2014 to that December day our provincial percentage shot from around 9.3 per cent to 12.3 per cent.
But progress has stalled since those glory days of rapid-fire protection, either because of evaporated political will, the lack of legal deadlines or a simple shift of priorities. From 2016-2018 our 12.3 per cent has only grown to 12.4 per cent, with some designations in 2016 and three in November of 2018, of the Wentworth Valley Wilderness Area (2,000 hectares), Chase Lake Wilderness Area (849 hectares) and the 203 hectare Steepbank Brook Nature Reserve (nature reserves tend to be significantly smaller than wilderness areas and are intended to protect singular features, like a contained grove of old growth trees or restricted rare flower).
Since 2015 the express goal of several governments, including the present Liberal government, has been to reach 13 per cent by continuing to designate the lands on hold in 2013’s Parks and Protected Areas Plan. But while this goal has been expressed in policy and at the podium, it has not been written into law or given a deadline.
“That’s the problem,” said Karen McKendry, wilderness outreach coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre and past conservation coordinator of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust.
As she explained it, two successive governments were held to the 12 per cent target because it was written into the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act, and she ascribes the slow march to 13 per cent to the commitment’s tenuous nature. Deadlines are not always met, she said, but they are a powerful tool for progress, as the mad dash of December 29, 2015 clearly illustrates.
In this spirit the Ecology Action Centre announced a potential deadline of December 3rd, 2018, for the 13 per cent, which marked the 20th anniversary of the Wilderness Areas Protection Act. They made this suggestion just ahead of the Wentworth Valley announcement in late November which contributed three properties and 3,000 hectares to the effort. Reaching 13 per cent, however, would have required over 90 properties and 32,300 hectares, all of which is waiting in limbo in the Parks and Protected Areas Plan of 2013.
“Our government protecting more land is a really positive legacy for the future, but we don’t want to view it as a chore,” said McKendry. She’s not surprised her deadline was missed, but never intended it as an ultimatum. It was meant to be a positive push, an acknowledgment of progress and a request for more. No word yet on a more formal deadline.
14 Per Cent
The Parks and Protected Areas Plan – the well from which newly designated wilderness areas, parks and reserves are drawn – is a interesting document. The lands it lists weren’t just identified as ecologically significant. They were thoroughly surveyed and studied, consulted upon and set aside so that, between 2013 and their eventual protection, they could not be touched by foresters, miners or government. They are really and truly in suspension, and already represent an enormous investment of time and resources.
“All of the pending protected areas in the plan are important and all of them need to be officially protected,” said Chris Miller, executive director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Nova Scotia chapter. “At the moment, we are still waiting for nearly 100 of these sites to receive legal protection by the Nova Scotia government. These pending protected areas contain large intact forest landscapes, species-at-risk habitat, coastal frontage, significant wetlands and waterways, old growth forest, and places important for outdoor wilderness recreation. A lot of hard work went into identifying these protected areas, and the plan has gone through several rounds of public and stakeholder consultations. All that’s needed is an Order-in-Council from the provincial government to make things official. Everything else is done.”
A government fixation on 13 per cent has had the effect of removing the Parks and Protected Areas Plan from the conversation, which carries with it a commitment by the province to designate all of its land sooner or later. To do this would achieve 14 per cent provincial protection, not 13. In case a single per cent difference sounds trivial, that’s roughly equivalent to one and a half times Kejimkujik National Park. And as long as those lingering lands beyond 13 per cent are omitted from provincial dialogue, Miller remains concerned.
“It’s not protected until it’s protected. Anything less than the legal designation is insufficient to ensure these ecosystems are secure over the long term. So much of our landscape has been devastated by roads and habitat fragmentation, that [these intact] areas are incredibly important for conservation. I’m sure there are some people in government and industry who would like to rollback some of these planned protection measures, but the public will never stand for that. So little of Nova Scotia is protected and so much of it is open to resource development.”
Small Moves and Big Pictures
The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, among other things, that the international community has 10-12 years to take climate change seriously. The other side of this coin was addressed by the World Wildlife Fund in their most recent Living Planet Report, which said vertebrate populations across the global have declined a staggering 60 per cent in the last half century.
Protected areas, for their concentration of biodiversity and ability to sequester carbon, are an ideal mechanism for addressing both climate change and mass extinction, said McKendry. As Nova Scotia addresses these crises she said the 13 per cent should be taken more seriously by government and citizens alike, freeing up the possibility of greater targets still.
“We have intact nature in Nova Scotia on the table for protection,” she said. “We can enact one of the best ways of fighting climate change tomorrow. It’s a bird in hand. Other places would kill for the amount of wild spaces we have. Why not help ourselves and the planet by keeping them wild?”
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Rural Delivery Magazine.