If adopted by the mayor and Halifax's regional council, the facilitator's report on the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Regional Park could mean the end of the park and the wilderness area.

Instead another suburb will be built where the long-promised regional park should be.

The facilitator misunderstands the relationship between the regional park and the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area. The proposed regional park (committed to in HRM's Regional Plan in 2006 and reaffirmed in the recent RP+5 Review) is supposed to provide for a large, well-protected, back-country "core" area. And that is supposed to be fronted by a more accessible front-country area and surrounded by a 100 to 1000-metre buffer zone.

The core area should be "large enough for a full-day walk in isolated area on foot," the plan says. Such core area is also important for conserving wildlife and natural ecosystems. The buffer would serve to protect the core area from negative impacts or "edge effects" caused by activities outside of the park.

This core backcountry, front country and buffer arrangement is the accepted standard for good protected area design, serving both nature conservation and its enjoyment by people. This was the clear understanding in 2006 and ever since.

In line with this agreed plan, the province designated Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area in 2009. By doing so the province upheld its side of the bargain with the city. The wilderness area provides the backcountry part of the regional park. The city was supposed to protect the adjacent lands as the front country and buffer areas of the regional park.

More parkland is needed

In contrast to this plan and historic agreement, the facilitator mistakenly claims that the designation of the backcountry lands by the province "addresses many objectives" of the regional park. From this, she concludes that the acquisition of further parkland by the city is not necessary.

Instead, the facilitator incomprehensibly recommends the mid-density, suburban development proposed by the developers. This is problematic in several respects.

With the facilitator's recommendation of the proposed development, there would be substantially more access and activities in and around the wilderness area, causing additional negative impacts within the backcountry's interior.

No protection of wilderness

Without the front country and buffer components of the regional park, there is no protection of the wilderness area from the incompatible activities surrounding it. This would seriously impact its ecological quality and natural character.

With the facilitator's recommendation that the wilderness area suffice on its own, very little core area would be adequately buffered from edge effects. The core area would be less than one kilometre squared, much too small for a full-day walk, and much too small to support most wildlife.

Blue Mountain-Birth Cove

Developer Annapolis Group owns a chunk of the area where the regional park has been planned. (CBC)

The very slim strip of so-called parkland indicated in the developer's proposal would result in a minimal buffer and no additional core area. 

Will wilderness area lose designation?

Thus, with such minimal protection left if the facilitator's report is adopted, the wilderness area would become severely degraded. It would be next to impossible to manage to the standards of the Wilderness Areas Protection Act.

An unanticipated risk is that this could lead to the de-designation of the wilderness area by the province.

The facilitator asks how much more parkland the city really needs. The relevant question is how much more development the city needs. Serviced land can currently accommodate 47 years of growth, as acknowledged in the facilitator's report.

Few natural areas remain near Halifax

There is no need for further development within one of the few natural areas remaining in the urban fringe. In contrast, the city has very limited parkland. Clearly, the most ecologically and socially defensible answer is that a lot more parkland is needed.

It is time for the city to step up to the plate and act on its commitment to the regional park. If the city accepts the facilitator's report, it will mean the end of the regional park. Perhaps even more disturbingly, it could mean the demise of Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Area.

Karen Beazley is a professor in the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University. For more than 30 years, she has practiced, studied and taught protected area planning and wildlife conservation across North America, first as a professional landscape architect and now as a researcher and scholar.