The Nova Scotia Nature Trust has launched a $7-million campaign to preserve a 30-kilometre archipelago containing dozens of coastal islands on the province's Eastern Shore.

The group says its ambitious conservation project — called the Bay of Islands Coastal Wilderness — has never been attempted on this scale in Eastern Canada.

"Usually we work on the scale of one property or a small land assemblage of a number of properties. This is 100 islands. It's 46,000 acres of wilderness," said Bonnie Sutherland, the executive director of the Nova Scotia Nature Trust.

The key to the project is convincing 30 private landowners to agree to protect their land either through conservation easements, donations or land sales.

The province of Nova Scotia has already agreed to protect some 1,620 hectares — or 4,000 acres — of Crown islands in the area.

"Every coastal habitat found in Nova Scotia is found here," said Sutherland.

"It's just incredibly ecologically rich and diverse. Everything we love about our coast is found here. And it's still completely undeveloped. So it's one of the few places in Nova Scotia where you can go, experience this coast that we love so much and there are not big developments and houses."

The archipelago stretches from Clam Harbour to Mushaboom Harbour. Its islands feature barrens, forests, wetlands, salt marshes and breathtaking white sandy beaches with crystal clear turquoise water.

As part of its campaign launch, the Nova Scotia Nature Trust took broadcast media — including CBC News — on a helicopter and boat tour of the island system earlier this week.

Mystery donor steps up

The Nova Scotia Nature Trust has been quietly working on the Bay of Islands Coastal Wilderness project for several years.

Last fall, the group acquired the archipelago's flagship island — the 215-hectare Borgles Island.

It has already raised $4 million through foundations, businesses and individuals — including an initial anonymous donation of $1.5 million.

Sutherland said private land owners and the Crown have already committed to protecting 70 per cent of the islands but $3 million more is needed to secure the remainder.

Coastal Conservation Eastern Shore

The Nova Scotia Nature Trust says its ambitious conservation project — called the Bay of Islands Coastal Wilderness — has never been attempted on this scale in Eastern Canada. (CBC)

That's where the anonymous donor came back in.

In addition to his lead gift, the Nova Scotia man has offered to match donations for what is needed to complete the campaign. Even before Wednesday's public launch, he donated another $500,000 and is now offering to match public donations for a further $1.5 million.

"Every dollar someone donates to this campaign is matched by another dollar to help save the islands," Sutherland said.

"He just really believes in what we're doing. He has seen just what a unique and one-time opportunity this is."

The Nova Scotia Nature Trust expects it will take years to finalize its land assembly.

Local campground owner Brian Murphy said the group has been going about it the right way.

"I was a bit hesitant at first because when things start happening you're not sure if things are going to happen the way you want them to," he said.

"But over the years they assured me that they are going to preserve these islands and they're going to be there for the local residents to use and for tourism and I basically think it's going to be a great thing for the Eastern Shore."

While the campaign is ambitious, promoters say it's actually a bargain — figuring the land is worth $15 million and the chance to preserve this large a block won't come around again.

"It's extremely rare that we would have not only this diversity but also the opportunity to protect them and also that they're virtually unaltered by human development," said Martin Willison, an environmental studies professor at Dalhousie University.

"The Nova Scotia Nature Trust has grown from a fledgling organization to a significant organization with respect to protecting lands because it focuses on private land in a province in which 75 per cent of the land and 85 per cent of the coastal zone is owned privately."