The Nature Conservancy of Canada has acquired three ecologically significant properties on Cape Breton that it will protect, land that includes "beautiful" gypsum cliffs and large numbers of rare plants.

The new conservation areas, totalling 274 hectares, are located near Lake Ainslie and around the northwestern shore of Bras d'Or Lake.

"Even by Cape Breton's extraordinary standards, these sites are of outstanding ecological value and beauty," Craig Smith, the Nova Scotia director with the Nature Conservancy, said Wednesday in Baddeck.

The group undertook its first project outside of Ontario, where it was founded, on the west coast of Cape Breton at Site Point in 1971.

After a 15-year hiatus with no projects on the island, the not-for-profit organization is once again looking to Cape Breton as part of a new conservation plan, which targets unique wetlands, mature Acadian forest and rare gypsum landscapes.

Cain's Mountain

(Mike Dembeck/Nature Conservancy of Canada)

Cains Mountain, a 162-hectare site near Ottawa Brook, falls under the latter category.

"There are very steep gypsum cliffs, exposed gypsum cliffs, deep, deep, deep caverns and tunnels and cave systems under the ground," said Smith.

Over time, the dissolution of calcium in rock creates gypsum-based habitats, which support rare plant species that thrive in the high-pH, calcium-rich environment.

"They're very uncommon across most of North America. We are particularly blessed with a high abundance of these ecosystems in Nova Scotia, and particularly here in Cape Breton," Smith said.

"But it's really only in the last number of years that we, the conservation community, have realized just how significant they are."

Cains Mountain, protected land

The gypsum cliffs on Cains Mountain. (Mike Dembeck/Nature Conservancy of Canada)

Growing on top of the gypsum formations on Cains Mountain is a towering old Acadian forest, and the site supports about a dozen rare species.

"There's these great sheer white cliffs, and it's beautiful there," said David Newton, who purchased the Cains Mountain property with his wife Pam when the couple first moved to Cape Breton from New York more than 50 years ago.

The Nature Conservancy acquired the property from the Newtons as a partial donation under the Canadian government's ecological gifts program, which provided the couple with a tax benefit for donating a portion of the land. 

The conservancy paid the Newtons for the rest with the help of funding through the federal natural areas conservation program. The group also received support from the Nova Scotia Crown Share Land Legacy Trust, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and private donors.

The Newtons haven't lived on the Cains Mountain property for several decades, and made the decision to hand it over to the Nature Conservancy to ensure its uniqueness is preserved.

"We've been approached by logging companies, and we just didn't want that to happen," Pam Newton said.

Black River Bog

The Nature Conservancy has protected 43 hectares of the Black River Bog near Lake Ainslie. (Mike Dembeck/Nature Conservancy of Canada)

The conservancy has also acquired 69 hectares of mainly Acadian forest near Marble Mountain, and a 43-hectare site at West Lake Ainslie, near the Black River Bog Nature Reserve, which is managed by the Nova Scotia government.

Black River Bog contains some of the "most significant groupings and assemblages of rare plants anywhere in Atlantic Canada," said Smith.

Smith expects his group to make more announcements in Cape Breton over the next 10 years as it pursues its conservation plan.

"Even here behind Baddeck, in the Beinn Bhreagh area, there's a really high density of good quality habitat and rare species that we would consider targeting," he said.

"It's these types of areas that we're going to consider adding to our roster of active operational areas."