A proposed clearcut near Nova Scotia's largest protected wilderness area is worrying environmentalists and nearby residents who say it's a troubling sign of things to come.

At stake is about 20 hectares of forest on the edge of a pending expansion to the Tobeatic Wilderness Area, a haven for endangered woodland moose that stretches into five counties around Kejimkujik National Park. 

The province's harvest plans map viewer shows a proposed clearcut and several "partial harvests" to the southeast of the area on Crown land in Queens County. What it doesn't show is about 150 adjacent hectares that have been set aside for protection, but are still awaiting approval.

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The Tobeatic Nature Reserve is the blue highlighted area and the two black striped areas were designated for protection in 2013. (Nova Scotia Department of Environment)

"We're shooting ourselves in the foot when we start deteriorating, chipping away at these precious, sacred places," said Sandra Phinney, an avid paddler from Canaan, N.S., who regularly explores the wilderness area by canoe. 

The public comment period for the proposed harvests closed at the beginning of September and the decision will soon go to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for review.

'Absolutely criminal'

The Tobeatic Wilderness Area wasn't officially created until the late '90s, but the region has long been considered a wilderness jewel. It became a game sanctuary in 1927 and inspired Albert Bigelow Paine's 1908 book The Tent Dwellers, which chronicles a three-week fishing trip through the area.

Phinney, who's a member of several environmental groups, recreated that journey years ago with friends. She says land that falls just outside the protected Tobeatic Wilderness Area — known as the Tobeatic wildlife management area — is too ecologically significant not to protect.

"This is the time for the government to take that area and protect it," she said. "Then it wouldn't be a matter of whether they're going to clearcut or not. This would be criminal if they clearcut in there. Absolutely criminal."

Tobeatic proposed harvests

The province's harvest plans map viewer shows proposed harvests QU068338D and QU068395A-E. (Harvest plan map viewer)

There are several parcels of land waiting to become part of the wilderness area. But the Department of Environment said there's no timeline for when they'll be added because it depends when mineral rights expire. 

"If those existing rights expire and no new rights are issued within one year, the lands will be added to [the] Tobeatic Wilderness Area," said a department spokesperson in an email. 

Signal of things to come?

Harvesting isn't allowed within protected areas, but it's the forestry that takes place just outside the border that worries Chris Miller, executive director of the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

His organization has been keeping track of proposed harvests adjacent to protected areas, including Gully Lake Wilderness Area and Kejimkujik National Park

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The Tobeatic Wilderness Area was created in 1998 and has long been a favourite spot for paddlers. (Submitted by Sandra Phinney)

"If they're having to come right up to the boundary of the protected area, is that a broader signal that the amount of harvesting that's taking place is unsustainable? And if that's the case, then what does it mean in a few years?" said Miller.

He wrote a letter to DNR in July asking the department not to approve the proposed harvests because of the potential impact on the Tobeatic's ecosystem, which includes more than 100 lakes and habitat for several endangered species.

Miller says he's yet to receive a response. 

He wants the province to have a more informed plan for how it makes decisions on proposed cuts near protected areas.

"The concern is that this is happening sort of haphazardly, that there's no plan in place for it that deals with the particular impacts on the protected areas themselves," he said. 

Minister responds

Margaret Miller, the minister for DNR, responded to questions about the proposed harvests from NDP MLA Lisa Roberts in the legislature last week.

"I have looked at the area and know and appreciate, certainly, what that area has," said Miller on Oct. 3. "The Tobeatic area and the Kejimkujik area comprises almost 500,000 hectares in Nova Scotia that primarily is wilderness area. There is a small area of that land that is, however, available for harvesting purposes."

The next day, when she was asked the same question, Miller said no decision has been made. 

CBC News requested an interview with the minister and received an emailed statement in response that said an integrated resources management study is underway. 

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According to the Department of Environment, the Tobeatic Wilderness Area, which crosses five counties and nearly 120,000 hectares, "is among the most significant and undisturbed places for wildlife, biodiversity conservation, and wilderness recreation in Nova Scotia." (Submitted by Sandra Phinney)

"Many aspects are taken into consideration by specialized staff, including: wildlife habitat, protected areas, geology, forest ecosystem classifications, biodiversity, Mi'kmaq interest and many others," read the statement in part. 

The department said information gathered in the study will be forwarded to the minister's desk so she can make a decision. 

With files from Michael Gorman