Nova Scotia

No timeline for decision on Archibald Lake wilderness area, says N.S. minister

A year and a half after asking for feedback on a proposed wilderness area that could kibosh a potential gold mine, Nova Scotia’s environment minister cannot say when a decision will be made or why it’s taking so long.

Designation would prevent a proposed gold mine from accessing the water source

Archibald Lake in Guysborough County is being considered for a wilderness area designation, but the government has no information about when a decision will be made. (Nova Scotia Environment)

A year and a half after asking for feedback on a proposed wilderness area that could kibosh a potential gold mine, Nova Scotia's environment minister cannot say when a decision will be made or why it's taking so long.

"I don't have any timeline on that," Keith Irving told reporters Thursday following a cabinet meeting.

"There's quite a number of properties in the queue that are being considered and no decision has been made on Archibald Lake."

Irving's mandate letter calls on him to find ways to increase the amount of protected land in the province to 14 per cent from 13 per cent.

He said his department is focused on finalizing protection for 20 properties announced early this year. A more recent announcement in April of 61 other areas should help complete the goal, said Irving.

"We're getting ready for consultation on those properties, the ones that require consultation, and working on the research and surveys that are needed," he said.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Keith Irving said his department is well on its way to protecting 14 per cent of the land in Nova Scotia. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

The proposed Archibald Lake wilderness area was first announced in January 2020. Its creation would be particularly notable because it would preclude the company Atlantic Gold from being able to use it as part of the proposed Cochrane Hills gold mine project in the St. Marys River area.

Last October, the province announced it would need more time before making a decision on the file and there has been no update since then.

A spokesperson for Atlantic Gold parent company St. Barbara Ltd., which has operations in Canada, Australia and Papua New Guinea, said in a statement it has had no further notice from the government about its intentions on the file since the announcement last fall.

Dustin O'Leary said company officials are hopeful they get the chance to prove their project can coexist safely with the surrounding environment before a final decision is made about the wilderness area.

Company wants a chance to prove itself

"St. Barbara recognizes and respects the environmental significance of both Archibald Lake and the St. Marys watershed. At this time, studies and preparatory work are being completed around the project site," O'Leary said in the statement.

"These efforts are designed to present regulators, rightsholders, stakeholders and the general public with scientific evidence that water sources, aquatic and terrestrial life can be protected before, during and after the life of the Cochrane Hill gold mine."

O'Leary said company officials aim to submit their environmental impact statement for the mining project in 2024.

Irving disputed the suggestion his department has hit the brakes on the proposed wilderness area, referring again to the amount of properties staff are currently considering for protection.

But NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the lack of answers is of "deep concern" for him.

"No self-respecting snail would have drug itself along as slowly as the Department of Environment is on the Archibald Lake protection question," he told reporters.

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the continued details on a decision about the proposed Archibald Lake wilderness area raises questions about the government's intentions for the land. (CBC)

Burrill said the government's credibility on protected areas could be brought into question the longer it takes to make a decision.

He also pointed to the ongoing consideration for selling the coastal Crown land known as Owls Head provincial park, which until recently most people thought was already protected, and the effect that has had on public confidence.

"Why would they not be concerned that something parallel is going on?" he said.

In early 2020, as controversy mounted over the potential of Owls Head being sold to a private developer to build golf courses, the government leaned on the potential protection of Archibald Lake as proof of its commitment to the environment.

In a February 2020 information note to the minister of the day, obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request, government talking points highlight the need to balance protected areas with job creation in rural communities.

It goes on to note a number of new properties other than Owls Head identified for protection, including Archibald Lake.