Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia plans changes to Biodiversity Act less than 2 weeks after bill tabled

Premier Iain Rankin says the changes are intended to address concerns his caucus members are hearing from constituents.

Decision follows lobbying campaign by private landowners who warned of restricted access on private lands

Premier Iain Rankin announced changes to the Biodiversity Act on Tuesday. (Communications Nova Scotia)

The Nova Scotia government will amend the Biodiversity Act in the face of an aggressive lobbying campaign launched against the bill by a group of private landowners and forestry industry representatives.

Bill 4 was introduced earlier this month as part of Premier Iain Rankin's pledge to do right by the environment and implement the recommendations of the Lahey review on forestry practices.

But the legislation MLAs will ultimately vote on will look different than what Lands and Forestry Minister Chuck Porter tabled on March 11.

A news release Tuesday afternoon said the changes will remove biodiversity emergency orders, which would grant the province the right to intervene on private land in emergency situations where the act was being contravened.

Offences and fines, which could have gone up to $1 million for landowners, are also being removed from the act. The government said the bill will only apply to Crown land, unless a private landowner wants to be included in developing a biodiversity management zone on their land.

Rhetoric 'never good for democracy'

The move follows an ad campaign by a group called the Concerned Private Landowner Coalition, which called on people to contact their MLAs to express their displeasure with the legislation. Forest Nova Scotia, a lobby group for industry, is in fact responsible for the campaign.

An ad in Saturday's Halifax Chronicle Herald that took up almost a full page warned that the government was trying to pass a bill that "puts control of your lands in the hands of Halifax activists and politicians."

It went on to say the bill would stop farming, forestry, recreation and housing on private lands — although there is nothing in the legislation that explicitly states that.

"If you hike, fish, hunt, snowshoe, ATV or snowmobile Bill 4 will stop you from doing these activities on the private lands you enjoy today," said the ad.

Rankin told reporters on Tuesday at Province House, before the changes were announced, that such rhetoric "is not a productive way in trying to achieve better protection for biodiversity."

"Pinning one region of the province against another is never good for democracy," he said.

'Critical for us to find a path together'

The text of the news release from Rankin's government, however, suggests it was an effective lobbying strategy.

In it, Rankin indicated the changes follow conversations he's had with Liberal caucus members who were voicing concerns on behalf of their constituents.

"It is so critical for us to find a path together to address threats and create opportunities for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in Nova Scotia," he said in the release.

Tory Leader Tim Houston said it doesn't look good on the new premier to be changing a marquee piece of legislation that had already been brought before the House once before, only to be tabled so more consultation could take place.

"They had a significant amount of time," he told reporters before learning the details of the changes. "I'd be very surprised if they've now brought something back to that House that, by their own admission, is not sufficient.

"If the premier has to amend this bill, basically his first bill — his signature bill — even before it gets to law amendments, it just reeks of not doing the homework."

On to law amendments

Houston said he didn't take any issue with the way lobby efforts characterized the version of the bill that was introduced earlier this month.

"There's a lot of risk in the way this bill is written and I suspect it was written for just that reason — to give the government incredible power over the lands of the province, and I think that's offensive," he said.

The bill will next move to the committee on law amendments, where the public will have a chance to voice its opinions. Rankin told reporters that process would begin on Monday.