Nova Scotia

Biodiversity Act changes disappointing, say supporters of original bill

Supporters of the Biodiversity Act say changes announced by Premier Iain Rankin water down the legislation.

Changes follow aggressive lobby effort by landowners, industry group

Mike Lancaster, co-ordinator of the Healthy Forest Coalition, says the changes to the bill mean it will not be as strong as it needs to be. (CBC)

Mike Lancaster was happy to see Premier Iain Rankin follow through on a promise earlier this month of bringing in the Biodiversity Act, a first-of-its-kind piece of legislation in North America. 

"That was very much celebrated in the environmental community and a lot of the sustainable forestry community," said Lancaster, co-ordinator of the Health Forests Coalition, during an interview Wednesday.

But Lancaster said he and others aren't feeling much like celebrating following word from Rankin's government late Tuesday that it would be altering the bill in the face of criticism from landowners that was generated in part by a lobby effort funded by industry group Forest Nova Scotia.

Those changes include removing fines similar to what exists in the endangered species and wilderness area protection acts, removing biodiversity emergency orders and only applying the act to Crown land, which accounts for about a third of the land in Nova Scotia.

"It means that we're neglecting to have legislation that covers the majority of biodiversity in Nova Scotia," said Lancaster.

'Fear mongering'

Most disappointing for him was that the lobby effort that led to landowners flooding MLAs with calls was based on unfounded concerns about the bill, including that it would prohibit activities such as fishing, hunting and snowshoeing and farming and forestry practices on private land.

Nowhere in the legislation does it say any of that.

"I was pretty disturbed to see how this whole thing unfolded," said Lancaster.

"There was a lot of misinformation spread about the act and what it meant for private landowners and that really quickly caught fire in the community and proliferated these opinions that were not really based in the reality of how the act would be implemented on the ground.

"So it meant that there was this kind of fear mongering that was whipped up that wasn't necessary. It's scary."

Text of changes yet to be released

Jeff Bishop, the executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, makes no apologies for the approach used, and he said he's pleased the premier listened to concerns expressed to MLAs and took action.

Acknowledging that fears expressed about the bill in advertising aren't actually mentioned in the legislation, Bishop said the concerns are more about what isn't in the bill. With regulations yet to be developed, Bishop said they had to consider worst-case scenarios, including the possibility of eventual court challenges.

"When a piece that is there begs a question and you have no resolution to that, there is no answer contained within, then you have to ask the question," Bishop said in an interview.

Jeff Bishop is the executive director of Forest Nova Scotia. (CBC)

Rankin announced the change almost a week ahead of when the bill will go to the legislature's law amendments committee, where the public has the opportunity to voice opinions on legislation. The premier has said the changes will not be released in writing ahead of Monday.

NDP in a 'strange' position

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said making changes before the committee meets undermines public confidence in the government's willingness to do right by the environment and amounts to the government folding its position at the first sight of opposition.

"You can't govern competently and effectively and with any kind of vision unless you have some fundamental, core courage of your convictions," he told reporters at Province House.

"If, as soon as you run into any head winds of criticism or opposition, you're going to eviscerate your own campaign, what kind of leadership can you offer a province?"

Burrill said his party now finds itself in the "strange" position of supporting and defending a version of a government bill that the government itself will not defend.

Rankin seeks collaboration

For his part, the premier dismissed the idea that the changes are coming as a result of an industry-led lobbying campaign. Rather, Rankin said it was about clarifying what is actually intended by the bill and removing anything that would suggest it's a Trojan horse for government overreach.

"This act was always intended to be a collaborative one," he told reporters at Province House.

"This removes any uncertainty that we want to work with landowners. I'm not concerned about any lobby group, I'm concerned about ensuring that Nova Scotians know that we want to work with them."

Rankin said he thinks private landowners who are concerned now will eventually come around when they see the bill in action. He noted that it still includes key measures, such as a report on the state of biodiversity in the province and scheduled, mandated updates.

Lancaster also still sees positives in the bill, but he said the changes Rankin is making mean the progress that is necessary now to support biodiversity will not happen.

"We might be able to maintain levels at best, but across the world right now biodiversity is in collapse and decline and we need to do something about it."