Nova Scotia

Liberals amend Biodiversity Act in the face of industry, landowner criticism

More than 40 people appeared to speak about amendments to the Biodiversity Act on Monday evening, after changes Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin announced last week.

Bill will now go back to the House for further debate this week

Iain Rankin addresses supporters after winning the leadership of the Nova Scotia Liberal party at a virtual convention in Halifax in February. Rankin says changes to the Biodiversity Act were needed after constituents brought up concerns. (The Canadian Press)

Gregor Wilson has a blunt assessment of the lobby effort that ultimately brought about an overhaul of the Liberal government's Biodiversity Act on Monday.

"The fear mongering around, 'You're not going to be able to hunt or fish or use trails,' I think, was just silly nonsense from [Forest Nova Scotia] and their coalition," he told a virtual meeting of the legislature's law amendments committee.

Wilson was one of more than 40 people who appeared to speak about the bill, and changes Premier Iain Rankin announced last week, the text of which was only released at the start of the meeting.

Those changes, which remove all enforcement action, emergency orders and prevent any application on private land without the voluntary invitation of a landowner, followed an aggressive lobby campaign funded by Forest Nova Scotia that galvanized enough landowners against the bill to get the premier's attention and weaken support for it within his own caucus.

Premier said changes needed after concerns brought up

When Rankin announced last week that he would be making changes, he said it was in response to concerns that constituents were voicing to members of his caucus.

But Wilson, who lives in Colchester County and owns woodlots there and in Cumberland County, where he also manages about 600 hectares of recreational property on land his family owns that is open to the public, said the language of the lobby campaign didn't mesh with what he was hearing from landowners.

They shared none of the fears being pushed about a government overreach that would dictate how people could use their land, he told MLAs.

"In fact, I expect the act would help protect some of the places I cherish and hold close to my heart," he said.

For all the people who spoke Monday, about half shared Wilson's view and wanted the bill passed in its original form.

More than one person addressed concerns about heavy fines and a potential loss of rights by pointing to the fact that several bills already on the books have similar enforcement power to what the Biodiversity Act originally proposed. It was also noted that people's rights have been curbed by public health legislation to try to protect the province from COVID-19.

"When a person shows up with a full-blown COVID-19 infection, his rights do not extend as far as to allow him to continue to engage out in society, willy-nilly, as he pleases," said Elizabeth Glenn-Copeland.

"To do so would infect tens to hundreds to thousands of other people. Thus, his small right to have his way is eclipsed by the rights of the many."

Landowners raise liability issue

But while many presenters argued the crisis facing biodiversity is every bit as much of a crisis as the pandemic, if not more so, that demanded a corresponding response, many landowners raised concerns about the bill's enforcement measures creating undue liability for them should someone do something on their land that violates it.

"We personally have borne the legal and financial consequences of the behaviour of other individuals because we cannot police [4,000 hectares] of land and we have no recourse," said Martha Brown, whose family owns and oversees woodlands in the Musquodoboit Valley.

"The scenarios are endless where we and other private landowners just like us are considered culpable under legislation, even if we are not the violators."

Like others, Brown said the government should focus first on addressing problems on Crown land. Using that example, it might be able to eventually earn the trust of private landowners, she said.

Language of bill left vague

Lack of trust was a recurring theme among people who spoke in favour of Rankin's changes. And people on both sides of the issue pointed to the unfairness of only getting the text of the changes the day they were to present.

Others, like Patrick Wiggins, said the government did itself no favours by using vague language and leaving much of the bill's detail to regulations that have yet to be drafted.

"With the help of pre-existing legislation as well as regulations accompanied with a bill like this, we could have had a home run and a real step toward good change," said Wiggins, executive director of the Federation of Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners.

Instead, he said the bill has sewn division within his organization and across the province.

In the end, after nearly 12 hours, Liberal MLAs passed Rankin's changes, which took more than 10 pages out of the 19-page bill. It will now go back to the House for further debate sometime this week.