Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

N.S. won't protect land with 'globally rare' ecosystem that company eyes for golf resort

The Nova Scotia government quietly removed the pending protected land status from Owls Head provincial park last March. A company is looking to build two or three golf courses on the Eastern Shore property.

Conservationists concerned as company proposes 2 or 3 courses in Little Harbour

This picture shows Little Harbour in the upper left, private land in the foreground, and the Owls Head park reserve in the upper right. (Nova Scotia Nature Trust)

In the tiny community of Little Harbour on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore sits 285 hectares of coastal Crown land known as Owls Head provincial park. The name is misleading: it's not actually a provincial park and there are no obvious markings or trails to enter the coastal barrens and wetlands.

But the headland, which has been managed as a park reserve, is notable for some of its characteristics.

According to the province, it's one of nine sites in Nova Scotia with a "globally rare" ecosystem and home to several endangered species. For six years, Owls Head has been one of the provincial properties awaiting legal protection.

But that changed last March when, after several years of lobbying by and discussions with a private developer who wants to acquire the land as part of a plan to build as many as three golf courses, the Treasury Board quietly removed the designation, according to records CBC News received in response to an access-to-information request.

This sets up the latest situation in Nova Scotia where conservation and environmental protection efforts appear poised to collide with economic development interests as the developer hopes to bring the kind of tourist attraction and job opportunities to the Eastern Shore that Inverness is realizing from the Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses.

Like much of the Eastern Shore, Little Harbour is known for fishing. A proposal before the province is hoping to add golf to the area's calling card. (CBC)

The decision to de-list Owls Head was made using a minute letter, which is protected by cabinet confidentiality and thus not available for the public to see. Government documents, however, make clear a plan which, until now, has been unknown to the public.

Lighthouse Links Development Company, which is owned by American couple Beckwith Gilbert and his wife, Kitty, is behind the proposal. They already own 138 hectares of land next to the Owls Head property.

Gilbert has a background in merchant banking and has been heavily involved in medical research.

He was not available for an interview, but in an emailed statement he said the couple fulfilled "a dream to own and preserve an unspoiled, natural ocean beach" when they started buying land in Little Harbour 16 years ago.

As he and his wife got to know the community, Gilbert said "it became quickly apparent that additional employment opportunities in the area were needed to encourage people to move to the Eastern Shore, rather than move away."

The idea for one golf course blossomed into two or three after talking to architects, he said.

Owls Head provincial park, located in Little Harbour, was de-listed from the Parks and Protected Areas Plan back in March. (CBC)

"They emphasized that multiple adjacent courses were necessary to achieve profitable operations. Since we didn't have enough land for more than one course, we approached the province and proposed acquiring their unused adjacent land."

Gilbert's vision, according to a letter sent on his behalf to then-natural resources minister Lloyd Hines's executive assistant in 2016, which CBC obtained, is for something similar to the Cabot resort or Bandon Dunes golf resort in Oregon.

Chris Miller, a conservation biologist and executive director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, called the proposal "deeply concerning."

The folks behind Lighthouse Links believe their proposal can have a similar economic development effect as the Cabot resort has in Inverness. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Miller said the land is important because of how much there is, allowing for more extensive ecosystems than what is typically found along the coast and because so little of the province's coast is publicly owned and protected.

"It's a place where conservation values and nature need to come first and human and economic development is only within the context of protecting those values," he said.

'Surprised and disappointed'

Like Miller, Nova Scotia Nature Trust executive director Bonnie Sutherland said she had no idea about the change in designation, which still has not been updated on the provincial website.

Sutherland's organization was intending to include Owls Head as part of its 100 Wild Islands project, which aims to protect the archipelago off the Eastern Shore. About 85 per cent of that work is complete.

"We're very surprised and disappointed," she said. "To lose that habitat is very significant."

Chris Miller, with the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, says developers should look elsewhere for a new golf course. (Submitted by Chris Miller)

Sutherland pointed to the endangered species known to live and, in some cases, nest on the land, including piping plovers and barn swallows. Other species of "conservation concern" known to be there, according to government documents, include the ruby-crowned kinglet and common eider.

There are "unique boreal and temperate plants and lichens" and Owls Head is one of nine sites in the province with "the globally rare coastal broom crowberry heathland ecosystem," said the documents.

But Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin said the government was comfortable removing the designation because the land isn't a priority for legal protection.

By removing the designation, the government can now have the land appraised and begin more formal negotiations for a potential sale, said Rankin. The final decision was made by weighing the option to protect with the potential for economic development in a rural area, he said.

"There isn't high biodiversity value when you compare [it] to other pieces of land that we've advanced [for legal protection]," said Rankin. He said the decision would not affect the government's ability to reach its goal of legal protection of 13 per cent of all Nova Scotia land.

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin says the land in Owls Head provincial park is not as ecologically valuable as other land the province intends to protect. (CBC)

The golf project has had the support of Central Nova MP Sean Fraser and Eastern Shore MLA Kevin Murphy. In August 2018, the company hired former provincial Liberal cabinet minister Michel Samson to lobby on its behalf.

Owls Head isn't the only Crown land Lighthouse Links wants to acquire.

Province negotiating with feds on company's behalf

The province is in negotiations with the federal government on behalf of the company to buy about 17 hectares of surplus Crown land next to Owls Head that's home to an automated light beacon and helipad. Ottawa would keep 0.09 hectares, including the helipad and light, and sell the rest to the province for $167,500.

Originally the land was offered for $1, but that required the province to use it for a public purpose. Had the province not engaged Ottawa on the offer, the land would have gone to public sale.

An order in council approving that negotiation was passed in August (unlike minute letters, orders in council are posted online). Rankin said he sees the company's proposal as a good opportunity and said any kind of development would still have to respect the applicable environmental regulations.

"I see golf courses coexisting with opportunities for protecting the environment," he said.

Lighthouse Links Development Company hopes to build as many as three golf courses on land it already owns and 285 hectares of provincial Crown land. (Nova Scotia Nature Trust)

Miller, who said such a development would irreparably alter Owls Head, disagrees.

There remain about 90 properties with pending protected status from the Parks and Protected Areas Plan of 2013 and Miller has repeatedly called on the province to confer legal protection to all of them, a move that would result in about 14 per cent of Nova Scotia's land being protected.

Province is 'dragging its feet,' says conservationist

"The government has been dragging its feet and this is exactly the problem," he said. "The longer it goes before the legal designation is applied, the more and more likely that it's going to get chipped away and that one site here will get tossed [and] another site will get tossed.

"Some economic opportunity of this or that will come along and before you know it the entire plan is undermined."

A spokesperson for the Lands and Forestry Department said officials are unaware of any other negotiations or requests from private parties for land on the Parks and Protected Areas list that hasn't been approved yet for protection.