Nova Scotia

Owls Head development would mean 'complete destruction' of its ecology, says biologist

Several scientists at Saint Mary’s University are adding their names to the growing list of people who want the Nova Scotia government to abandon plans to pursue a sale of Owls Head provincial park.

Scientists at Saint Mary's University join residents calling on government to abandon plan to sell park

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)

Several scientists at Saint Mary's University in Halifax are adding their names to the growing list of people who want the Nova Scotia government to abandon plans to pursue a sale of Owls Head provincial park.

Without notice or consultation, the government removed the 285 hectares of coastal Crown land from its list of properties awaiting legal protection last March. The move cleared the way for the province to consider a proposal from a developer who wants to buy the land in Little Harbour to build golf courses.

The decision, and how the government went about it, have sparked vocal opposition.

Caitlin Porter, a biologist in the Saint Mary's University ecology of plants and communities lab, has been doing field work at Owls Head since 2011 as part of a study examining biodiversity in coastal barrens, or heathlands, across the province.

'We find that pretty cool,' says biologist

Porter said her lab first identified the area for study based on aerial photos that showed prominent, tall bedrock ridges.

"It looks very strange when you're out there, as opposed to a Peggys Cove-kind-of-landscape where there is a lot of topography, but it's not this repeating pattern of ridges," said Porter.

"You don't often get straight lines in nature, so we find that pretty cool."

The types of plants and species reflect those ridges, she said. There's a lot of bog in the hollows where water can collect from the rain and at the tops of the ridges are plant communities that have adapted to the dry environment. Owls Head is also home to a globally-rare ecosystem and several endangered species, including the piping plover.

Development 'would completely alter the site'

It all makes the decision not to protect the area perplexing to Porter. She and a colleague have written to members of the government outlining why they believe Owls Head is special and calling on them to undo their decision and protect the land.

Because the area is so rocky and has so much wetland, Porter said a massive amount of fill would have to be trucked in as part of any development at Owls Head.

"It would completely alter the site," she said. "There's no way to minimize that or mitigate that. It's just the way that the land is shaped. And so impacts would be complete destruction of those important ecological features."

Those effects could also spread to the marine environment, she said, where any runoff would likely affect eelgrass beds surrounding the headland.

These types of concerns will also be the subject of a public information session on Sunday at the Ship Harbour Community Hall.

Barbara Markovits, one of the people helping to organize the meeting in conjunction with Eastern Shore Forest Watch, said residents have been promised for years that the area would be protected and they want to help people become as informed as possible.

A call for integrity

Markovits takes particular issue with the fact there was extensive public consultation to develop the Parks and Protected Areas Plan, which called for the protection of Owls Head, but no consultation when it came to the decision to delist the property.

"It was less honest and less honourable than we expect our government to behave," she said.

Markovits said not long after writing to Premier Stephen McNeil about how he brought integrity to government by not interfering with the Boat Harbour Act, she found herself writing him again, this time to condemn the way the government has handled the Owls Head matter.

Although cabinet ministers have said they must balance the need for land protection with the need for economic development, Markovits said Owls Head "was never meant to be anything but itself."

"You wonder what was in the air when this plan was hatched," she said.

"Our concern is not with whatever development or destruction might be planned for this area. Our concern is with the government and how the delisting was done without any public consultation, without anybody knowing except those who might have something to gain financially."

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