Nova Scotia

Old-growth trees cut down to build Highway 103 access road, says group

A group that's trying to protect an area of wilderness about 40 kilometres west of Halifax is angry that the province is allowing a road to be built directly through what they say is old-growth forest.

Lands and Forestry maintains area cut in proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area not old growth

An access road to Highway 103 is being built through a proposed wilderness area about 40 kilometres west of Halifax. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

A conservation group that's trying to protect an area of wilderness about 40 kilometres west of Halifax is angry the province is allowing an access road to Highway 103 to be built directly through what the groups says is old-growth forest.

The road clearing, which is about a kilometre and a half long and 100 metres wide in some areas, cuts through the proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area not far from exit 5A.

The St. Margaret's Bay Stewardship Association has spent the better part of seven years working to turn the roughly 11,000 hectares into a protected area.

The Crown land contains some of the province's most pristine old-growth forest, according to Mike Lancaster, a conservationist and member of the association. 

Mike Lancaster, a member of the St. Margarets Bay Stewardship Association, said an assessment he did of some of the stumps shows trees that are 150-180 years old. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

He stumbled across the road while out doing a biodiversity assessment of the trees. He said some of the trees that were cut down to make way for the road are between 150 and 180 years old.

"I try not to be an angry person, but I was angry in that moment, was sad that something like this could happen, and a loss to Nova Scotia," he told CBC's Information Morning.

The bigger issue, according to Lancaster, is that the Department of Lands and Forestry agreed not to allow any harvests within the proposed wilderness area.

"This was a broken agreement that there was going to be no harvest until this biodiversity assessment was finished, so it is concerning," Lancaster said.

The new gravel road will be completed next summer, and provide access to Highway 103 for private landowners and the Department of Lands and Forestry, according to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal.

The road that currently connects to the highway will be eliminated once the new one is built, the department said. 

These aerial shots show road construction began at the end of April. (Screenshot from Planet Explorer)

In an email, Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin said while his department promised to halt the approval of any cuts while the biodiversity assessment was happening, that never included work associated with the twinning of Highway 103.

The $65.6-million twinning project will widen the highway between Upper Tantallon and Hubbards.

"The road was designed by the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, who contracted with WestFor to carry out the actual harvest of the right-of-way," Rankin's department said in a statement.

Province says it's not old growth

Lands and Forestry also disputes that it's old-growth forest.

The department said staff assessed the site using their assessment tool, and it did not meet the criteria of an old-growth forest. CBC News has requested a copy of that assessment. 

Lancaster regularly visits the forest and measures the age of trees by taking a core from the tree to count the rings. He said while he wasn't using the department's assessment protocol, his calculations clearly point to old growth under the province's own definition in its forest policy.

"I'm not exaggerating when I say that it's one of the most, if not the most, impressive coniferous-dominant old-growth stands I've seen in Nova Scotia," he said.

"And if their systems are not able to capture that value and identify it then we need to look to our collaborators and peers in these kinds of fields and see what they think about it as well."

Mike Lancaster and Nick Horne say the province went against its promise now that it's allowing a road to be built in the area. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

Lancaster said the road will make the remaining forest in the area vulnerable to intrusion and future forestry.

Nick Horne, a member of the St. Margaret's Bay Stewardship Association, said the new road has completely altered the landscape. 

"The land has been stripped bare of trees," he said. "There are boulders the size of small cars that have been tossed around by what looks to be a giant excavator. They had some pretty heavy equipment in here to do this amount of damage."

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin says his staff assessed the site using the department's assessment tool, and it did not meet the criteria of an old-growth forest. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

The St. Margaret's Bay Stewardship Association isn't against the twinning project, said Lancaster, but he does want the province to stop building the access road through the proposed wilderness area.

He worries about the signal it sends to other groups trying to protect forests in Nova Scotia.

"We're kind of hoping that this can be a bit of a wake-up call that there needs to be a greater level of scrutiny on these types of decisions, and to ensure that mistakes like this aren't made," he said. 

Some people who are trying to save a wilderness area are shocked and horrified. They've discovered a substantial new road through what they say is valuable land. 8:16

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With files from CBC's Information Morning

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