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Birch Cove Lakes: Halifax’s near-urban wilderness

Halifax is a great place to live. After completing my university studies a few years ago, it was an easy decision for me to move home. I wanted to be near my family and I also wanted to live in a city where I could have close access to nature. And, Halifax is just that kind of place.

We’re lucky that there’s still a lot of wilderness on Halifax’s doorstep. Only a short trip from downtown, I can go for a swim in a remote lake with no crowds, or hit one of the many trails near the city and disappear into the woods.

That carpet of wilderness near the city means a lot to me. It helps clean the air, clean the water, protect wildlife habitat, and creates lots of places where people can go to enjoy the wilderness without having to hop into a car and drive for several hours first.

The wilderness near Halifax is a real asset for the city, but it’s threatened. If we’re not careful, these amazing natural areas near the city will be claimed by urban sprawl…more of the “same-old same-old” suburbs that are popping up at the edges of the city, with their cul de sacs and shopping plazas and token parks. Outdated policies at City Hall, which seem to encourage more sprawl, certainly don’t help.

We need to protect the natural areas near the city now, before it’s too late.

Nowhere is this more apparent than Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes. This natural area is located in Halifax, less than 10km from downtown. Here, there are blankets of forest, a network of cool lakes, and an abundance of wildlife. A one-day bioblitz in this area by experts a few years ago uncovered over 800 different species. That’s pretty impressive for a wilderness that can be reached by public transit.

Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes is also an amazing place for people to explore. It’s popular for hiking, swimming, skating, biking, and particularly canoeing where one can explore nine different lakes in an afternoon without backtracking. This is one of the only canoe loops near the city, and when you paddle it and disappear into the backcountry lakes you can easily forget that you’re in the middle of a city. Almost 100,000 people live around this wilderness now, but it still feels remote. What an asset for a city!!

Unfortunately, Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes is only half protected.  The Nova Scotia government has done a very good job at protecting this area.  In 2009, they placed a protected wilderness area designation on the public lands in this area, which prevents it from being clearcut or mined or destroyed by development, and the province is currently in the process of protecting even more land here.

Lots of great things are happening at the provincial level. The City, however, has so far dropped the ball. Despite promising to protect Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes as a regional wilderness park through the adoption of the regional plan back in 2006, over five years have passed and nothing real has been accomplished yet. Not one square inch of land here has been acquired here or protected by the City. By contrast, a lot is happening on the development front, and several proposals are making their way through City Hall.

The City is drifting at best, paralyzed at worst. To let a wilderness gem like Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes disappear, mowed under by development, is a city that’s lost its way. Let’s hope things turn around, and soon. On paper, the City envisions a wilderness park here, with natural areas for the citizens of Halifax Regional Municipality to explore and enjoy.

Not all is doom-and-gloom. With pressure from the provincial government mounting, which is taking its responsibility to protect Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes seriously, some encouraging signs are starting to emerge from the City. For the first time in a long time, officials there are finally starting to talk about making the regional park happen. A public meeting is scheduled for May 31st where a proposal to protect the Birch Cove Lakes will be presented.

This is a good first step and is welcome, but for the regional park to become a reality, things have to start moving much more quickly.  The city needs to start bringing key areas of the Birch Cove Lakes back into public ownership and start the necessary steps to make the regional park official.  Hurry up and get on with the land acquisition and let’s make this vision a reality.

With a front-country regional park for people to enjoy, and a backcountry wilderness area focused primarily on conservation, Halifax will take a huge step forward to control urban sprawl and protect a natural gem in the heart of the city, if it can get it’s act together on Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes.

Let’s hope it will.  Let’s make it happen.


Photo of Birch Cove Lakes by Irwin Barrett