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Lively Discussion About Protecting Wilderness At Holden Lake And South Panuke

Last night, I attended a public information session held by the Nova Scotia Department of Environment to discuss the pending designation of two new protected wilderness areas along the South Shore; Holden Lake and South Panuke Wilderness Areas.

The venue was Branch 88, of the Royal Canadian Legion, in the wonderful community of Chester Basin.  Interestingly enough, the meeting was originally planned for another location nearby, but was moved because of fears of a roof collapse; a concern that has becoming all too common in Nova Scotia after a tough winter.

For people who have participated in these sorts of public discussions, at town halls, or church basements or legions in communities scattered across Nova Scotia, they will know all-too-well that these meetings are often well-attended, lively, and with no shortages of viewpoints or opinions on important matters.  I consider this to be a healthy form of democratic expression and thank the Department of Environment for creating a platform for this dialogue about Holden Lake and South Panuke.  I should also point out that at these types of events, the coffee is usually quite terrible but people drink it anyways, and if we’re lucky, someone will show up with homemade muffins or cookies to share with the group.

A quick word about the two new pending protected areas. They are both really important from a conservation perspective, occurring at a natural pinch-point on the land where wildlife movements tend to be squeezed between lakes that run nearly all the way across Nova Scotia.  These two sites are also reasonably intact forest areas, located within an otherwise highly disturbed and fragmented landscape.  Even with the two new pending protected areas, only about 3% of Lunenburg County will be protected from industrial activities, a much lower percentage than most areas in Nova Scotia.

In addition to their conservation significance, the pending new protected areas at Holden Lake and South Panuke also have a long history of traditional use by the local community who know these lands better than anyone.  Cutting off that long-standing use is in nobody’s best interest.  What must be considered, however, is how best to ensure that the existing uses can occur while not unnecessarily impacting the conservation values of the two sites, particularly the stands of old forest as well as those narrow pinch-points between the lakes that I mentioned. This has not been well-studied in this particular area, so is a bit of a question mark.

I think it’s fair to say that there was considerable concern expressed in the room about the new protected areas, particularly if it cuts off access to the lakes that people have been using for hunting and fishing and camping and recreation.  I think it’s also fair to say, that at times, the mood in the room was a little tense.

What struck me most, however, was that there was much more agreement in the Legion Hall last night than it appeared on the surface.  Firstly, everybody there seemed to care deeply about Holden Lake and South Panuke.  Secondly, I didn’t hear anybody say that they would prefer the area to be clearcut rather than left intact. To the contrary, there was support for just leaving the area alone.  This is encouraging, since so much of Nova Scotia’s forests have been clearcut.  Each year nearly 50,000 hectares are cut down and large unfragmented areas are becoming increasingly rare on the working landscape.  It would be an absolute shame if Holden Lake and South Panuke were harvested.  Fortunately, the Nova Scotia government is not considering that option.

If we start at that common ground – of respect for the land and wanting the forests to be kept intact rather than clearcut – I think there is plenty of room for creative thinking about how the sites can be protected while also accommodating traditional uses that do not compromise those underlying conservation values.  The Department of Environment has tools at its disposal to develop solutions to just such a challenge. And, that’s a conversation well worth having.

~Chris Miller