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Nature at Home: Sometimes the landscapes most in need of protection are those in our own backyards

From the Fall 2013/Winter 2014 issue of Canadian Wilderness

Consider it a colossal Christmas present. Last December, the Nova Scotia government purchased 220,000 hectares from Resolute Forest Products—the largest sale of privately held land in the province’s history, about four per cent of its total landmass.

One of the drivers behind the $100-plus-million deal for three expansive clusters of woodland on the western half of mainland Nova Scotia was a desire for more sustainable forestry. With the industry slumping and mills closing, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) was concerned about foreign timber investment management organizations (TIMOs) swooping in to snap up undervalued land, then developing prime properties along lakes and rivers and clear-cutting the rest. So CPAWS, along with many other groups involved in the Buy Back the Mersey Coalition (a grassroots movement bringing together more than two dozen diverse organizations, from environmentalists and research institutions to municipalities and off-highway vehicle enthusiasts) pushed the Nova Scotia government to acquire the lands, protecting the most ecologically significant properties and undertaking community forestry on the remaining terrain.

Large land purchases in Nova Scotia are crucial for conservation, since only about a third of the province is publicly owned—the second lowest percentage in the country after Prince Edward Island. Over the last five years, Nova Scotia has spent $350 million on land acquisition, an extraordinary figure for a small province. The Resolute land purchase is only the most recent step the Nova Scotia government is taking to protect wilderness in the province. It is also working to establish many new protected areas through the “Our Parks and Protected Areas” plan, a commitment to create four new provincial parks, 44 new wilderness areas and 120 new nature reserves while expanding dozens of other sites. The commitment was arrived at after lengthy negotiations between environmental groups and forestry companies in the province. CPAWS played a key role in identifying properties for protection and negotiating an agreement with the forest companies.

“When you see environmental organizations and forestry companies collaborating, it’s an eye-opener,” says Chris Miller, CPAWS Halifax-based national conservation biologist, who feels it’s crucial to use scientific knowledge and to work with industry, government and local communities to advance conservation. “The government saw an opportunity because two traditional adversaries were working through their differences. The package we presented was a solution that resulted in a lot more land being protected.”

Because Nova Scotia has such a long history of settlement and development, and much of the land is committed to industry already, it’s often regarded as a challenging place to undertake conservation work. But many people in the province—including Miller, whose family’s roots are as deep as you can dig—have the type of strong conservation ethic that derives from living in such a beautiful part of Canada. They’re intimately familiar with both intense development pressure and the urgent need to protect the wilderness that remains. And in Nova Scotia, as with all of the country’s heavily populated, southern latitudes, that means stepping up to safeguard the nature that’s in our own backyards.

Pink Lake reflects seasonal colours in Gatineau Park, which is a 15-minute drive from downtown Ottawa.

Gatineau Park is literally a backyard (or playground) for residents of the national capital. The 36,131-hectare wedge of hills, lakes and trees is just a 15-minute drive from Parliament Hill, on the north side of the Ottawa River, and draws more than 2.7 million visitors every year. People come to hike, paddle and picnic, and to cross-country ski or snowshoe in winter. There are grandfathered homes and cottages inside the park, and because of its proximity to Canada’s fourth largest urban area, there are frequent pushes to permit new residential development.

Despite such a heavy human presence, the park is also one of the most biodiverse places in southern Quebec—in Canada, biodiversity typically increases the farther south you travel—and an important link to other natural areas in all four directions. Gatineau Park is home to 125 rare or endangered plant and animal species, including the wolverine and southern flying squirrel. Yet it is managed by a Crown corporation called the National Capital Commission (NCC) and doesn’t have the legal protection afforded by national park status, which has made its preservation a priority for CPAWS Ottawa Valley chapter. The chapter, in fact, was founded in 1970 specifically to fight for the protection of the park.

“We’ve spent hundreds of years trying to shield ourselves from and conquer nature,” says the chapter’s executive director, John McDonnell, who got involved with CPAWS more than a decade ago, during a successful campaign to stop cottage and ATV trail development in Forêt-la-Blanche, a rare patch of old-growth forest not far east of Gatineau. “As a society, we need to step back and realize the value of nurturing these areas.”

In the Ottawa Valley, CPAWS’ strategy entails talking to the NCC about sustainable transit to minimize the number of private vehicles in Gatineau Park and sustainable recreation, raising concerns for example, about the impact of activities such as mountain biking on erosion, and about the threats posed by residential development and an expanded road network. Achieving long-term goals—national park status, legally enshrined boundaries, a ban on new roads and development inside the park—will take time, but these conversations have made headway. CPAWS and the NCC have cooperated on GIS projects over the past couple of years, for example, to map potential conservation corridors that link to the park and the Greenbelt that encircles the capital.

The Chignecto Isthmus is also a significant conservation corridor. Just 17 kilometres wide at its most narrow point, the land bridge connects Nova Scotia to New Brunswick and the rest of North America. If you see a moose in Nova Scotia, odds are it (or one of its ancestors) walked through Chignecto’s patchwork of wetlands and hardwood forests, which provides habitat for more than 120 species of birds and drinking water for the town of Amherst, N.S., among other communities in both provinces. But most of the isthmus is private land, especially on the New Brunswick side. And that’s a challenge for the province’s CPAWS chapter.

It’s important to encourage landowners to manage their land in a way that allows wildlife to migrate through, says executive director Roberta Clowater. That could mean leaving a patch of old forest intact, doing due diligence before deciding on the route of a new road, and  maintaining hedgerows and well-buffered streams on farms. CPAWS New Brunswick has organized workshops, led by woodlot owners and foresters, who talk about the successful conservation projects they’ve undertaken on their properties.

The province is somewhat of a paradox in this regard. The people of New Brunswick are extremely outdoorsy: they camp and hike, hunt and fish, and love the land and waters. For generations, so many have made their living from natural resources, whether it’s logging, mining or fishing, that a utilitarian approach to forests, rivers and bays is still prevalent. Trying to carve out a space for wild nature, in the face of ingrained natural resource-based economies, can be like pushing a big boulder up a hill, says Clowater—and you need a critical mass to impel the government into action.

But progress is being made. Over the last few decades, the number of New Brunswickers willing to speak out for the “public value” of wilderness has been rising, she says. And now, the “trickle up” to government is starting to happen.

Less than one per cent of the Restigouche River watershed, covering more than one million hectares in Quebec and New Brunswick and home to lynx, bear, eagles and some of the world’s largest wild salmon, is protected from development.

Case in point: the Restigouche River. With a watershed that covers more than one million hectares in Quebec’s Gaspé Region and northern New Brunswick, the river is perhaps the wildest waterway in south-eastern Canada, home to lynx, bears, bald eagles and barred owls and some of the largest wild Atlantic salmon in the world. Yet less than one per cent of the watershed is officially protected from development, leaving it open to mining and logging. CPAWS’ nation-wide campaign, “Keep the Restigouche Wild,” has attracted over 11,000 supporters for protecting the wildest parts of Restigouche. Armed with statistics on the river’s angling and ecotourism industries (they’re worth more than $20 million annually and support more than 400 jobs), CPAWS is playing a central role in the campaign that Clowater is confident will expand the amount of protected land in the watershed to four or five per cent within the next year.

“Getting even this much protected is a start,” she says, “and these ‘wildest’ places can be added to over time. Protecting natural areas so close to many of our communities will have an impact on the quality of life of all New Brunswickers. It’s a buffer against the impacts of climate change—protecting our natural flood barriers, air conditioners and water filters. These wild spaces are also where people might have their first experience connecting with nature. Young families will canoe or hike, encounter wildlife and begin to appreciate our important relationship to nature.”

That relationship is what appeals to CPAWS donors such as 90-year-old New Brunswick naturalist Mary Majka (right), an Order of Canada recipient who has been a supporter of CPAWS and the parent organization that preceded it since the 1970s. Majka, who immigrated to Canada from Poland in 1951, says she has seen a tremendous change in perspectives since moving to the region 62 years ago. People no longer view nature as a domain for them to rule, she says. “My greatest concern was always reaching children and CPAWS has helped to raise a generation of much more aware and caring people across the country and our province. People who deeply appreciate our country’s natural world.”


Ottawa-based writer and editor Dan Rubinstein contributes to publications such as The Walrus and The Economist, and is working on a non-fiction book about walking, which will be published in spring 2015.

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