New protected provincial park for St. Mary’s

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
October 21 2020

ST. MARY’S – As the provincial government moved to expand its inventory of protected land along the St. Mary’s River valley with a new provincial park, Guysborough County gold mining interests watched their industrial horizons grow narrower last week.

In a major step towards reaching its public land protection goal of 13 per cent, Nova Scotia Environment designated a series of watershed parcels – which total about 11,000 hectares from Trafalgar to Sherbrooke, according to one estimate – as the new St. Mary’s River Provincial Park. The protectorate will be free from clear-cutting and mineral extraction.

Proximate to, but not included in the area, is 684 hectares of woodlands, wetlands, and lakes belonging to the Archibald Brook watershed, where Atlantic Gold wants to build an open-pit gold mine. According to Environment Minister Gordon Wilson in the announcement release, the government needs “additional time before making a decision on its protection.”

Earlier this year, after significant lobbying by environmental and river conservation groups, the provincial government agreed to consider reclassifying the proposed Archibald Lake Wilderness Area. The biggest complication, at that time, appeared to be reconciling the Wilderness Act’s stipulation against commercial resource development and roughly 10 acres within the site where mineral exploration rights can be honoured.

But even without the clear designation of this tract as protected, St. Mary’s River Association President Scott Beaver lauded the trend the government’s decision appears to endorse. “It would have been nice to see Archibald Lake added at this time, but 11,300 hectares along the St. Mary’s River valley is the real story here and we will celebrate the win that it is,” he told The Journal in an email.

“As folks continue to donate large portions of land to organizations like Nova Scotia Nature Trust and the province continues protecting massive swaths of land, it only strengthens our case for no mine.”

He added: “We started a campaign shortly after Minister Gordon Wilson’s January 2020 announcement of these properties to have Archibald Lake added to the list. We were successful in getting it added to the list and we have gone through consultations with the Province regarding the property and access to the lake for recreational purposes. We are confident that the piece will be designated in the near future and we will continue to work with governments to make sure this is completed.”

In a statement to The Journal, St Barbara Ltd., parent company of Atlantic Gold operations, said it “respects the decision of the provincial government to defer its decision on protecting Archibald Lake. We hope this announcement demonstrates the appropriate alignment of respective government processes and places trust in the harmonized federal and provincial environmental assessment process for all proposed mining operations.”

It added: “St Barbara recognises and respects the environmental significance of both Archibald Lake and the St. Mary’s watershed. As part of the approvals process, our Company is appropriately required to provide scientific evidence to all levels of government to demonstrate that water sources can be protected before, during and after the mine life of the proposed Cochrane Hill Gold Mine operations.

“Our company looks forward to submitting its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine project soon and working within the stringent environmental assessment process that will follow.”

When asked for comment, Central Nova Member of Parliament Sean Fraser said he supports the Province’s move and the larger message it sent. “It is encouraging to see new protections afforded to our natural environment, particularly the establishment of the new St. Mary’s River Provincial Park,” he said. “I’ve been proud to be involved with efforts to restore critical habitat for Atlantic Salmon along the river and these additional protections will help ensure the long-term health of this important watershed. I had the opportunity to help advance funding opportunities through the Canada Nature Fund during my tenure as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, and it is deeply rewarding to see those investments reach our communities in such an important way.”

Earlier this year, Fraser told The Journal that he had misgivings about the Atlantic Gold project in the Archibald Lake area. “If we’ve established protections for nature, we have to stick by those,” he said. “So, if you can’t find a way to accommodate those protections, we have to have the backbone to say, well, then, you might not be able to do that here.”

The St. Mary’s announcement was part of a larger proclamation that saw 10 new and expanded sites – including five wilderness areas, three nature reserves and two new provincial parks – designated as protected. Two were restored to their Mi’kmaq names – Katewe’katik in Queens and Annapolis Counties (formerly the McGowan Lake Wilderness Area), and Pu’tlaqne’katik in Queens and Lunenburg Counties (Pleasant River Wilderness Area).

"Nova Scotia is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and there are many ways to enjoy connecting with nature here,” Environment Minister Gordon said in the announcement release. “Many parts of Nova Scotia are important for Indigenous conservation values, and we will continue to work with the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia. Thank you to the many people who helped us take another step toward our goal of protecting 13 per cent of our land.”