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Paradise found

Halifax’s urban core is surrounded by a wealth of protected areas, thanks to progressive legislation by the province. Will our city government go further, stall, or reverse wildlands protection?

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Photos: Chris Benjamin

Photos: Chris Benjamin

On a crisp, clear day, Lynette Reid, dog-lover and local luminary on ethics pertaining to medical advances, takes me hiking through a newly protected wilderness area called Rogue’s Roost. It’s only a half-hour drive from downtown Halifax.

I’ve mentioned it to hikers and climbers I know, thinking they’ll hype it up for me. “You mean the pub on Spring Garden Road?” they all ask.

This Rogue’s Roost is the name of a calm cove where sailors—both the ye olde variety and the modern sport sailors—take refuge from storms. “Some mornings after a storm you can smell the bacon frying from all the way down there,” Reid points out the natural feature out on the horizon.

Last year, the Nova Scotia government protected nearly 1,200 hectares around that safe roost, including 18 kilometres of coastline. “It’s like Peggy’s Cove without the tourists,” Chris Miller tells me. He works for CPAWS—the cleverly acronymed (backronymed?) Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

That look of “glacial vomit,” as Reid puts it, is more technically called a coastal-barren ecosystem: wet, rocky, mostly exposed bedrock covered only in lichen and the occasional shrub or salt marsh. The winds are relentless; the Province of Nova Scotia website lists it as having “medium to high” potential for wind energy. It’s beautiful year-round.

First we go down a privately-owned road called Nice View Drive (off Terence Bay Road, off Prospect Road), past houses built and sold for a loss by a wealthy German man during a downturn in the housing market. Some of these are large, luxury houses scattered along the shore and likely to be underwater in a couple decades, thanks to climate change.

Other homes are unfinished. Reid shows me an abandoned foundation near the power lines, which are scattered over a thinly treed hillside. “How could this be done on Crown land?” she wonders.

The protected area is public land but you have to walk over private property to access it. Reid is careful not to use the same person’s property too many times in a row. She hopes a public access path will come soon.

The power of the landscape really hits me after we hop around all-terrain vehicle tracks and puddles, led by Reid’s fearless Nova Scotia duck toller. We get sweaty climbing through bare tree branches to the top of “Sorrow’s End,” a cliff overlooking Shellbird Lake with a killer bird’s eye view.

From here you can see several surrounding lakes, coves, bays, inlets, and villages with grand church steeples along the coast. Reid points out some of the endless possible hiking routes, ranging from 90-minute to full-day hikes. If you made yourself a good windbreak you could easily camp out and spend days here.

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People sometimes hunt here. That’s allowed but it’s mostly small game. Part of the roost’s value is as habitat for endangered species like the harlequin duck and mainland moose. Reid’s never seen a moose in eight years of hiking here.

From Crow’s Nest you can mentally map a sea-kayaking route—that’s why East Coast Outfitters is based near here. You can also see jutting stand-alone rocks, a climbers’ paradise. You can look across to the subtly changing landscape of adjacent Terence Bay Provincial Wilderness Area. And you can see the occasional crisscross of ATV tracks.

This is where Reid took a man from the Department of Natural Resources last year, when he said he was looking for something spectacular and different from the many other protected areas in the province. Based on what he saw, advocacy from community members, the area’s ecological significance and the many recreational uses for it, government increased the size of the area protected by more than 40 per cent.

Government officials asked if residents were interested in having the area protected. Scientists at Nova Scotia Environment and the Department of Natural Resources were looking for interesting spots to help them reach their goal of protecting 12 per cent of the province’s land from development. That policy came about because of a decade-long coordinated effort by conservationists across the province.

Most of the locals were into it, but some ATV enthusiasts worried about having access to trails they could use. The consultation process forced ATV users (mostly long-term residents), and come-from-aways (including people who moved from downtown Halifax) to work together and figure out what areas would be for hikers and where the ATVs would cross over.

Rogue’s Roost was one of the few sites the government made bigger during its multiyear search for areas to protect. Thousands of people participated in the process and in the end a quarter-million new hectares were protected.

Of those, fully 7,000 are around the urban core of Halifax. Despite recent branding efforts to sell this city as a hipper, more metropolitan centre, wilderness is essential Halifax, part of our psychological makeup. “The best of both worlds,” says Miller. Medium-sized city amenities neighbour clean water, land and air inhabited by wild animals. We thus learn to see connections between pristine wilderness, healthy drinking water, and the splendour of the natural world.

And the more land we legally protect, the less we develop, which forces us to concentrate population growth into dense areas. The 12-per cent goal created a one-time conservation bonanza. But that bonanza, a handily timed municipal election, and further pressure from think-ahead planning types had the unintended consequence of changing the way some at City Hall think about land use.

Now we have a mayor talking about a “greenbelt,” a designated development-free zone in the outskirts ensuring that new developments happen in or near the urban core. The city has an eight-year-old regional plan that was supposed to accomplish the same thing.

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But a greenbelt makes sure you don’t end up developing every piece of land right up to the boundaries of protected areas. Doing so risks contaminating the very areas we’re supposed to preserve. Polluting that land also means polluting our own drinking water. “The city needs to step up to protect private lands,” Miller says. The talk is promising, but the city has yet to live up to what the province has done in protecting Halifax’s wildlands.

In fact, several Councillors representing suburban and rural districts would prefer to eliminate the parts of the regional plan that restrict sprawl. They want the development and potential property tax dollars new housing brings, even though it’s the city that usually pays for all the roads, pipes and wires necessitated by the new suburbs.

These boomtown dreams not only make further protected areas unlikely, they threaten the ones we already have. That means important wildlife habitat could be lost along with cherished recreational areas.

To strip it down to pure utilitarian terms, these attitudes also threaten our clean drinking water, health and general happiness for the sake of more suburbs. ”Council and mayor need to make sure there’s a workable plan this year,” Miller says. That plan needs to support existing Halifax wilderness areas and the laudable development goals in the regional plan.

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