Former politician Diana Whalen continues to push for the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes regional park, as new Councillor Iona Stoddard throws her support behind the campaignE
very time Diana Whalen looks outside her window, she sees what’s dear to her heart.
The retired politician’s view is of the lakes that are part of the proposed Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes (BMBCL) park. As a board member of the Friends of BMBCL, Whalen is one of many working to conserve and preserve the area, a task started over 30 years ago.
Having lived in the Clayton Park area for 13 years, she learned of the importance of the issue while canvassing in her bid to win the local seat in the 2003 provincial election.
One man in particular stands out in her memory.
“He said ‘The only thing I care about is Birch Cove Lakes; that’s what I care about,'” she recalls. “I didn’t know where it was, and I told him to tell me more. He was a gentleman that went there every day; he loved to hike there. I told him when the election is over, whether I win or not, I will come and told him I would love him to show me.”
They soon met up and walked to Quarry Lake, between Bayers and Kearney lakes. Whalen recalls a picturesque view that she could not believe existed in her backyard.
“It was a fall day, it was beautiful out, and the lake looked lovely,” she says. “We didn’t see any other people; we crossed the quarry sand then went into the woods. The contrast of the city to that area was just so striking. I was instantly sold on the idea that this area, particularly that we own, land that was in government hands should be preserved right away.”
BMBCL is an urban wilderness spanning about 2,022 hectares, with 22 lakes. People can hike, swim, kayak, canoe, and fish there. The Friends of BMBCL created a group pursuing two goals.
One was to advocate for all government levels to purchase land, creating a buffer and access points. The other objective was to educate people, especially in matters concerning damage to the land.
“We find that we get reports…when people see damage like fire pits during really dry seasons,” Whalen explains. “Sometimes, people see smoldering fire pits, so there is the worry of the area catching fire or people cutting down green trees because they think they can burn them, that’s just damage or garbage. We want to be stewards of this area as well, but it’s a huge area, so we’re trying to find our way to see how we can help.”
One way is hosting hike and leader training sessions. Certified leaders will promote wilderness first-aid while giving people information on the trails and how to get to them. Pandemic precautions have kiboshed group hikes for now, but organizers hope to resume them soon.
The idea is to give people the tools to enjoy the area safely. “You don’t take your children into areas that are not marked, or it didn’t appear safe unless you have somebody to show it to them,” Whalen adds. “I want it to be preserved and also that we extend it to also open up areas for public use. We allow it, so younger families and those of us getting older can go in there and enjoy it.”
But hurdles remain before the proposed park becomes a reality.
Developers believe the area should be used for infrastructure and housing. Whalen points to different city regions that developers could use instead of BMBCL for their projects.
“Right now, development pressures are all around the 33 kilometres exist,” she says. “There are points where we know there are plans to develop either, or there are plans for a road to come in or go through whatever that we consider being detrimental to the park. We’re trying to advocate when we learn or hear of those pressures, try to look for the best solutions with the least impact on the park because we’re thinking of this park as a reality. I’m not sure the government is making plans based on the fact that this park will exist.”
Whalen also says HRM should be trying to buy land to do its part in conserving and preserving the area; that shows the city’s long-term commitment to making it a regional park. The Nova Scotia Nature Trust recently helped arrange a $750,000 HRM land purchase in the area.
“It means we have partners helping us, and they are helping the city who we are looking to acquire land,” Whalen adds. “This way was a way for the city to leverage more land with fewer city resources. It’s very exciting that Nature Trust has ventured into this city area to help with the wilderness.”
During the municipal election, Friends of BMBCL sent out surveys to the candidates asking them about the park’s importance. Whalen invited new District 12 Councillor Iona Stoddard to come to see for herself.
“It’s a hidden gem; the terrain was very rugged, and it was unmarked,” Stoddard says. “It was quite the experience. As you walk in a little further from the Bayers Lake traffic, all of a sudden, it is just tranquil… It was very serene, very peaceful, spiritual being there, and in touch with nature. I just sat down on a log and looked over to the water.”
The pandemic has highlighted the value of green spaces like BMBCL. “You have the exercise, the fresh air, the chance to get outside and be with nature and get away from the hustle and bustle of downtown,” Stoddard explains. “We need places like this in the city that you can get away and be at peace with yourself… We need a wilderness park. It’s a beautiful place to relax and decompress, and of course, there are medical benefits mentally, physically, and emotionally.”
The District 12 Councillor says she’s determined to help government, citizen groups, and everyone involved find common ground so the regional park can come to fruition.
“We all have to work together to get this changed into the wilderness area to a regional park,” Stoddard says. “I hope that everyone will come together to preserve it and leave it in its natural state so that everyone can enjoy it and that it can last forever. It’s remarkable, and the thought of losing it is in the minds of a lot of people that are trying to keep it and maintain it. It’s crucial because I would like to take my grandchildren there, and I am sure other people would like to take grandchildren there to see this beautiful area.”
Whalen hopes that people will understand the unique opportunity BMBCL offers Halifax. She’s calling on anyone who supports the cause to take out a free membership in the Friends of BMBCL. The group currently has about 700 members and organizers would like to get that number up to 1,000.
“We would be the envy of every other city in Canada, if we could create this wilderness park,” she says. “Other cities don’t have the opportunity to have this… They’ve already built on the land, or they never had a wilderness like this that is so close.”
The growing dangers of climate change are also on her mind. “When you have more trees and [undeveloped] land, it’s more helpful to the climate and the environment,” she says. “We need to start preparing for that future. I don’t think it can be that same kind of development process we’ve done in the past. We should see it as the absolute gem that it is: the huge opportunity that it is for our city to preserve the wilderness.”
Note: Halifax Magazine has been following this story for many years. Find previous coverage in our free archives.