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Mining Association wants access to Nova Scotia's protected areas

Excavators work at Atlantic Gold Corporation’s Touquoy open-pit gold mine in Moose River Gold Mines in June. 
Excavators work at Atlantic Gold Corporation’s Touquoy open-pit gold mine in Moose River Gold Mines in June. (ANDREW VAUGHAN / CP)

A campaign by the Mining Association of Nova Scotia to loosen protections on the province’s wilderness areas is getting mixed reviews.

After releasing a 67-page report nine months ago on the economic consequences of blocking exploration and mining activity on the 13 per cent of this province’s land mass that the government is on track to prevent, the association has begun sending letters to county councils and newspapers outlining their findings.

“We are doing our best to work with the (protected areas) plan,” said Sean Kirby, executive director of the mining association.

“We support its ecological goals and we are just advocating for small changes that would allow for economic development as well.”

The association is calling for the province to change the act that currently prohibits any mineral exploration or development on wilderness areas.

The proposed changes would allow, on a case-by-case basis, the government to determine whether a mining company could purchase land outside a protected area of equal or greater size in ecological significance to one it wants to swap inside a protected area.

The report claims that by preventing mineral exploration and mining development on lands already protected, the province is missing out on $22 million a year in economic activity.

“Former mines, quarries and pits have great potential value and are often low-hanging fruit for the modern industry,” reads the report, which highlights 52 former mines, quarries and aggregate pits currently located inside protected areas.

Not everyone is keen on the proposal.

Forest ecologist Donna Crossland said Friday that the point of having permanent protected areas is to allow them to return to a natural state.

“There are components of the forest that take centuries to develop so we need long-term protection,” said Crossland.

“We can’t be playing musical chairs and just swapping protected areas in and out of a landscape.”

Disturbed Acadian forest, she said, takes centuries to recover.

The vast majority of the province has been at some point clear cut or cleared for farmland. Even much of the areas now protected, said Crossland, are still recovering from past disturbances.

That means that over centuries, longer-lived species of trees like maple, pine, red spruce and oak, take hold and grow to maturity — providing habitat for wildlife as they become old-growth forests.

Protected areas are spread across the province disproportionately — with more lands protected in counties with lower population densities.

Fifteen per cent of Victoria County in northern Cape Breton is protected by the province and, when combined with the portion protected federally by Parks Canada, a total of 38 per cent of the county is off-limits to development.

“That’s enough,” said Bruce Morrison, county warden.

Victoria County council is currently considering a letter received from the mining association and deciding whether to support their proposal.

Morrison said that “in theory” he likes the mining association’s proposal.

Meanwhile, the Municipality of the District of Guysborough is having the same discussion.

“We’re supporting the Mining association,” said Warden Vernon Pitts on Friday.

“There hasn’t been a mechanism in place whereby a company or a municipality could swap out land.”

Pitts said that Guysborough is on track to have 18 per cent of its land mass become a protected area and that while the municipality supports the environmental goal of the program it also has to care for the economic needs of its citizens.

Despite the report having been released nine months ago, the provincial government has made no moves to publicly acknowledge or support its suggestions.

Kirby said that with negotiations at a standstill the association began to approach county councils and newspapers directly.

For his part, Raymond Plourde said the association’s proposal is a political and environmental bomb.

“The province is not going to touch this with a 10-foot pole,” said Plourde, wilderness co-ordinator for the Ecology Action Centre.

“It would require them to to open up the whole Wilderness Protection Act and substantially weaken it. The blowback would be huge. The entire purpose of the act is to protect important natural areas from this sort of development.”

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