Protect the Birch Cove Lakes

In 2006, the HRM regional plan was approved after several years of debate and what seemed like many, many rounds of public consultation.  This huge, all-encompassing document sets out where development will occur in Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford, and elsewhere within the Municipality over the period of 25-years.  It also lays out a broad plan for green space and parks throughout the City.

The HRM regional plan is not perfect, but it does a good job of trying to prioritize development in the urban areas, while trying to grapple with the problem of suburban sprawl on the outskirts, which has plagued the city for far too long.  It also identifies the Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes wilderness as a site for a future regional park and lays out policies that will see the City acquire private lands over time to create the park.

For those who haven’t been to the Birch Cove Lakes before, this is a fabulous wilderness not too far from downtown, and actually within the old city limits of Halifax.  Here, there are over a dozen lakes, vast forests, and lots of wildlife, all within close proximity to one of the most heavily populated areas of Nova Scotia.

On paper, the HRM regional plan looks pretty good…Control sprawl. Protect Birch Cove Lakes.  In reality, however, not much has happened in the years since the plan was approved by City Council to change the status quo.  For Birch Cove Lakes, not a single hectare of land has been acquired by the City for the wilderness park.

By contrast the provincial government has done quite a bit since then to protect the Birch Cove Lakes.  In 2009, the Province designated 1,300 hectares of public land as a legally-protected wilderness area for Blue Mountain – Birch Cove Lakes.  This newly created protected area is about twenty times the size of Point Pleasant Park, and it finally gave the residents of Rockingham, Clayton Park, Fairview, and Timberlea the wilderness park they had been asking for.  This protected wilderness area provides an excellent back-country portion of the park, where you can disappear into the wilderness with your canoe and never guess you are still inside the boundaries of a major city.

What’s missing, however, is the front-country.  This is where the City has been dropping the ball.  They have failed, so far, to acquire lands adjacent to the protected wilderness area to protect the remainder of the Birch Cove Lakes, which is needed to provide access on the side closest to the City, as well as support higher-use forms of recreation (e.g. gravel trails to Susies Lake, an appropriate canoe launch, parking for users, etc.).  Right now, people access the Birch Cove Lakes from the side of a busy highway, off a parking lot in the Bayers Lake industrial park, or through a rock quarry.  That’s not ideal.  The City needs to step-up to acquire lands for the park.

Earlier this year, it seemed that there was renewed interest by the City to get things moving again for the Birch Cove Lakes.  A public meeting was held in Rockingham and it was standing room only, with residents overwhelming supporting the park.  Since then, however, things seem to have become bogged down again in bureaucratic red tape.  The City is even having trouble just getting a staff report tabled at a standing committee at City Hall.  Two failed attempts so far. Unbelievable.

To the citizen of Halifax, this has all been incredibly frustrating.  The Birch Cove Lakes is the City’s best remaining wilderness…clean, clear lakes with lots of forest and wildlife.  Other cities would be chomping-at-the-bit to have a place like this.  In Halifax, well, the City just kind of takes it for granted, even as the area inches toward development each year.  That’s gotta stop.

Halifax is a world-class city.  We have a world-class wilderness at our doorstep and we’re totally missing the opportunity so far to seize the moment and make the Birch Cove Lakes regional park a reality.

This being an election year, let’s hope that the new Council and the new Mayor will approach the Birch Cove Lakes issue with renewed vigour.  Time is running out.  And, once this opportunity is lost, it’s lost forever.  Let’s not waste it.

~Chris Miller


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