Originally published in the Chronicle Herald on Dec. 2, 2022.
The reaction was swift and almost universal across the province: “OMG, not again!”
The dust has barely settled on the Owls Head fiasco and another American billionaire golf course developer has the temerity to take another run at another treasured piece of protected public lands — this time at West Mabou Beach Provincial Park — for the second time, no less, having already been told no by the government in 2018.
Cabot’s audacious request sets the stage for another Owls Head debacle. The nerve of these guys!
The West Mabou Beach Provincial Park is an iconic and exceptional protected natural area, full of rare and endangered species and habitats. It’s also an important part of Nova Scotia’s Parks and Protected Area Network which counts towards Canada’s national and international commitments under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
Only five per cent of our coastline is protected public land. Development is precisely what it is protected from. These lands are not, nor should they ever be for sale, lease, barter or trade. They are part of our natural heritage, to be passed on to future generations, human and otherwise.
These special places are not just notionally protected until some developer comes along and says, “Yes, I’d like that land, please.” The answer from the government must always be no. “Protected” must mean “protected” or it means nothing at all.
There is a disturbing pattern of behaviour with the Cabot Group that is highly presumptuous when it comes to our protected public lands.
Their first golf course encroached on a protected beach and blocked community access. It also got a lot of taxpayer financing. In 2018, they made their first play for West Mabou Beach Park and were rightly turned down by the Department of Natural Resources.
In 2019, Cabot tried to get the provincial government to give them Crown land on or beside the Masons Mountain Nature Reserve to build a jet airport for their wealthy clients — and, in an act of supreme arrogance, tried to get taxpayers to pay for it, to the tune of $18 million. That audacious proposal was also quite rightly rejected by the federal and provincial governments after a significant public uproar.
But don’t think they won’t try again. As this second attempt to get their paws on West Mabou Beach Provincial Park shows, these guys are nothing if not bold as brass.
And this pattern of behaviour extends beyond Nova Scotia to places like, St. Lucia, Scotland and Oregon, where proposed new Cabot golf resort developments targeting state parks and sensitive ecological and cultural areas are meeting with significant local opposition and political blowback.
A mixed bag
Relentless self-promoters, Cabot’s owners will tell anyone who’ll listen that they’re single-handedly saving tourism in poor, “bedraggled” Nova Scotia.
“The province is all rooting for Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs to bring tourism back to Nova Scotia,” they say. Say what?
Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island have been winning worldwide accolades as a major tourism destination long before these guys showed up. There’s no doubt they’ve built a couple of nice golf courses in a former coal-mining town, creating a nice little golf tourism niche in the area, and that some folks in the community have benefited.
But let’s be clear: it hasn’t all been sunshine and light for locals. Real estate and rental costs have skyrocketed, housing and workers are hard to find and municipal infrastructure has been overloaded, including the town’s sewage treatment plant.
It’s also important to note that Cabot’s first golf courses in Inverness were built on former industrial coalfields, reclaimed at great public expense. It’s a good example of industrial brownfield redevelopment. The municipality, which owned the land and wanted to see it redeveloped, sold it to Cabot for a dollar. Fair enough. But the situation at West Mabou is completely different. It is not a polluted former industrial site and it is not municipal land. It is a protected provincial park of exceptionally high ecological and existing tourism value.
The land was originally bought by several American families, specifically to ensure public access and protection of the fragile ecosystem. And it was for those values that the province expropriated the land in 1982 to create a provincial nature park.
Cabot’s divide-and-conquer tactics are questionable. They’ve recruited a former Progressive Conservative premier as their emissary to a new PC government and the public and are attempting to woo support from local community groups by offering them substantial sums of money “in return for the lease of the land” — despite the fact that the community groups have no authority to lease the land.
This approach is creating needless conflict in the local community and pits local supporters against citizens across the province, since provincial parks belong equally to all Nova Scotians. Cabot knows this, but obviously doesn't mind kicking this hornet’s nest.
They believe they are special. They are not. Cabot’s executives would be well advised to show some respect and cease their divisive behaviour or they risk wearing out their welcome here in Nova Scotia.
It is, of course, reasonable for the province to want to attract foreign investment. But that only works for Nova Scotia if those investors spend their own money. Not if they’re going to use taxpayer money and certainly not if they expect to be just given our protected public lands.
Cabot has significant financial resources and are welcome to build another golf course in Cape Breton if they wish, but not on protected public lands. They need to buy their own private land for their own private development — just like everybody else. There’s plenty to select from: 86 per cent of the coast in Nova Scotia is privately owned.
PCs’ positive legacy
The Houston government, which quite rightly fixed the Owls Head mess just months ago, has some pretty big priority files to deal with. They can ill-afford to waste limited government resources and burn precious political capital fighting another no-win battle with an incensed public for the benefit of another billionaire golf course developer.
Nor should they. There’s a long PC legacy in the development of Nova Scotia’s Parks and Protected Areas Network, which began in the early 1990s when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity at the historic Rio Earth Summit.
In Nova Scotia, the protected areas program was championed by then natural resources minister John Leefe and environment minister Ron Russell. It was the PC government of John Hamm that designated the West Mabou Beach Provincial Park in 2001. Announcing the designation, then DNR minister Ernie Fage said: “This property contains one of Nova Scotia’s finest coastal beach and dune systems in a spectacular scenic setting and is a prime example of the type of Crown land that needs to be protected for future generations. We recognize the need to protect this area in order to preserve its ecological integrity and values.”
Over the years, other PC environment and natural resources ministers, including Mark Parent, David Morse and Rodney MacDonald, set new protection targets and designated important areas like Ship Harbour-Long Lake and Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Areas among others.
Tim Houston is continuing that legacy, having enshrined in law the goal of legally protecting 20 per cent of Nova Scotia’s land and water by 2030.
In this important work, Nova Scotia needs to be moving forward, not backward. If Cabot gets what they want, it would set a terrible precedent and only invite more such attempts.
Premier Houston would be wise to avoid stepping in the quagmire of Cabot’s sand trap and nip this bad idea in the bud ASAP before it begins to fester and grow. And he needs to make it clear once again, as his predecessors have had to do before him, that our provincial parks and protected areas are not available for private development — period.
Raymond Plourde is senior wilderness coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.