Buy Back the Mersey!
The collapse of the Bowater Mersey Paper Company in 2012 triggered an outpouring of public support for a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure the company’s vast woodlands in western Nova Scotia as public lands. The St. Margarets Bay Stewardship Association (SMBSA), along with people from all walks of life across the province, rallied around the idea of finally having a say in how these lands would be managed. A packed meeting at the local community hall sent a clear message to government: Buy Back the Mersey! And they did. In a single visionary act, the Province of Nova Scotia responded by acquiring nearly all the company’s lands. The purchase was heralded as a chance for citizens to shape a new future for the new public assets; the former Mersey lands.
The Big Letdown
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Government quickly forgot who was supposed to benefit and dug in doing things the old way. Despite broad public support, a community forest proposal developed by SMBSA and conscientious foresters with a focus on light-touch forestry and multiple benefits is rejected, seemingly without any serious consideration. Although publicly owned, the Ingram lands were (and still are) managed as little more than an industrial crop. Control was ceded to a consortium of logging companies whose priorities took precedence over everything else. Fresh clearcuts left lands mangled and denuded. Other parcels got traded away to make room for a quarry and asphalt plant. Citizens were offered perfunctory input but had no real say.
Government assurances that all was well rang hollow as the area came under an onslaught of new harvesting plans, and the mills ramped up the cutting. It became clear that a completely different approach was needed.
In 2017 SMBSA published its first Ingram River Wilderness Area map and brochure. After consulting with the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq the 20,000 hectare proposal was modified so as to not overlap with a new Mi'kmaw Forestry Initiative project, supported by SMBSA, at the northern end of the watershed. It was hoped that a new protected area would make up for the St. Margarets Bay region being overlooked in the provincial protected areas plan (which included about 30% of Nova Scotia's total Crown lands, but almost none here). Appeals to government to establish a wilderness area gained traction in January 2019 when Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin committed his department to conducting a "biodiversity assessment" of the area in equal partnership with the Department of Environment and SMBSA. The SMBSA has been assured that the assessment could lead to the designation of additional protected areas. To his credit, Minister Rankin also announced a pause on cutting within the study area.
Stewardship in Motion
Since before negotiations to establish a community forest, the SMBSA has been collaborating with government officials, university researchers, local users, and citizen scientists to better understand and conserve the area's natural attributes. Over 20 species at risk have now been identified including mainland moose, olive-sided flycatcher, snapping turtle, boreal felt lichen, Canada warbler, and rusty blackbird, to name but a few. Over the past few summers we have employed a small army of Habitat Restoration Technicians to assist our efforts to rehabilitate fish-bearing streams, clean up illegal dump sites, and document remaining old forest sites.
We also continue to work with other stakeholders to understand how different types of users value and interact with the area. This is important to ensure that a wilderness area is customized from the ground up, to respect how people currently use the area and meet the needs of current and future users.
Today, just 3 per cent of the proposed wilderness area is protected.
97 per cent is under threat.