Wild surprise as proposed park doubles in size

Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness now a priority for city staff.

City staff have startled supporters of the proposed Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Park by suggesting a park boundary that almost doubles the size of the original concept for the park.

Last Thursday, Peter Bigelow, who is the city’s manager of real property, hosted a public consultation session at a Clayton Park church, where he unveiled a dozen or so maps of the park. He was joined by staff from the provincial department of environment, which controls much land in the area; the idea is that the park will be jointly managed by the city and province.

Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes is a chunk of land about the size of the Halifax peninsula lying roughly west of the Bayers Lake Industrial Park, north to Kearney Lake and Kingswood, and south to the Lakewood-Timberlea corridor. The western boundary was defined in 2009 when the department of environment designated its lands east of the proposed highway 113 corridor for wilderness protection; that protection was awarded last year. Highway 113 would run from the BiHi near exit three to Highway 103 near Lake of the Woods.

The new road would actually run along the flanks of Blue Mountain, the highest point in the area, and on a narrow stretch of land separating two lakes. But the highway route kept the seven lakes to the east—the Birch Cove lakes, which constitute a complete watershed and a rare canoe loop—protected, and so that became the focus of the city’s new park.

But the province is trying to meet its commitment that 12 percent of the province be designated wilderness, and so has recently looked at its lands west of the highway corridor, nearly so far as Hammonds Plains Road, which constitute a separate watershed of the headwaters of Nine Mile River. And so now lands on both sides of the proposed highway are being considered for the new city park.

Citizens at the consultation meeting were quite pleased with the proposal, but several raised objections to the highway. “It’s not a wilderness if there’s a highway running through the middle of it,” said one. Bigelow granted the point, and seemed to agree, but spoke of the possibilities of wildlife crossings, either over or under the roadway, and a provincial staffer assured that protection of wild corridors is mandated by environmental requirements for the highway.

Other new details about the proposed park also came out at the meeting. The concept is to have a "front country" along the park perimeter that will be much like traditional city parks such as Shubie Park—"a place where you can go for an hour with your kid and hold your kid's hand as you walk down a maintained trail," says Bigelow. Further back will be the "back country" of unmaintained wilderness. People can go there, but they'll essentially be on their own, with no maintained trails. In the front country, there will be canoe docks; in the back country, canoeists will have to portage between lakes, carrying their own canoes.

There’s still a long way to go before Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes Wilderness Park becomes reality. The biggest obstacle is the Halifax city council, which will first have to approve the money to buy out large private landowners in the area, and then agree to a new park management model that stretches the bureaucracy.

Bigelow said he doesn’t expect the park to materialize before he becomes eligible for retirement in three years, but that work on the park has now been prioritized in his department.

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