ST. MARY’S — The provincial government has declared 1,700 acres of pristine wetlands and old-growth forest in Guysborough County off limits to heavy industry, including a lake that one company had hoped would supply its planned gold mine with fresh water.
The new Archibald Lake Wilderness Area, near Sherbrooke, now protects a wide tract of wetlands, lakes, and at least 750 acres of old-growth in the watershed, which includes several tributaries of the environmentally significant and sensitive St. Mary’s River.
Australian mining company, St Barbara, had wanted to use Archibald Lake – one of several within the new protected zone – for its proposed Cochrane Hill open-pit mine only a few kilometres away. Its plan involved returning the water, once treated, back to its source.
But, by “protecting the area forever, we are ensuring generations of Nova Scotians and visitors to our province will be able to experience and benefit from all it has to offer,” said Nova Scotia’s Agriculture Minister and MLA for Guysborough-Tracadie Greg Morrow, who made the announcement before a riverside crowd of about 50 people at Sherbrooke Provincial Park on Monday. “This area is a beautiful, scenic and pristine natural gem.”
The news was met with overwhelming support – and relief – by conservation groups who have been advocating protection for the area for years, and who noted, among other projects, the extensive work that’s been done to preserve and restore Atlantic salmon populations in the watershed.
“I have to say this is such a joyous day for us,” St. Mary’s River Association (SMRA) President Scott Beaver told the crowd. “We really are turning this place into quite the ribbon of green... Archibald Lake is quite significant to this river system. It really is one of the very first spots that Atlantic salmon have when they leave the estuary and head up the river. The lake is [also] so important for folks; it’s been a gem for our community in terms of recreational activities, angling, bio-blitzing, birding, paddling, you name it.”
Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF) Nova Scotia Program Director Deirdre Green said “groups like the SMRA, ASF, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Nova Scotia Salmon Association Ecology Action Centre, and many more remain 100 per cent opposed to this potential [gold mining] development. Protecting Archibald Lake Wilderness Area is a principled, smart move by the Government of Nova Scotia.”
In an interview with The Journal following the announcement, she noted: “Our land and our water are among our province’s most valuable resources, providing multiple benefits for people and the economy. This announcement puts us one step closer to getting the St. Mary’s River the protection it deserves... We want to sincerely thank Minister [Tim] Halman [Department of Environment and Climate Change] and Minister Morrow for making this important decision for our environment, our economy and future generations.”
According to a government backgrounder, the new protected area is “habitat for many species, such as the Canada warbler and endangered mainland moose that benefit from older forests. Protecting the area also helps maintain water quality and fish habitat, benefitting fish species including brook trout and Atlantic salmon. The area is a popular spot for hunting and recreational trout fishing, which are both permitted in wilderness areas.”
What isn’t permitted is heavy industry.
In a statement, St. Barbara indicated that it remains “committed to the development of a gold project at Cochrane Hill,” and that it “will assess the impact of this decision [to grant] Archibald Lake protected area status. [We] have heard from folks across Nova Scotia who feel that new government protection efforts are creating unexpected barriers and challenges for the industry. The Company echoes these concerns and urges the Province to reflect on the impact these decision have on the future of the mining industry and the prosperity of rural communities in Nova Scotia.”
It added: “To be absolutely clear, Archibald Lake was not in any jeopardy from the Cochrane Hill Gold Project. Mining operations across the globe co-exist with lakes, rivers and streams and do it in a way that balances mining operations with healthy eco-systems. The Cochrane Hill Gold Mine project will create hundreds of long-term, well-paying jobs and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity in rural Nova Scotia. St Barbara will continue to engage with public, stakeholders (including government and regulators) and First Nation communities.”
Morrow told The Journal that the provincial government looks at industrial projects, like Cochrane Hill, “on a case-by-case basis. I think we’ve worked with the mining industry on a number of projects over the past two years.”
Earlier this month, St Barbara announced a wholesale restructuring of its Atlantic operations partly due to its failure to persuade the provincial government to grant specific life-extending alterations to its Touquoy gold pit near Sheet Harbour. As a result, it said, it’s refocussed on its Fifteen Mile Stream operation, about 50 kilometres closer to Sherbrooke, and Cochrane Hill, where approximately 400,000 ounces of recoverable gold is currently valued at $760 million on world markets.
A request for comment about the announcement and its implications from Greg Wier, Warden of the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s was not returned by press time. Meanwhile, Green said that under the circumstances Cochrane Hill “doesn’t make sense,” and its proximity to the St. Mary’s River remains “hugely concerning.”
Over the past the years, she pointed out, “more than $3 million has been spent within the watershed on some of the best conservation work in the province: instream restoration, acid rain mitigation, cold water enhancement and more. This work coupled with important landscape protections, like the [Archibald Lake Wilderness Area] announcement, creates watersheds that are resilient to the impacts of climate change. We cannot risk compromising these increasingly rare ecological hot spots.”
Beaver told The Journal, “It’s not surprising... what [St Barbara] is saying. They are all about investors and the bottom line. They’re just going to keep coming at us from every direction. But we are here and we will continue to be here as a community and continue to fight for areas of ecological significance like this.”
According to the provincial backgrounder, Archibald Lake Wilderness Area’s boundary “avoids forest access roads and trails wherever practical. Vehicle access will be maintained to each of three lakes [Archibald, McDonald and Rocky]. The road to the north end of Archibald Lake is not included in the wilderness area and remains open for use...The Province is currently consulting with Nova Scotians to help develop a protected areas strategy [to] outline how to achieve [20 per cent] land and water conservation goal [by] 2030 and identify next steps.”