Archibald Lake’s new status raises fresh questions

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
January 22 2020

SHERBROOKE – When environmental advocate Scott Beaver learned that Archibald Lake and its environs had been added to the list of proposed Protected Wilderness Areas in Nova Scotia, he almost pulled his punches. Almost.

“We’ve been working on this and on being good stewards to the land for four or five years, and it seems like we’ve been swinging up all the time,” the president of the St. Mary’s River Association says of his group’s efforts to defend the St. Mary’s River watershed area against the commercial ambitions of Atlantic Gold Corp, the Nova Scotia subsidiary of Australian mining conglomerate St. Barbara Limited. “So, yeah, we’ll see…but we were thrilled by the announcement.”

In fact, Nova Scotia Environment’s decision earlier this month to consider reclassifying 684 hectares of woodlands, lakes and several small wetlands in the area of Archibald’s Lake – which provide homes and habitats for old-forest and aquatic species of wildlife – appears to settle the major issue of the proposed site. If the designation proceeds, the Province states, Atlantic Gold’s proposed use of Archibald Lake as source of fresh water for mineral extraction “cannot be permitted.”

Still, the Province’s statement also reads, “About 10 hectares around Archibald Brook is subject to mineral exploration rights. These rights can be honoured under the Act, provided activities do not degrade the wilderness area.”

Whether or not this leaves an open door for Atlantic Gold – which now employs about 300 people at its Moose River, N.S., mine complex – remains an open question. In its own statement, the company says it will review the situation and “assess any potential impacts” of the province’s decision.

All of which has left some local officials scratching their heads. “We’re still trying to get information about all of this,” says St. Mary’s Warden and District 2 Councillor Michael Mosher. “We learned about it along with everybody else. Usually, the province is very good about informing us and letting us know ahead of time about what’s coming. Good or bad, this is going to have an effect on the municipality.”

Still, other observers say the Province’s direction seems clear enough. For years, the provincial government has been working to protect as much as 13 per cent of public land. Archibald Lake is one of six sites that cover 8,000 hectares under consideration this year. That would push the protected area total to 12.75 per cent.

The public consultation process for the latest list of proposed sites ends in less than two months.

“The Archibald Lake area has not yet been designated, but it’s not like the province is not going to designate it,” notes Karen McKendry, Wilderness Outreach Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. “The Wilderness Areas Protection Act can honour existing legal rights to an area. But Atlantic Gold doesn’t have a pre-existing legal interest; it doesn’t have anything formal in place.”

McKendry also points out that Wilderness Protection Area designation does not automatically prohibit all use – even commercial use, as long as such activities don’t involve overt resource extraction. According to a 2017 consultant’s report to the Nova Scotia government, “Small businesses that operate in close proximity to or within the boundaries of protected areas see a range of benefits that include increased attraction of clientele, unique and more diversified business opportunities, and the creation of a stable investment climate.

The report concludes, “Many businesses in Nova Scotia have been created, have grown, and continue to thrive because of the existence of protected areas in their region. Protected areas in Nova Scotia not only deliver critical ecosystem and climate change mitigation services, but contribute immensely to the very identity of our province and its ability to attract visitors who come here to see the natural beauty of our inland and coastal landscape.”

For pristine areas like Archibald Lake, these are the sorts of business opportunities with which people like Scott Beaver are most comfortable. He might even call himself hopeful. Almost.

“We don’t feel this is going to stop the gold mine in its tracks or anything,” he says. “They’re probably just going to turn around and pick another lake or something. And we’ll just continue doing what we do – swinging up.”