The federal memorandum of intent to establish Ship Harbour National Park was signed in August 1972 after five years of intensive planning by the National Parks Branch and extensive negotiations with the province. The western edge of Ship Harbour National Park would have been only fifty kilometres from Halifax – a closer proximity to a major city than any other national park in the system at that time. With its beaches and lakes the park would have included many family-friendly recreation opportunities, but it also would include vast wilderness areas protected from resource extraction industries. There was quite a bit of initial enthusiasm for the project in Nova Scotia, but public opinion quickly deteriorated due to resentment that local residents were going to be expropriated for the benefit of tourists ‘from away’. Negotiations between the federal and provincial governments eventually collapsed, and plans for the park were eventually cancelled in December 1973.
It is widely understood that protests by area residents forced the cancellation of the park, but an equally important reason was the province’s reluctance to surrender to the federal government huge areas of viable pulp forests that had already been leased to forestry companies. There is in fact archival evidence that the Canadian government conceded to allow all permanent and seasonal residents maintain ownership of their properties – a concession likely made because of the controversy that had recently erupted over land expropriated for Kouchibouguac National Park in New Brunswick. But the federal government was not prepared to accommodate forestry and other extractive industries within the proposed park.
It is telling that the park negotiations broke down even after local residents’ concerns had been addressed. The provincial government attempted to get more money from the federal government to help pay for the new forestry lands that would need to replace the ones within the bounds of the proposed national park, but this was unsuccessful. Ultimately, the Nova Scotia government made a cost/benefit analysis to determine how valuable or even necessary this third national park was going to be. Faced with a provincial election in spring 1974 and an electorate fed up with the heavy-handed federal approach, Premier Gerald Regan called an end to negotiations three days before Christmas in 1973. At the same time, Regan announced a new provincial park for the area, one with a smaller footprint than the proposed national park system, which would not impact local residents. The provincial park ended up protecting approximately six square miles, a far cry from the 225 square miles that the national park would have protected.
The lands that would have been designated as back country wilderness in the now-cancelled national park continued to be heavily logged in the years that followed, but in the 1990s the provincial government’s Department of Environment and Labour began to study the area again in hopes of eventually protecting the space. After years of research and planning, the department's staff were blindsided by another branch from their own government: in 2001, the Department of Natural Resources approved harvesting in the core of the proposed wilderness area without informing the Environmental department.
The Ecology Action Centre, an environmental non-profit organization based in Halifax, and the Eastern Shore Forest Watch, a citizen’s group from the area, were instrumental in cutting through the governmental red tape and poor communication between departments to successfully lobby for the protection of these lands. The two groups were able to talk directly to forestry companies as well as area residents to come up with an agreement in principle on the area of land to be protected. The paper companies suggested they would be quite willing to cease harvesting on lands within the proposed protection area, as long as they would be compensated with other lands of equal value. Once these agreements were made in principle, the proposal was presented to the Nova Scotia government, which overcame its interdepartmental quagmire to quickly approve the plan. A year and a half of public consultation followed to assure the cooperation and support of area residents and woodlot owners. In 2009, the Ship Harbour/Long Lake Wilderness area (pictured in yellow) finally joined several previously protected areas (pictured in orange) to preserve much of the wilderness that could have been part of a national park forty years ago.
It is fascinating to travel the roads and backcountry of the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia, and imagine the national park that could have been. The region still shows some scars of its depressed economic state, but the communities are still populated with residents who fiercely love their shores and their wilderness, and who continue to fight for the region’s protection. The newly-protected areas will provide these residents with clean waters and healthy woods for generations to come.