A parcel of land at Owls Head park reserve has officially been transferred to Environment and Climate Change Canada, which conservation groups are calling a monumental step in the campaign to protect the property.
Executive director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Chris Miller, says this redirects the federal land from a path that would have seen it turned into a golf course, to one that will have it protected.
"This is a significant development because it means the federal government is siding with conservation rather than development," says Chris Miller.
Investigative reporting and freedom of information requests revealed a company by the name of Lighthouse Links, has a letter of offer from the provincial government to buy the land in Little Harbour, commonly known as Owls Head provincial park.
While it's not actually a provincial park, Owls Head was included in the province's Parks and Protected Areas plan. In 2019, the government removed the land form the pending protection list without public consultation.
The parcel of land now in the hands of Environment and Climate Change Canada, is about 17 hectares and is next to Owls Head park.
Miller says the federal land is home to an old lighthouse and helipad.
"The land used to be administered by the coast guard but it was deemed to be surplus because it was no longer needed," he says.
He says the federal government offered the land to the provincial government for $1, if the land would be protected. Because the Nova Scotia government wanted to sell the land for development, the federal government wanted payment for fair market value.
"When this story broke publicly and has turned into this scandal, the federal government has since receded its offer and the land is no longer for sale to the provincial government and instead the department of environment and climate change has stepped forward saying it will protect it for conservation," he says.
The land still needs the appropriate legal designation to ensure that it will be protected long-term, but Miller calls a fairly straight forward process.
Owls Head provincial park reserve is 285 hectares in size, and Miller says it's still very much threatened.
"The provincial government has given no indication that they are backing away from their plans to sell these lands," he says. "This just means this particular piece of land is no longer part of that mix."
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference, Premier Stephen McNeil said the file hasn't been in front of him in a while.
"I can tell you we are looking for economic activity in our province but we have been a government of strong environmental stewardship," he says. "I can list a number of things that we as a province have done in order to deal with legacies of governments who have ignored environmental challenges."
About five per cent of Nova Scotia's coast is protected for public enjoyment and nature conservation. Miller says the area at Owls Head is extremely biodiverse because there are a number of different coastal habitats like headlands, estuaries, salt marshes, beaches, and eelgrass beds.
"This is a special place of Nova Scotia so it is absolutely shocking the government is secretly trying to sell off the provincial park land for this type of development," he says.