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Lack of answers on proposed wilderness area of Archibald Lake raises concerns for environmental group

Proposed gold mine project would not be permitted in Archibald Lake wilderness area

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Archibald Lake in Guysborough County, NS is proposed for protection - which would safeguard future of the St. Mary's River system, including its Atlantic salmon. Photo Nova Scotia Environment

While environmentalists heralded the news last week that Nova Scotia would afford legal protection to 61 new properties, it was a name not on that list that caught Scott Beaver’s attention.

Beaver, president of the St. Marys River Association, said he’s troubled by the fact that yet again, the proposed Archibald Lake wilderness area was not included among the properties destined for protection.

“I’m starting to get frustrated,” he said in an interview. “Our group is starting to get frustrated with this.”

It was more than a year ago, in January 2020, when the province announced it wanted feedback on the potential of protecting the 684 hectares in Guysborough County near the St. Marys River, which includes woodlands, lakes and several small wetlands in the watershed of Archibald Brook.

Province may protect more land, including area of proposed gold mine

Protecting that land would dovetail with extensive efforts already underway by groups such as the Nova Scotia Nature Trust and Ducks Unlimited to preserve the area’s ecology and biodiversity values, buttressing an effort to present it as a recreation and tourism destination.

But the potential of protection is also notable because it would likely mean the end of a proposed gold mine in the area.

Atlantic Gold’s proposed Cochran Hills development would not be permitted in a wilderness area, according to information the Lands and Forestry Department released at the time of the announcement in 2020.

No update from government

Although it’s been more than a year since that announcement, officials with the government have said there is no update on the file and they continue to evaluate the situation after deferring a decision last October.

The proposal to protect the area elicited a large amount of public comments, with some favouring what the designation would mean for tourism and the environment, and others being concerned it would prevent a development that is promising jobs and economic growth.

A spokesperson for the Environment Department said late last week there remains no update and that the ministers of environment and lands and forestry “will work together to identify additional lands in the Parks and Protected Areas plan to bring Nova Scotia to 14 per cent protected land.”

Premier Iain Rankin, while campaigning for the job, said he was committed to extending protection to all remaining areas included in that document, which at this point stands at about 110 sites. Archibald Lake, however, was not specifically mentioned in that plan. It was eventually considered for protection following a push from members of the public.

Mining company wants to prove itself

Beaver, who recently wrote to Rankin requesting a meeting, pressed in that letter for the protection of the area.

In an email, Dustin O’Leary, a spokesperson for St. Barbara Ltd., which owns Atlantic Gold, said the company has no information about the delay in a decision on protection.

“We are hopeful that they will provide St. Barbara an opportunity to prove that the Cochrane Hill gold mine can be a successful project that employs hundreds of Nova Scotians while protecting local waterways, including Archibald Lake,” he said.

O’Leary said the company plans to submit an environmental impact statement for the project in 2024.

“As part of the stringent federal and provincial approvals process, we are appropriately required to provide scientific evidence to all levels of government to demonstrate that water sources can be protected before, during and after the life of the mine,” he said.

Future site for recreational angling?

Beaver said the province could be legitimately working on protecting the area, but with no updates or answers from the government, his group has no way of knowing if that’s true.

He said he’s worried the proposed mine is standing in the way of protecting a unique part of the province with ecosystems that, by the government’s own admission, are poorly represented in Nova Scotia’s network of protected areas.

He said the St. Marys River Association is also working on a plan that could lead to a recreational angling season on the river if fish population density can support it, but the group needs to know the river will remain healthy for that to be a possibility.