N.S. won't protect land with 'globally rare' ecosystem that company eyes for golf resort


In the tiny community of Little Harbour on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore sits 285 hectares of coastal Crown land known as Owls Head provincial park. The name is misleading: it's not actually a provincial park and there are no obvious markings or trails to enter the coastal barrens and wetlands.

But the headland, which has been managed as a park reserve, is notable for some of its characteristics.

According to the province, it's one of nine sites in Nova Scotia with a "globally rare" ecosystem and home to several endangered species. For six years, Owls Head has been one of the provincial properties awaiting legal protection.

But that changed last March when, after several years of lobbying by and discussions with a private developer who wants to acquire the land as part of a plan to build as many as three golf courses, the Treasury Board quietly removed the designation, according to records CBC News received in response to an access-to-information request.

This sets up the latest situation in Nova Scotia where conservation and environmental protection efforts appear poised to collide with economic development interests as the developer hopes to bring the kind of tourist attraction and job opportunities to the Eastern Shore that Inverness is realizing from the Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs golf courses.

The decision to de-list Owls Head was made using a minute letter, which is protected by cabinet confidentiality and thus not available for the public to see. Government documents, however, make clear a plan which, until now, has been unknown to the public.

Lighthouse Links Development Company, which is owned by American couple Beckwith Gilbert and his wife, Kitty, is behind the proposal. They already own 138 hectares of land next to the Owls Head property.

Gilbert has a background in merchant banking and has been heavily involved in medical research.

He was not available for an interview, but in an emailed statement he said the couple fulfilled "a dream to own and preserve an unspoiled, natural ocean beach" when they started buying land in Little Harbour 16 years ago.

As he and his wife got to know the community, Gilbert said "it became quickly apparent that additional employment opportunities in the area were needed to encourage people to move to the Eastern Shore, rather than move away."

The idea for one golf course blossomed into two or three after talking to architects, he said.

"They emphasized that multiple adjacent courses were necessary to achieve profitable operations. Since we didn't have enough land for more than one course, we approached the province and proposed acquiring their unused adjacent land."

Gilbert's vision, according to a letter sent on his behalf to then-natural resources minister Lloyd Hines's executive assistant in 2016, which CBC obtained, is for something similar to the Cabot resort or Bandon Dunes golf resort in Oregon.

Chris Miller, a conservation biologist and executive director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, called the proposal "deeply concerning."