2013 Sable Update: a peaceable kingdom

SableUpdate The three Parks Canada bureaucrats who tag-teamed an illustrated talk at tonight’s ninth annual Sable Island Update faced a skeptical, though not overtly hostile, audience.

The first time Canadians heard about plans to turn Sable Island into a National Park, Jim Prentice, environment minister at the time, launched into an addle-pated discourse on how great a park would be for private businesses that could could ferry boatloads of tourists out to Sable and put them up for the night in hotels.

You want to hope this was a spontaneous outburst by a know-nothing minister, but with Harper’s crew, who can be sure? Parks Canada bureaucrats have struggled ever since to convince Sable’s large, passionate constituency that they are not the advance guard for a mob of gun-toting Reform Party vandals bent on paving Sable and putting up Ferris wheels.

In the process, they appear to have persuaded the naturalist and longtime Sable champion Zoe Lucas. (Disclosure: Zoe and I have been friends for years.)

zoe_lucas copyIn her talk last night, Zoe, who is principal organizer of the meeting, gave her usual fascinating and witty précis of events on Sable over the last 18 months—a spell-binding catalog of weather highlights, scientific discoveries, critter strandings, beach debris, and whatnot. She followed this with a useful history of tourism to the island, gently driving home the point that people have always visited Sable (albeit in small numbers) and properly managed, such visits cause little damage while helping build the passionate constituency for conservation that is Sable’s best protection from Cretins like Prentice.

Zoe and I have not spoken about this, but it appeared to me that she and the Parks Canada officials charged with setting up the new park have established a productive and mutually respectful relationship. This has not always been the case. Zoe is a woman of strong views and a willingness to express them. She has not always enjoyed a blissful rapport with Sable’s federal overseers.

In their presentation, the Parks Canada officials made the obligatory gestures you would expect toward Zoe’s revered role as unofficial steward of the island, including the invaluable scientific work she has carried out over nearly four decades. Beyond that, they peppered their inventory of preparations for park status with signals they have been listening, and thinking about imaginative ways to fulfill Parks Canada’s mandate to provide visitor opportunities without wrecking the place.

Two small examples: They hope to get Google to carry out Street View mapping of the island, so Sable buffs can treat themselves to virtual tours from the comfort of their living rooms. When challenged about regulations that ban petroleum drilling on the island, but permit seismic testing, they agreed with a marine geologist in the audience that sufficient seismic testing has already been carried out, and it’s unlikely future tests would be permitted.

I don’t want to go overboard here. The trio of officials did sometimes lapse into practiced talking points whose purpose was to mollify, rather than inform. They professed not to remember what the park’s annual budget was, but when pressed (by me) they agreed to give Zoe this information for publication on her Green Horse Society website (specifically, the park’s 2013-2014 annual budget, and the annual operating budget they expect once startup costs are behind them).

I’m no @Tim_Bousquet, but I did my best to live-tweet the event. With occasional help from seat-mate Alan Ruffman, I think I did capture the gist of most, if not all, the questions. You can find these tweets by searching for my Twitter handle (@kempthead) or the hashtag #Sable. Those outside the Twitter realm can view the live-tweets in bullet form after the jump. If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, reading from the bottom up will give you my account in chronological order. Errors and omissions are mine.

Continue reading 2013 Sable Update: a peaceable kingdom

Halifax press corps flunks Sable Island 101

Reporters attending Parks Canada’s Sable Island announcement this morning at the Halifax Citadel were apparently in stenography mode. Or perhaps they had been instructed to fish for soundbites on more urgent stories, like the confusion around environmental and salvage measures for the grounded bulk carrier MV Miner.

Whatever the cause, they came ill-prepared to probe the most contentious issue surrounding plans to make Sable Island a national park: the Harper Government’s impulse to promote private sector tourism development on the island. Environment Minister Jim Prentice touched off a furore in January, 2010, when he first announced plans to make Sable a national park or a national wildlife area. As the Halifax Chronicle-Herald reported:

”Sable Island would be well-protected, and it would be an area that we would encourage visitors to come to and they would be well taken care of while they’re there,” he said after a news conference at Citadel Hill in Halifax.

He said he expects private businesses would transport people to the island, about 290 kilometres southeast of Halifax near the edge of the continental shelf

Prentice’s threat to unleash tourism entrepreneurs on Sable has dominated public discussion of the issue ever since, but reporters apparently didn’t bother to google the subject before proceeding to the Citadel today. They didn’t ask a single question about the tourism promotion flap. In fact, they hardly asked any questions about Sable at all. According to one person present, there were “two questions on MV Miner, one on HRM’s proposed stadium, and two or so on Sable.”

“[H]onestly, that’s the first I’ve heard of it,” a reporter confessed.

“Why have you chosen this windmill to tilt,” another asked.

Adventure tourists from the “expedition ship” Polar Star visited Sable in October, 2009, one of four or five such cruise ship visits to the island. (Photo: Zoe Lucas, Sable Island Green Horse Society)

“Tilting at windmills,” of course, is a figure of speech derived from Miguel de Cervantes’s novel Don Quixote, in which Quixote jousts with windmills he imagines to be giants. I assume the reporter used it metaphorically to imply I am attacking imaginary enemies, or fighting futile battles.

The enemy is not imaginary, nor is the battle futile. Moreover, the issue is too important for reporters to arrive at a news conference ill-prepared.

It’s important because Sable is one of the province’s premiere natural landscapes, a category that has steadily dwindled (most recently with the province’s egregious failure to buy Pollet’s Cove when it had the chance). Sable has many remarkable features, including terrain, vegetation, wildlife, and habitat, and a unique location. It is the only island lying roughly 100 miles off the east coast of North America, a vantage offering significant opportunities for scientific research on air quality.

The Sable National Park announcement where no one asked about tourism. (Alex Boutlier photo)

Most people with deep knowledge of Sable recoil at the idea of encouraging private sector tourism promotion because of the damage unrestricted visitation would cause. But people are people, and when they see a gorgeous landscape, the impulse to develop it is hard to resist. The need for constant vigilance in protecting natural treasures is what gave rise to the national park systems in the US and Canada.

Sable is unique in that creating the usual park infrastructure and encouraging normal park tourism would be highly destructive of its many fragile natural elements. I would have preferred a custom-made solution for Sable rather than a National Park. People who take the opposite view worry that a one-off solution would always be vulnerable to change or abandonment in a way that a National Park will not be. I hope they are right. Some people with very deep commitment to Sable — specifically Sable resident Zoe Lucas of the Green Horse society, and Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre — hold that view, and I have to concede they may be right.

Still, Prentice’s comments were so reckless and disturbing, they need to be challenged throughout the process.

There was no public consultation before this park decision was made. All consultation came after bureaucrats, meeting privately, chose a park over a national wildlife refuge. That made the post-decision public consultation look like window dressing, but hundreds of Sable lovers weighed in anyway, and they overwhelmingly opposed accelerated tourism development. The hapless bureaucrat who had to report the results of these consultations at a public meeting said the message had come through loud and clear. I hope it will be enough. But with pro-development ideologues running the country, one never knows.

Reporters assigned to this story in future may wish to consult:

  • The balanced discussion of the tourism issue on Zoe Lucas’s Green Horse Society website, the definitive source for information about Sable.
  • The Hands Off Sable Island Facebook page I started to protest Prentice’s reckless speculation.
  • Previous Contrarian posts on the issue here, here, here, and here.
  • Park’s Canada’s FAQ page for Sable’s designation as a national park, which includes various tips for would-be Sable tourists.
  • The federal-provincial MOU that kicked off Sable’s process leading to Sable’s designation as a national park.
  • The official Visitors’ Guide to Sable Island by the Canadian Coast Guard, which currently controls access to the island.
  • The report [pdf] of Ottawa’s after-the-fact public “consultation” about Sable’s park designation, in which officials were innundated with pleas to restrict tourism.
  • The Nova Scotia Museum’s extensive Sable Island website.
  • The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic’s Sable Island website.
  • The Coast’s coverage of the Sable Park tourism brouhaha.
  • Nature Canada’s comments on the Sable Park tourism brouhaha.
  • Incredibly, officials did not release the federal-provincial agreement signed yesterday, but promise to do so soon, at which point I will link to it.
  • The original Herald article sparking the issue is no longer archived on line.

A final notes: There is a rational case to be made for limited Sable tourism. Zoe Lucas and others make it eloquently on the Green Horse Society page devoted to the national park designation.

[L]imited tourism has not had a negative impact on the island, and some people feel it has been a positive force. Individuals who have seen Sable first-hand have been able to share with others their enhanced appreciation of the island as well as their understanding of the critical role of the Station. Many have subsequently supported efforts to ensure that year-round environmental stewardship for Sable Island is maintained.

I agree with this, but Prentice was not proposing “limted tourism.” Plenty of people would leap at the chance to open up the island to commercial exploitation. Sable’s fervent cadre of supporters need to guard against that. And senior Halifax reporters need to do their jobs.

[Disclosure, I visited Sable twice as a reporter in the 1980s and 1990s. Both trips included a few hours on the island under the watchful supervision of Zoe Lucas and then-station chief Gerry Forbes.]

An important meeting about Sable Island

In addition to her invaluable work on Sable Island, Zoe Lucas has, for the last five years,  hosted annual public meetings where scientists, government officials, industry representatives, and naturalists like herself have briefed the public on developments affecting the island.

The sixth of these sessions takes place at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March 3, at the Theatre Auditorium, McNally Building, Saint Mary’s University. This year’s meeting takes on special significance because of the secret deliberations currently underway between the Harper and Dexter governments over the level of protection to be afforded Sable in years to come.

Federal Parks Minister Jim Prentice and provincial Natural Resources Minister John Macdonell announced the negotiations in January, when they signed an MOU promising to designate the island either a National Wildlife Area or a National Park. Unfortunately, the MOU also stipulated that bureaucrats would make the decision as to which behind closed doors, with the public consulted only after matters were settled.

What’s worse, Prentice raised fears about the Park option when he spoke of  “encouraging” more people to visit and enjoy Sable, and speculated that private operators could be invited to transport tourists to and from the island. Some people cannot gaze at a spectacular natural landscape* without imagining “improvements.”

Nevertheless, some people who have worked long and hard to protect Sable against government indifference and cupidity favor the park option because it would provide broader legislative protection than a National Wildlife Area. They point to a few very remote parks in the far north that limit visitors and eschew the usual array of parks structures. I worry that, once a park is established, it will take only a hot dog like the current minister, and a few craven Parks bureaucrats, to open the floodgates.

Whatever their view of the park vs. NWA decision, I think most participants in the debate object to the highhanded way the two governments are excluding the public from their deliberations. Officials from both Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service have asked for time to speak at Wednesday’s meeting, so perhaps they will at least give us some insight into their private discussions.

All these issues are discussed and debated more fully at Zoe’s Green Horse Society website, at my Hands Off Sable Island Facebook Page (2,300 members!), and in previous Contrarian posts here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday’s meeting will also hear presentations from ornithologist Ian McLaren and biologist Bill Freedman—both eminent scientists with deep knowledge of Sable. Zoe Lucas, a highly accomplished autodidact whose life’s work has deepened public understanding of and respect for Sable, will report on the year’s happenings on the island. This will likely include a fresh round of her always inspiring photographs.

Finally, Zoe and Mark Butler of the Ecology Action Centre will lead a discussion on next steps for the island.

I hope that discussion will call on the bureaucrats to bring deliberations about the island’s future out into the open. I would like to hear whether legislation establishing a park (or a wildife area) could include provisions preventing a future minister from turning it into yet another ocean playground.  I would like to know why plans for protecting Sable are limited to those two options. Why not a unique legislative framework for protecting a unique island, rather than a cookie cutter approach?

Come early. It’s a big hall, but it’s always packed.

* To head off a flurry of email, I do recognize that Sable has been affected by human intervention over the last two centuries, most dramatically in the introduction of horses, who now play a significant role in the island’s ecology. But compared to any National Park in Atlantic Canada, it is pristine.

Sable MOU

For the on-line record, and thanks to Joey Schwartz’s OCR magic, here is the start of the Sable MOU signed Monday, with the remainder after the jump. To download the official PDF version, click here and the unofficial Word version here.

(hereinafter referred to as “MOU)


(hereinafter referred to as “CANADA”)


(hereinafter referred to as “NOVA SCOTIA”)



WHEREAS Sable Island is a remote island located about 160 kilometres from mainland Nova Scotia near the edge of the continental shelf;

Continue reading Sable MOU

Protecting Sable: The MOU

Canada and Nova Scotia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the future of Sable Island Monday amidst considerable fanfare and media coverage.  Surprisingly, and unusually, the actual text of the agreement was not made public at the time. Normally such agreements are posted on government websites at the time of such announcements.

Thanks to the communications folks at the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, Contrarian has posted a copy which you can download here. [PDF file].*

queen_of_heartsThe MOU confirms that the process annouced Monday will unfold in two stages, only the second of which will involve the public.

First, provincial and federal bureaucrats will form a task force to consider various issues surrounding the protection of Sable Island and, within 90 days, recommend that Sable become either a national wildlife area (under the Canada Wildlife Act) or a national park (under the Canada National Parks Act). The public will have no role in this discussion.

Only after the decision was made will the public be invited to “comment on the conservation, management, and operational issues associated with the designation” recommended by the task force.

Suffice to say that people who attended Monday’s announcement came away with a very different impression: that the public would be consulted about the decision, not after it.

Where have we heard this approach to natural justice before? Oh yes:

‘Let the jury consider their verdict,’ the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

‘No, no!’ said the Queen. ‘Sentence first—verdict afterwards.’

‘Stuff and nonsense!’ said Alice loudly. ‘The idea of having the sentence first!’

‘Hold your tongue!’ said the Queen, turning purple.

‘I won’t!’ said Alice.

‘Off with her head!’ the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

[* The pdf is a scan of the original document. This means the text is not searchable. The document is not very long. If any Contrarian reader is a really good typist, or has optical recognition software, and would like to convert it to text, I will p[ost that version, which will ensure that people can find it using text searches. Please send the text to comments[@]contrarian.ca. Thanks!]

Protecting Sable – II

Lots of developments in what promises to be a continuing thread here.

The ineffable Zoe Lucas has started a discussion forum on the question of a National Park vs. National Wildlife Area on her wonderful Green Horse Society website, your definitive source for news and information about Sable. Discussions also continue on the Hands Off Sable Island Facebook Page, now approaching exceeding 500 members.

At the department’s initiative, I spoke this morning with Harold Carroll, Director of Parks for Nova Scotia Natural Resources, who explained that the consultation process announced Monday will unfold in two phases:

  • First, federal and provincial authorities will review the impact that either designation will have on various legislative commitments the two governments have. This would include such things as the offshore accord and offshore oil and gas regulations. On the basis of that review, the feds, in consultation with the province, will decide whether Sable will be a park or a wildlife area.
  • Second, once the decision has been made, the feds and the province will consult the public on how to implement it.

The type of designation – park or wildlife area – is is a critical decision, and I’m disturbed that the public will be consulted only after it has been made. All the more reason why forums like Contrarian, the Green Horse Society, and Hands Off Sable Island should continue to carry out the public discussion Ottawa and Halifax would apparently deny us.

Submissions to Contrarian on this (and any other topic) can be sent by email.

A few readers have complained that I overstated the case by saying Parks Canada Minister Jim Prentice would turn Sable into a National Park, and would encourage private enterprise to provide access for tourists. But these are almost exactly the words Prentice is quoted as using in his news conference. Moneyquote:

“Sable Island would be well-protected, and it would be an area that we would encourage visitors to come to and they would be well taken care of while they’re there,” he said after a news conference at Citadel Hill in Halifax.

He said he expects private businesses would transport people to the island, about 290 kilometres southeast of Halifax near the edge of the continental shelf

I have asked the Department of Natural Resources for a copy of the Memorandum of Understanding which, somewhat unusually, was not posted on federal or provincial websites when the announcement was made.

Finally, let me acknowledge that many thoughtful people with long records of support for Sable, including the Ecology Action Centre’s Mark Butler and author Janet Barkhouse, disagree with me about the wisdom of National Park designation for Sable. Let the discussion and debate continue.

Protecting Sable Island


[Correction appended]

Harper Environment Minister Jim Prentice wants to protect Sable Island by turning it into a national park. He has a funny notion of protection:

  • Prentice would protect the island by ending the current ban on visitors impediments to tourism.
  • He would protect the island by inviting the private sector to ferry tourists out to visit Sable.
  • He would protect the island by continuing to allow oil and gas drilling off its shores.
  • He would protect the island by permitting the slaughter of seals that whelp there.
  • He would protect Sable by building park facilities to “take care of” the tourists he would “encourage” to visit.

With protectors like that, who needs Vlad the Impaler. Call it “protection—Reform Party style.”

So why is the NDP government playing footsie with this reckless scheme? Natural Resources Minister John Macdonell mused that Park status would bring the province closer to its goal of protecting 12 percent of the province by 2015. Sure, if you don’t mind destroying the place on the pretense of protecting it.

The last time a federal official had a bright idea about Sable was in the 1990s, when Environment Canada decided to trim a few hundred thousand dollars off its budget by terminating the 200-year-0ld manned presence on the fragile island. It took years of hard work by Zoe Lucas, Gerry Forbes, and their grass roots citizen coalition to scotch that bit of fiscal lunacy.

OK… here comes the Facebook Group: Hands Off Sable Island!

Correction: There is no ban on Sable Island, but people wanting to visit the island must go through a lot of hoops* and this limits numbers.

* A lot of hoops n my opinion, anyway. Not everyone agrees.