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Nova Scotia premier’s sudden changes to biodiversity bill invoking many strong feelings

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia premier’s sudden changes to biodiversity bill invoking many strong feelings' Nova Scotia premier’s sudden changes to biodiversity bill invoking many strong feelings
WATCH: Just two weeks after tabling legislation to protect Nova Scotia's ecosystems, Premier Iain Rankin proposed to remove that legislation's enforcement powers on privately-owned land. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, the sudden reversal is raising concerns -- and eyebrows -- at Province House, where environmental organization leaders spoke to reporters on Wednesday – Mar 24, 2021

Unexpected changes to new legislation intended to protect Nova Scotia’s ecosystems have prompted strong reactions from environmental advocates and the forestry industry representatives who lobbied for them.

On Tuesday, the provincial government proposed to claw back its powers for enforcing the Biodiversity Act, tabled earlier this month, by limiting its scope to Crown lands unless permission is given for enforcement on private lands.

Gretchen Fitzgerald, national programs director of the Sierra Club Canada Foundation, said the reversal sets a “very bad precedent” for legislation that was based on a “shared responsibility” for protecting Nova Scotia’s environment.

“For all the endangered species and spaces we care about — things like the mainland moose, like the Blanding’s turtle, for birds and other animals that live in our forests and wetlands — this is bad news. Seventy per cent of our land mass in Nova Scotia is privately-owned.”

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READ MORE: Nova Scotia Liberals alter tabled biodiversity bill by reducing enforcement powers

Premier Iain Rankin and Lands and Forestry Minister Chuck Porter announced the proposed changes on Tuesday afternoon. They remove biodiversity emergency orders, offences and fines from the act, allowing the province to work with private landowners “in a voluntary fashion” to develop biodiversity management zones on their property.

The decision follows an online campaign by forestry industry representatives encouraging private landowners to write their MLAs and voice opposition to the act as it was originally worded.

It claimed Halifax activists “have been trying for a decade to gain full control of any land use activities in Nova Scotia,” and the Biodiversity Act’s “limitless power” to regulate private land puts control of private land activities in the hands of politicians and activists. Snowmobiling, cycling, snowshoeing and fishing were among the activities at risk, it said.

Speaking with reporters by phone on Wednesday, Porter said industry-led advertisements did not influence the Nova Scotia Liberals’ decision to change the legislation, despite allegations from environmental organizations like Sierra Club and Ecology Action Centre.

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“We’re not reacting to industry, we’re reacting to people — Nova Scotians, those that we respect, that we want to work with and ensure that there’s no untoward intent here,” said Porter.

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“The original plan of this, the intent of this was Crown land, so it made sense for us to say, ‘Look, this is what we meant by this, we can show you by making these amendments,’ and that’s exactly what we did.”

Porter said Nova Scotia ecosystems remain protected under existing legislation for endangered species, forests and water, and even with the proposed changes, the Biodiversity Act puts Nova Scotia on the right track.

He doesn’t believe the changes raise credibility questions about Rankin’s resolve to fight climate change and protect the environment, a key promise of Rankin’s campaign for party leadership, he added.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia tables revised biodiversity bill, modifications to Crown Lands Act

Jeff Bishop, executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, said he’s “encouraged” by the Liberal government’s change in course because there were “so any unanswered questions” about how the Biodiversity Act would impact private landowners. Forest Nova Scotia is one of the industry stakeholder groups behind the online campaign.

“We’ve been clear since 2019, we will stand behind clear, focused legislation that works to protect biodiversity,” he told Global News. “The way the legislation was written, it could restrict certain things on (private landowners’) land, be it management of crops on a farm or management of their forest land in a certain way.”

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Bishop said the bill lacked clarity on the scenarios for enforcement, raising questions about whether landowners would be held responsible for any mishaps by recreationalists on their land. That in turn, would discourage landowners from making their property available for use by the public.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia bill to speed up land title claims in African Nova Scotian communities

Fitzgerald said the online ad campaign was full of “misinformation” and the government missed an opportunity to counter its content with clear communication to constituents.

Raymond Plourde, senior wilderness co-ordinator for Ecology Action Centre, told Global News the campaign was based on “fear-mongering and lies, not truth and accuracy.”

“There’s still some good stuff left (in the Biodiversity Act), but the whole regulatory side has been gutted and that makes it an anomaly in these types of laws,” he said.

Gary Burrill, leader of the Nova Scotia NDP, said his party was prepared to support the original Biodiversity Act, and what’s left of it now is a “biodiversity pamphlet.”

“These aren’t tinkering amendments, they’re really taking the heart and the backbone and the vision out of the Biodiversity Act,” he said outside the legislature. “In my view, (the Nova Scotia Liberals) haven’t got the courage to stand up for what they put forward.”

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The proposed changes to the Biodiversity Act will be brought forward at a law amendments committee meeting next week, and Porter said members of the public will be able to present their opinions — for or against them — during the session.

To ensure accountability, the government said it will also propose a clause committing to reviewing the legislation in five years through public consultations.

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