Spot the Endangered Species

Raymond Plourde, senior wilderness coordinator with Nova Scotia’s Ecology Action Centre (EAC), has, as you might imagine, some thoughts on the advisability of situating golf courses in protected areas of ecological importance.

We spoke by phone last week about Ben Cowan-Dewar and his partner Mike Keiser’s plans to turn part of the West Mabou Beach Provincial Park into yet another Cabot-brand golf course, but before our call, Plourde suggested I watch this NBC Golf Channel report on the 2015 opening of Cabot Cliffs, the dynamic duo’s second Cape Breton course after Cabot Links, which opened in 2012:

The item begins with reporter Matt Ginella mispronouncing “Inverness”—which becomes “Inverniss”—while insisting on the town’s downtrodden pre-Cabot state (no mention of the $4 million invested by the province to rehabilitate the land that would become Cabot Links). There’s a cameo appearance by my favorite tourism promoter, former Destination Cape Breton CEO Mary Tulle, saying characteristically daffy things:

I don’t ever say we have been given a golden egg, we have been given a basket full of golden eggs.

(She’s actually close to a good analogy there, if you view our beautiful natural environment as the goose that lays the golden eggs, but she forgot the goose.)

And then there’s moneybags Mike Keiser himself, who made his fortune making greeting cards out of recycled paper—not because it was an earth-friendly thing to do but, he says, because it was “a trendy thing in 1971 and there’s something about trendiness in consumer products, it’s good to be trendy.” This serves as the perfect opening for Ginella to say:

So, at some point, you go from recycling paper to recycling communities.

Keiser allows this to be the case because, in addition to saving “Inverniss,” he had earlier saved the equally depressed community of Bandon, Oregon. That both rescues involved high-end golf courses is testament to that old saying, “When your only tool is a golf club, every problem looks like a links course.”

Best of all, though, is the moment Keiser is asked about purchasing the land on which Cabot Links was built and says:

It was the townspeople who cannily decided the price for 200 acres on the ocean in our bedraggled town of Inverness should be a dollar.

I took a screenshot capturing the look on his face at the very moment he’s announcing the price:

Mike Keiser

Mike Keiser (Source: NBC Golf Channel)

Keiser expands on this, explaining that it was not just the “canny” citizens of Inverness but the entire population of Nova Scotia, all 900,000 of us, who were “rooting for Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs to bring tourism back to Nova Scotia.”

I am not going to lie, it made me shiver, just thinking about those bad old days, pre-2012, when there was no tourism in Nova Scotia and our license plates all read: “Canada’s Deserted Ocean Playground.”


Sheer gall

Plourde, who told me he has no problem with Keiser and Cowan-Dewar building another golf course in Cape Breton provided they do so on private land purchased with their own money, said he was taken aback by the “sheer gall and audacity” of Cabot’s attempt to turn West Mabou Beach Provincial Park into a golf course.

The beach was given provincial park status in 2001 by Premier John Hamm’s Tory government (which included then-MLA for Inverness and future premier Rodney MacDonald) in response to demands from environmental activists. They had mobilized to protest a 1999 proposal to turn the 215-hectare property with its 2km sandy beach and extensive dune system into—you guessed it—a golf course.

But West Mabou Beach’s provincial park designation has not stopped Cabot from coveting it. Back in 2018, as the CBC’s Michael Gorman reported at the time, Ben Cowan-Dewar and Rodney MacDonald met with Department of Natural Resources staff to discuss the possibility of Cabot leasing a portion of the park. Natural Resources turned down the plan, saying it found that parts of the park were “a priority ecosystem for conservation.”

The following year, the federal and provincial governments passed on Cowan-Dewar’s equally audacious bid to have them build him an $18 million airport in Inverness on a site encroaching upon yet another protected area, the Masons Mountain Nature Reserve.

There’s been no further talk of a publicly funded airport, but this past fall, Cabot renewed its assault on the West Mabou Beach Provincial Park, with Rodney MacDonald leading the charge.

The former premier, now president of the Gaelic College at St. Ann’s, sent a six-page presentation of Cabot’s latest proposal along with an email to various Mabou community groups. In this October 2022 Saltwire article, MacDonald told reporter Francis Campbell he was “an advocate for the community” not a Cabot employee, but by the time I heard him interviewed on the CBC’s Information Morning Cape Breton, he was admitting to being paid by Cabot.

Plourde told me he had nothing personal against MacDonald who, he said, as premier, had done some good work on the environmental file, but he’s less generous towards Cowan-Dewar and Keiser. Plourde says they are treating Nova Scotia like a “box of chocolates” and they’re choosing all the best ones for themselves.


Missing the targets

The West Mabou Beach Provincial Park is not valuable  only in terms of public recreation (although it is that) but as the home of some rare flora and fauna. A 2019 study commissioned by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and carried out by Alain Belliveau of Acadia University identified 17 rare plants and animals in the park, including  four birds on Nova Scotia’s endangered species list. (All 17 are depicted in the slide shows embedded in this article.)

As if to underline the importance of the park, just last week Belliveau announced confirmation of an 18th rare species—a fern with the fabulous name of “upswept moonwort”:

Upswept moonwort. (Photo by Alain Belliveau via CBC)

West Mabou Beach is one of the few provincial parks that are of “such exceptional ecological value,” says Plourde, that they count towards Canada’s internationally prescribed targets for biodiversity protection, targets Canada has been spectacularly unsuccessful in meeting.

Known as the 20 “Aichi targets,” they are named for the Japanese region where they were established in 2010 by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and Canada has achieved significant success on precisely one: protecting 10% of our coastal and marine areas.

But we’re not alone, according to the fifth edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-5), none of the 20 targets has been met worldwide and where there has been progress, it must be “scaled up” to be effective.

As we speak, Montreal is playing host to the COP15 biodiversity summit (December 7 to 19) which was moved to Montreal from Kunming, China, due to COVID-19 restrictions but is still being presided over by China (although the People’s Republic has not issued invitations to any world leaders to attend). Delegates from over 100 nations are now expected to agree to “protect 30% of all land and ocean ecosystems by 2030,” although, as Al Jezeera reported, experts have noted that:

…the draft of the agreement, dubbed the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, included many proposed amendments—indicated by square brackets—that the parties had not reached a consensus on, prompting concern.

It’s a pretty depressing situation, but what’s even more depressing is the Nova Scotia government’s seeming willingness to consider undoing some of the small amount of good that has been done by leasing part of a provincial park to a golf course developer.

I’m guessing it’s a microcosm of what’s been happening worldwide for the past 10 years, as governments opt for “business as usual” and prioritize the economic promises—however specious—of developers over the protection of the environment.

I started this article with a challenge, asking you to “spot the endangered species,” and it’s time to give you a hint: this is not it:

Golfer taking a tee shot.

Photo by Lilrizz, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.