HALIFAX: Legislation has been introduced to allow off-highway vehicles access to a protected area in Guysborough County.

Amendments to the Wilderness Areas Protection Act introduced October 1 are designed to give authority for the limited use of off-highway vehicles in two parts of the province, including the Grand Lake-Ross Lake Connector Trail in the Ogden Round Lake Wilderness area of Guysborough County.

“There were outstanding issues, because they are two well established connector trails,” environment department spokesperson Rachel Boomer told The Reporter, noting there was community support for the move.

She also noted that this is “a long-standing issue” that off-highway vehicle stakeholders, such as the ATV Association of Nova Scotia and the Snowmobile Association of Nova Scotia, raised with the department over the years.

Before designating a connector trail, the minister must enter into a trail management agreement with an organization and ensure certain conditions are met to protect the environment and trail users.

“In some cases, old roads and trails associated with wilderness areas can be used to support vehicle access, either to spend time in nature or enjoy a ride with friends and family,” environment minister Gordon Wilson said. “We restrict vehicle use in wilderness areas, and for good reason. We want to ensure wildlife and diversity in these areas is protected.”

The province will also allow parking lots to be developed within the boundary of a wilderness area.

“Right now, there are some places where people are parking in areas that aren’t safe, or areas where vehicles aren’t allowed,” the minister said. “These amendments will give me the authority to properly designate safe parking lots within the wilderness area.”

These amendments will not change the level of protection offered to designated wilderness areas. All vehicle use in wilderness areas will still need to be specifically authorized and activities that may damage biodiversity in these areas is still prohibited.

These amendments will allow that same authority to apply on these trails that have a long history of use and connect to the broader off-highway vehicle network, the minister said, noting there are other amendments in the bill as well.

“It allows me as minister to issue off-highway vehicle use licenses to private landowners whose land is partly surrounded by a wilderness area,” Wilson noted. “That’s authority I already have for people whose land is completely surrounded by a wilderness area.

“It’s not common by any means but can be important for individual land owners who might otherwise have no reasonable way to access their property.”

During the bill briefing on October 2, Wilson said while the announcement would advance the scope of protected areas and address other long-standing issues.

Also under the new changes are administrative amendments to ensure the department is managing wilderness areas consistently and efficiently so the province meets its protection mandate and supports public enjoyment.

The Wilderness Areas Protection Act allows government to designate connector trails for vehicle use in newer wilderness areas without changing legislation. There are already about 120 kilometres of designated off-highway vehicle connector trails within wilderness areas.

“Any of the newer protected areas that were designated after a particular time, you don’t need legislative change in order to authorize management agreements, but before the original protected areas, you need to make changes to the legislation,” Boomer added.