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Sable Island, 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax, has an international reputation for its remote beauty. Last fall a cruise ship, one of only four that have come over the past three decades, landed passengers there.

PETER PARSONS/Peter Parsons/Halifax Chronicle-Herald/The Canadian Press

It was once known as the "graveyard of the Atlantic," where untold numbers of ships were wrecked and thousands of sailors drowned.

But in more recent time its feral horses and shifting sands earned Sable Island an international reputation for wild, remote beauty. Although access is strictly regulated by the Canadian Coast Guard, the island's mystique has spread beyond the few who have been able to visit.

Now, plans to change the island into either a national park or a national wildlife area are fanning new worries about whether its fragile beauty will be put at risk.

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"The primary factor needs to be to limit human interaction with that fragile environment," argued Bruno Marcocchio, one of hundreds who packed a public meeting in Halifax last week. "It's hard to understand how that beautiful and fragile island will benefit by increasing the traffic."

Citing fragile national parks where access is restricted, Parks Canada spokesman Kevin McNamee said that changing the island's status doesn't necessarily mean an influx of tourists. And scientists who have worked at the remote spot agree that change, if properly managed, need not hurt the island.

"There's an appropriate amount [of visitation]that the island can sustain without being damaged," said Dalhousie University biologist Bill Freedman, who has done field research there.

"The management plan will identify what that level is and then ensure that it isn't exceeded and that people who do get to Sable Island are stewarded properly."

But advocates for the plan have found themselves having to mount a rearguard action in the face of widely circulated comments by federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice.

In late January, as he announced the plan to change the island's status, Mr. Prentice reportedly stressed that the spot would be "well protected." He was also quoted as saying that 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."

Mr. Prentice was not available late last week or on the weekend to elaborate on the comment, which has raised fears of increased traffic to the island, perhaps served by new infrastructure.

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"He appeared to endorse greatly increased tourism," said local blogger Parker Donham. "I think dangerous levels of visitation to Sable Island remain quite possible."

Fewer than 100 people are estimated to visit annually under the current system.

Access to the spot, where a lifesaving station was established in 1801, is regulated under the Canada Shipping Act. Potential visitors must apply to the Coast Guard and abide by strict conditions during their time on the island. Along with its remote location, about 300 kilometres southeast of Halifax, this has helped keep numbers down.

An unusual influx occurred in the fall when a cruise ship, one of only four that have come over the past three decades, landed passengers there. Although island-based scientist Zoe Lucas said they left no trace but footprints, their presence may indicate an appetite for more tourist access.

"The number of visitors is only going to increase," said Mark Butler, policy director for the Ecology Action Centre, who is worried people will "love Sable Island to death" if proper safeguards aren't in place. "The concern at this juncture is that we get it right."

In January, Mr. Prentice and Nova Scotia Minister of Natural Resources John MacDonell set in motion a 12-month process intended to lead to legal protection under either the Canada National Parks Act or the Canada Wildlife Act. This will start with a task group assessing whether the island would be better as a national park or a national wildlife area. It is expected to report back to government by the end of next month and its recommendation will then go out for public consultation.

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Neither designation would restrict oil extraction nearby. But either would help Nova Scotia's NDP government toward its goal of protecting 12 per cent of the province's total land mass.

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