The Alberta government made history this week when it announced the creation of new protected areas in the boreal forest, known as the “northern lungs of the world.”
The new protections represent the single largest addition to the Alberta parks system since its creation. They also make Alberta the jurisdiction with the largest contiguous protected boreal forest in the world, conserving an area more than twice the size of Vancouver island and larger than B.C.’s Great Bear Rainforest.
Carpeted by spruce and dotted with wetlands such as bogs and fens, Canada’s boreal forest is a globally significant bird nursery and home to species vulnerable to extinction, including wood bison, woodland caribou and the peregrine falcon.
It’s also a huge carbon sink at a time when concern about global warming is mounting and Canadian communities confront increased flooding and fires due to climate change.
“The ecological value of this region cannot be overstated,” John Lounds, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, said in a statement. “This is a conservation achievement of global significance.”
According to Tuesday’s announcement, five wildland provincial parks in northeast Alberta will be created or expanded, adding 1.36 million hectares to the province’s protected areas network.
Four of the areas border on Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was cast into the global spotlight when Alberta’s Mikisew Cree petitioned the committee, saying the park was threatened by rampant industrial development on its borders and the Site C dam on B.C.’s Peace River, which flows into the Peace-Athabasca Delta in the park.
The World Heritage Committee is contemplating a “World Heritage Site in Danger” designation for Wood Buffalo park — an ignominious label often reserved for imperilled heritage sites in war zones — if Canada does not implement an action plan and report back by the end of the year.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) described the area with the new protections as “one of Canada’s busiest industrial landscapes” and said the designations position Alberta as a leader in the conservation of caribou habitat and the world’s boreal forest.
Noting that four woodland caribou ranges are included in the new protections, CPAWS Northern Alberta program director Tara Russell said the announcement helps fulfill Alberta’s obligations to recover woodland caribou, a species vulnerable to extinction.
“If there are protected area solutions in this busy landscape, then we can find them in all caribou ranges and in other sensitive ecosystems that are not sufficiently protected,” Russell pointed out.
The new protections were made possible through a partnership among Indigenous communities, the Alberta government, industry and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
Between 2012 and 2016, the Alberta government dished out $45 million to buy back oil sands and metallic mineral leases in the new conservation areas.
The areas will now be off-limits to industrial development, including logging and oil sands development.
In March, the Tallcree First Nation voluntarily relinquished a timber quota, meaning that commercial forestry will no longer take place in the new Birch River Wildland Park on Wood Buffalo’s southern border.
According to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Birch River Wildland Park is a “haven” for 68 species of conservation concern, including wood bison and woodland caribou. It encompasses 13 per cent of core habitat in the Red Earth caribou range.
The Tallcree license was purchased by the Nature Conservancy of Canada for $2.8 million, with oil sands giant Syncrude Canada providing the majority of the funding.
Tallcree First Nation chief Rupert Meneen said the new protections align with the Tallcree Tribal Government’s values regarding the preservation of the boreal forest.
“The boreal forest holds greater value to the First Nation for exercising our traditional way of life and the quiet enjoyment of our treaty rights,” Meneen said in a news release.
The new wildland provincial parks will involve the Indigenous community through proposed development of Indigenous co-management processes and Indigenous guardian programs, according to the Alberta government.
Under the guardian program, First Nations and Metis peoples will be hired to monitor the areas, help maintain the lands and provide education and outreach to park visitors.
McMurray Metis CEO Bill Loutitt said the Alberta government’s commitment to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities to develop cooperative management plans provides an “historic opportunity” to have Indigenous knowledge and values influence land-use planning.
“The new wildland provincial parks ensure Indigenous peoples have places to hunt and fish with their families for generations to come,” Loutitt said.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada said the new protected areas will contribute to Canada’s promise to conserve 17 per cent of the country’s land and inland waters by 2020.
“Conservation at this scale also reinforces a region’s ability to adapt to climate change,” the nature conservancy noted.
The new protected areas are the following:
- Kazan Wildland Park on Wood Buffalo’s northeast flank (570,822 hectares of new land for a total of 659,397 hectares).
- Richardson Wildland Park on Wood Buffalo’s southeast side (264,727 hectares of new land for total of 312,068 hectares)
- Dillon River Wildland Park, which is southeast of Wood Buffalo and not connected to the park (191,545 hectares)
- Birch River Wildland Park (331,832 hectares), and
- the expansion of the existing Birch Mountains Wildland Park (by an additional 1,563 hectares).