Lone bull bison crossing a field in Wood Buffalo National Park.

Federal funding for Wood Buffalo National Park a drop in bucket: First Nations

Commitment of $27.5 million for Canada's largest national park will boost staffing, but will it go far enough to prevent the park from landing on the list of World Heritage in Danger?

Federal funding for Wood Buffalo National Park may boost the number of Parks Canada staff, but First Nations believe it is unlikely to address major concerns such as the need to improve water flows to the Peace-Athabasca Delta, conduct an environmental assessment of tailings ponds in the Alberta oilsands and the call to change to a park management partnership with Indigenous communities.

The federal government is faced with a looming December 1 deadline to submit a Wood Buffalo action plan to the World Heritage Committee and, last week, the government announced that it would spend $27.5 million over five years “to support the development of an action plan to secure the future of Wood Buffalo National Park World Heritage Site.”

The Narwhal published a three-part series on the challenges faced by Wood Buffalo National Park last week.

Wood Buffalo: Canada’s largest national park and its people in peril

The action plan was demanded last year after a monitoring mission to the park by representatives from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and the International Union for Conservation of Nature — a visit sparked by a request from Mikisew Cree First Nation.

After the visit, UNESCO issued a report, which warned that if there is not a “major and timely” response to its 17 recommendations, it will recommend that Wood Buffalo National Park be included in the list of World Heritage in Danger.

Where is the action to save Wood Buffalo National Park?

Melody Lepine, government and industry relations director with Mikisew Cree First Nation, said discussions with the federal government have indicated the funding will be used to double the park’s annual budget and help staffing and operational problems.

One of the committee’s recommendations was to improve Parks Canada staffing and Lepine said any boost in staffing is welcome, but she questions how the other recommendations will be funded.

“What about all the other pieces of the action plan? For example, water restoration in the Delta — what could that cost? We just don’t see a budget that will address the development of the action plan,” said Lepine, who returned this week from a World Heritage Committee meeting in Bahrain where she briefed individual committee members on Wood Buffalo progress.

There are doubts about whether an action plan can be ready by December, but timing should not be used as an excuse, because Canada  dragged its feet in getting started, Lepine said.

“It is especially frustrating for us because we were ready to get going on the action plan as soon as the monitoring mission was done and the report came out in March 2017. We were saying ‘ok, let’s get started,’ but they didn’t really get started until months and months later,” she said.

“We are not very optimistic that’s for sure, so we are considering putting together our own action plan with the expectations of what we would like to see delivered in terms of the 17 recommendations.”

For example, Mikisew Cree wants to meet with Alberta government representatives to discuss what stage they have reached with the tailings ponds assessment, Lepine said.

“We don’t just want to see a plan, we want to see dedicated resources and funding towards immediate mitigation because the issues are immediate and the threats are growing. Timing is of the essence,” she said.

Leslie Wiltzen, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation land use coordinator, who previously worked as a park warden for Parks Canada, said in an emailed response to questions from The Narwhal that, over the years, she has watched the park deteriorate and federal funding of $27.5 million is unlikely to be able to fix the problems.

“We must remember that this has been committed over five years, so, roughly, $5.5 million a year or $125 for every square kilometre of park.  . . . What can you really achieve with $125 a square kilometre?” she asked.

“In pretty much every area within Wood Buffalo National Park, things have been allowed to wither away like a starved animal to a point where no meat remains, only bones. This deprived ecosystem has been on life support for years and has been allowed to teeter-totter on the verge of collapse as the federal government slowly cut positions, infrastructure dollars and the financial resources needed to combat the root industry causes of our declining water levels,” she said.

‘Nowhere else to turn’: First Nations inundated by oilsands projects face impossible choices

Due to dropping water levels, boat travel is sometimes restricted to the main river channels, while a migratory bird sanctuary has very few birds, Wiltzen said.

“All those are major issues and concerns that have been echoed by aboriginal groups for decades,” she said.

Studies have identified dams on the Peace River, water withdrawals from the Athabasca River by the oil and gas industry, climate change, natural sedimentation and post-glacial rebound — the slow lifting of the lake bottom after the end of the ice age — as major causes of dropping water levels in the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

In addition there are health concerns about eating fish or animals from the Delta because of industry pollution.

Wiltzen believes the only way forward is for Parks Canada to start sincerely working with Indigenous groups.

“This $27.5 million over five years will only make a difference if the aboriginal people’s voice is listened to and past wrongs are made right,” she said.

Catherine McKenna, Environment Minister and minister responsible for Parks Canada, said in a news release that work on Canada’s response to the World Heritage Committee is already well underway.

The UNESCO findings and recommendations represent an important call to action, McKenna said.

“Our commitment is real and we will continue to work with all of our provincial, territorial and Indigenous partners to secure the future of the Wood Buffalo National Park Heritage Site for generations to come,” she said.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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