Terry Martens Wood Buffalo

‘This must be Canada’s last chance’: UN gives feds 18 months to save Wood Buffalo

Canada’s largest national park will be added to the List of World Heritage in Danger without further action by Ottawa to mitigate impacts of hydro dams and oilsands development on Peace-Athabasca delta

The status of Wood Buffalo National Park is hanging in the balance with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee warning that Canada must do more to address threats facing the park and deterioration of the Peace Athabasca Delta or risk having Wood Buffalo added to the list of World Heritage in Danger.

Canada has been given until December 2020 to report back on what it has done to address dropping water levels in the delta, including looking at the effects of dams on the Peace River, including the Site C dam, and pollution from adjacent oilsands development, including the proposed Teck Frontier oilsands mine, which would be built 30 kilometres from the park’s boundary.

UNESCO wants a full report on the effects of the Site C dam (which is still under construction), a risk assessment of oilsands tailings ponds and stronger management sharing of the park with Indigenous people.

In answer to questions from The Narwhal, a Parks Canada statement skirted around the recommendation for a full assessment of the effects of the Site C dam and said the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has been conducting inspections of the project to verify that B.C. Hydro is complying with conditions such as mitigation measures.

The committee, meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, heard a submission from Mikisew Cree First Nation representatives, who, in 2014, handed a petition to UNESCO which led to a monitoring mission to Wood Buffalo and a report that was critical of Canada’s protection of one of the world’s largest freshwater deltas.

Proposed site of Teck's Frontier Mine

Proposed site of Teck’s Frontier Mine 30 km south of Wood Buffalo National Park. If built it would be the largest mine ever constructed in Alberta’s oilsands. Photo: Louis Bockner / Sierra Club BC

Melody Lepine, Mikisew government and industry relations executive director, told the committee that Canada does not yet have the situation under control, despite the federal government promising $27.5 million over five years for development and implementation of the Wood Buffalo action plan.

“Canada is continuing to allow activities to further harm our park and is weakening important protections. Canada has not made real changes to resolve drying of the Peace-Athabasca Delta,” Lepine said.

“The most important issue — the return of ecologically essential water to the park — remains unresolved and necessary monitoring and partnerships with Indigenous peoples are still lacking,” she said.

In her presentation to the committee, Lepine applauded UNESCO’s recognition that Canada must go further to halt the decline of the park.

“For 30 years, Canada has told you that our park was properly protected from threats, but now you know that was inaccurate,” she said.

“We strongly believe the property meets the conditions for inscription on the list of World Heritage in Danger if Canada fails to act to restore water and prevent pollution over the next 18 months. This must be Canada’s last chance.”

Wood Buffalo National Park

A bull bison on one of Wood Buffalo National Park’s main roads. Photo: Louis Bockner / Sierra Club BC

Mikisew Cree have been calling on the federal government to invest more money into solving Wood Buffalo’s problems and Lepine said that when she sees the amount of money made by exploiting the Peace and Athabasca Rivers, it’s clear that Canada has the capacity to do more for Wood Buffalo National Park, given the seriousness of the problems.

A group of environmental and Indigenous groups is supporting the World Heritage Committee’s report and is calling on the federal government to provide more resources to address problems in the 45,000 square kilometre park that is home to the world’s largest herd of free-ranging bisonand the only remaining known nesting ground of endangered whooping cranes.

Gillian Chow-Fraser, the boreal program manager for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said in a news release that the government’s lukewarm reaction is disappointing.

“The threats faced by this park are enormous and they have not been properly managed, even with the international community watching,” Chow-Fraser said in a news release.

“Without meaningful action right now, the park is doomed and so are the people who depend on it.”

However, Parks Canada has a different view of the committee’s decision to extend the monitoring period and the headline on the news release reads “World Heritage Committee decision commends Canada’s Action Plan to protect Wood Buffalo National Park World Heritage Site.”

The action plan is designed to safeguard the park for current and future generations and implementation is already underway, it says.

“The Government of Canada recognizes that climate change and external development pressures are having serious impacts on the Wood Buffalo National Park World Heritage Site and that it is in the Peace Athabasca Delta that impacts are most evident,” says the release.

Actions are already being taken to strengthen relationships with Indigenous peoples and improve water management in the Peace Athabasca Delta, says the release, which notes that UNESCO is praising the creation of new Alberta provincial parks which protect 6.7 million hectares of boreal forest and provide a buffer zone between Wood Buffalo and oilsands development.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, in a written statement, said important steps have been taken to protect the park, along with Indigenous, provincial and territorial partners, but there is a lot more work to do.

“Through ongoing collaboration and action, including with 11 Indigenous communities in the region, we will preserve Wood Buffalo National Park World Heritage Site for the benefit of Canadians and the world,” she said.

Linda Duncan, NDP MP for Edmonton Strathcona, flagged that Canada is currently seeking World Heritage Site designation for Writing on Stone Park in southern Alberta.

“UNESCO will understandably be querying the credibility of this government to commit the resources needed to genuinely protect a world heritage site,” Duncan said in a statement.

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