CPAWS and Wood Buffalo: Canada’s Largest National Park

This blog post is brought to you by Alexis Clarke at the University of Alberta. We will be featuring guest blog posts for the next few months from University students. 

Thanks to my summer job, I had the opportunity to view Wood Buffalo National Park from a perspective that few get to see. Working as a wildland firefighter in the Fort McMurray area, I spent a large part of my summer months up in a helicopter patrolling for fires. Many of these patrols took my crew to the western border of our district, along the Athabasca River. We were given a bird’s eye view of Canada’s largest National Park. As the province doesn’t generally suppress wildfires in national parks, we spent many hours surveying these fires just outside our jurisdiction (parks are managed by the federal government and wildfires play an essential role in the ecology of the boreal forest). The time spent around this ecological treasure made me wonder about how this relatively isolated park was managed and what obstacles had to have been overcome in its creation. The park is known to be quite close to the oil sands and I wondered how development might cause some issues for this huge stretch of the Canadian wild. One can’t help but notice how close the Athabasca is to a few tailings ponds and how many seismic lines skirt along the park’s border.












A bird’s eye view of the park


Though it hails as the largest national park in the country, Wood Buffalo is one of the least known.  Many tourists and even some of my out of province family members have never heard of it. Occupying more land than entire countries, Wood Buffalo could be called a great big little secret. While Jasper and Banff attract hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, Wood Buffalo sees relatively few. The park’s remote location helps ensure tourism-related disturbances are kept to a minimum. Its boreal forest is home to many species at risk including wood bison, whooping cranes, peregrine falcons, and caribou.   Visitors that do make the trek up can explore the park’s salt plains, canoe the Athabasca or take a dip in a sink hole.

Many groups and NGOs are committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability of this natural area. The Peace-Athabasca Delta Monitoring Program works to research the effect of nearby development on waterways that run through the park.   Aboriginal groups in the area like the Mikisew Cree advocate for ecological integrity in and around the park. CPAWS Northern Alberta works with many of these organisations to prevent ecosystem disturbance, pollution and resource mismanagement in the park. For many years, some resource extraction was still permitted in the park. Unsustainable logging was also common practice until a variety of factors lead to CPAWS’ intervention. Today, CPAWS continues to look out for the park and the wildlife living in it.  

When we think of Canada's national parks, many of us think of the preservationist ideals that our federal government advocates today. Parks Canada’s mandate is to:

“Protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada's natural and cultural heritage and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure their ecological and commemorative integrity for present and future generations.” 

However throughout the years, the Canadian government has not always put nature as a top priority. It’s easy to forget the hurdles that have had to be jumped over or hoops that have to been squeezed through to ensure the protection of Canada’s wilderness and biodiversity. We forget the constant push and pull of development and ecological preservation.  There are many of examples of this throughout the history of our parks system, many of which took place within Wood Buffalo National Park.














Photo by John McKinnon

Once upon a time, the pull of resource development was so great that logging was allowed within National Parks. The logging that occurred in Jasper is common knowledge, but many are unaware of the decades of logging that went on in Wood Buffalo National Park. For over 40 years, logging companies were permitted within this protected area and very few regulations were enforced.  The legitimacy of these companies’ claim to these resources went unquestioned for years, until the early 1990’s when the issue was finally reviewed in court. There are many arguments for how this happened including a lack of both government intervention and public awareness.

A major factor in the long term logging of wood buffalo was a lack of regulation.   Though technically illegal, the federal government feared to be seen as “anti-business”   and did not take action to end these forestry lease agreements that were clearly not being upheld. Canada’s National Parks Act, designed to protect our national parks had failed to prevent logging and its huge ecological impacts in Wood Buffalo.

For those four decades, sustainable forestry practices were neglected.  River side buffers were ignored, “progressive clear cutting”  was common practice. Companies did not comply with mandatory practices, despite evidence that suggested that the forest was not able to properly regenerate without restoration measures.   Despite this, park wardens remained silent. Illegal, unsustainable logging continued. In fact in 1983, as the park was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, these unsustainable forestry practices were renewed .

This finally shifted in the early 90’s. Park wardens began to enforce agreement terms that had been largely forgotten. This was met with hostility from the companies, but was backed by the public.  It also drew the attention of non-government organisations (NGOS) like CPAWS. In 1992, CPAWS commissioned the Sierra Legal Defence Fund to take this policy to court. After a long legal battle, the federal court found that “the logging in Wood Buffalo contravened the National Parks Act, and was therefore illegal” . This effectively proved that logging in this National Park should never have been allowed. In this case, NGO intervention was essential for the continued protection of the park’s resources.

Today, CPAWS Northern Alberta Chapter continues to work to ensure the continued protection of the park. In 2015, the organisation backed the Mikisew Cree when they brought up concerns as to water quality coming in from the oil sands area.  Many are concerned about oil, gas and hydro related pollutants seeping into the waterways that run through the park. This area is traditional territory for the Mikisew Cree, so the community made the decision to petition for change. This effectively got the attention of the World Heritage Committee's attention and CPAWS is very hopeful that changes will be made. A program has been developed with “recommendations and take action to safeguard the Peace-Athabasca Delta and all of Wood Buffalo National Park”. 

CPAWS is also a proud member of the Boreal Leadership Council, an organisation that works with development companies and aboriginal groups with the goal of protecting of at least half of our boreal forest.  The protection of the boreal forest is not only important for this entire ecosystem, but for the individual species that live within it. The boreal (including the forest in Wood Buffalo) is home to Canada’s woodland Caribou, a species of concern that CPAWS is currently fighting to conserve. 

Today, the greatest concerns for Wood Buffalo National Park include the “actual and potential impacts of upstream development and climate change” . The park’s proximity to oil and gas development and the climatic changes that may affect the park in coming years mean that NGOs, other groups and public should stay informed about any changes in coming years. This will help ensure the long term ecological sustainability of the area for both humans and the species living within it.