Key challenges for Wood Buffalo National Park still of utmost concern
New UNESCO World Heritage report says ecological state of Wood Buffalo National Park still declining, despite Canada’s recent funding commitments.
June 23, 2021
Ottawa, ON/Edmonton, AB – A new UNESCO World Heritage State of Conservation report on Wood Buffalo National Park, released publicly June 21, 2021, has found that “the previously-expressed Committee concerns continue to remain severe and the threats [to the park] have increased”. The report considers it likely that the property now meets the criteria for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The report, prepared for the upcoming World Heritage Committee meeting in July, also recommends that a second Reactive Monitoring mission be sent to Canada to conduct a comprehensive on-site investigation and confirm if the park meets the conditions to be given the ‘In Danger’ inscription. A first investigative mission was sent by UNESCO to Wood Buffalo in 2016.
“A second monitoring mission would seek to determine if things really are as bad as they seem,” says Gillian Chow-Fraser, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Northern Alberta. “We anticipate they’ll find that the risks have increased not declined, which is why we agree with the assessment that the property meets the ‘In Danger’ criteria and support listing Wood Buffalo as a World Heritage Site in Danger.”
The Committee cites persistent threats from the construction of Site C dam in B.C., the major risks from leaking tailings ponds in Alberta, and the glaring absence of inter-jurisdictional water governance. Though the federal government released an Action Plan (2019) to try to change the trajectory of the park’s ecological health, Indigenous communities and environmental groups have consistently expressed concerns about the slow pace of implementation, the need for improved collaboration and partnership with Indigenous communities, and the need to focus on the larger critical pieces of the plan, which have not seen significant progress.
In December 2020, the federal government announced a $59.9 million investment over three years to support the implementation of the Action Plan, adding to a previous federal investment of $27.5 million announced in 2018. The Committee commended this investment but clarified that more adequate long-term funding would be needed beyond the next three years, in order to meaningfully address the threats to Wood Buffalo.
“While CPAWS welcomed the important investments that the federal government announced in December of 2020, many threats remain to be addressed,” says Sandra Schwartz, CPAWS National Executive Director. “Despite the scale and complexity of these threats, we remain hopeful.”
“We believe Canada has the capacity to tackle the problems head on if all levels of governments work together,” adds Schwartz. “An ‘In Danger’ listing would help bring international attention to the plight of the Park and keep the pressure, not just on the federal government, but also on the provinces that need to do more to improve the Park’s future.”
The World Heritage Committee – the governing body for implementation of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention – will decide whether to accept or amend these recommendations during their virtual meeting July 16-31, 2021.
Boreal Program Manager, CPAWS Northern Alberta
The World Heritage Committee was asked to list Wood Buffalo National Park as a World Heritage Site “In Danger” in 2014. At the last international meeting in the summer of 2019, the Committee warned that an “In Danger” listing for Wood Buffalo was still possible, unless urgent action was taken to address the serious threats facing the park. Later that year, in December 2019, Canada released its Action Plan with 142 actions to change the trajectory for the health of Wood Buffalo National Park. In December 2020, Canada provided an update on the status of the park and its implementation of the Action Plan. The World Heritage Committee will meet in July 2021, in Fuzhou, China, online, to consider the State of Conservation report on Wood Buffalo, including the recommendation to call for a second Reactive Monitoring mission.
An inscription of Wood Buffalo National Park on the list of World Heritage in Danger would be another step towards potentially losing its World Heritage Site status altogether.
From the draft decision report:
“Based on the above, it is considered that, in spite of the State Party’s positive actions and commitments to date, regrettably the status of the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property, particularly the Peace Athabasca Delta which is at the core of the OUV, is declining due to: a) unresolved interjurisdictional water governance challenges; b) advancement of Site C project; c) no progress made on the risk assessment or management of the large tailings ponds despite new information on major risks and likely current impacts on water quality; d) temporary suspension of ecological monitoring for oil sands; and e) concern about the future release of [oil sands processed water] OSPW. Recalling that the 2016 Reactive Monitoring mission considered that danger listing would be warranted in the absence of a major and timely response, and noting that the previously expressed Committee concerns continue to remain severe and the threats have increased, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider it likely that the property now meets the criteria for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger in line with Paragraph 180(b) of the Operational Guidelines. It is therefore recommended that the Committee request the State Party to invite a joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission to the property to assess the state of conservation of the property, to confirm whether the property meets the condition for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger, and to recommend the measures necessary to address the threats to its OUV.”
Some of our previous joint letters on this issue include: Conservation of Wood Buffalo National Park of ‘significant concern’, local Indigenous communities and environmental organizations say more action is needed.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is Canada’s only nationwide charity dedicated solely to the protection of our public land and water and ensuring our parks are managed to protect the biodiversity within them. Over the last 50+ years, CPAWS has played a lead role in protecting over half a million square kilometres – an area bigger than the entire Yukon Territory. Our vision is to protect at least half of our public land and water so that future generations can experience Canada’s irreplaceable wilderness.
CPAWS has chapters in almost every province and territory across Canada, and two chapters here in Alberta – a Southern Alberta chapter located in Calgary and a Northern Alberta chapter located in Edmonton. As a collaborative organization, CPAWS works closely with government of all levels, industry representatives, and communities to manage our impact on a shared landscape. We also advocate for the creation of parks and protected areas for the benefit of both current and future generations of Canadians.