CPAWS’ Response to the Wood Buffalo National Park Action Plan
— Press Release February 26, 2019
EDMONTON – Wood Buffalo National Park is Canada’s largest National Park spanning 45,000 km2. It sustains salt plains, wetlands, grasslands, and boreal forests, the endangered Whooping Crane, the largest free-roaming herd of Wood Bison, and hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl. The Park includes the Peace-Athabasca Delta (PAD)—the largest freshwater boreal delta in the world—whose annual flooding has historically supported rare and unique habitat for wildlife and fish, and allowed for traditional use by Indigenous communities. Despite the ecological and cultural importance of the Park, it has experienced significant degradation and changes to its hydrology, linked to changes in climate, increasing oil sands development, and the construction of large upstream hydroelectric dams.
On February 1, 2019, the Federal Government submitted an Action Plan for the Park to the World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Action Plan was the final piece in a list of requirements set out by UNESCO to preserve the Park’s Outstanding Universal Values (OUVs). This came after a petition led by the Mikisew Cree First Nation to designate the Wood Buffalo National Park as a World Heritage Site in Danger in 2014. In 2016, an invited UNESCO mission identified seventeen recommendations for the Canadian government to mitigate threats to the Park’s ecological and cultural integrity. The intention of the Action Plan, developed by Parks Canada, is to address the recommendations and show commitment to conserving the OUVs.
The Action Plan outlines 142 actions that Parks Canda has taken, or they intend to take to improve the outlook of the Park. The Plan shows collaboration with the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, and the Government of Northwest Territories. It also takes important steps in strengthening partnerships with Indigenous communities by incorporating traditional knowledge and actively involving Indigenous people. It additionally commits to understanding baseline flow and hydrological conditions within the PAD.
The Northern Alberta Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS NAB) hopes to see all of these ambitious commitments upheld in the Plan’s implementation over the next coming years, matched by significant increases in funding to support the 142 actions, which to date have not been announced. The current funding for the Park is unlikely to adequately support the long-term monitoring commitments.
CPAWS NAB is disappointed to see a lack of action to manage cumulative impacts on the Park, especially in response to external threats. Research has shown that the PAD is highly sensitive to changes in upstream freshwater discharge, and that these effects are likely compounded by climate change. Future changes in river flows and spring runoff will continue to alter the ecosystem in unprecedented ways. As such, strong water resource management outside of the Park will be pertinent in protecting species that depend on the PAD and maintaining traditional uses for generations to come—an aspect overlooked in the Action Plan. Instead, the Plan puts forth short-term mitigation measures that include releasing water from the W.A.C. Bennett dam in B.C., and attempts to artificially flood the PAD. Without better understanding of the complex fine-scale and broad-scale mechanisms driving these changes in the PAD and surrounding water bodies, we caution against these costly mitigation strategies. Of concern, these strategies have not been successful in past pilot projects, the full ecological and social consequences have not been studied, and robust protocol has not been developed or approved.
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.