September 11, 2023
Edmonton, AB/Ottawa, ON/Yellowknife, NWT – While Canada hopes to add two more World Heritage Sites this week, during the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee where such decisions are made, environmental groups are concerned about the future of Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s most threatened World Heritage Site.
This will be the fifth time the World Heritage Committee will review the Park’s status since 2015, initially prompted by a petition from the Mikisew Crew First Nation in 2014 to look into the Park’s degrading ecological and cultural values. The Committee has determined the Park faces many threats and now aims to assess whether Canada has taken enough action to address these threats or if further actions are urgently needed.
This year, the Committee has stated its “utmost concern” about Canada’s lack of progress addressing impacts from industrial developments upstream and surrounding the park, the expansion of oil sands projects without recognizing downstream impacts, and risks from oil sands tailings ponds, which includes risks of seepage and potential release of treated tailings into the Athabasca River. Canada will need to bring all jurisdictions together to improve the decision-making process that has led to the degradation of the Park as many of the threats originate on provincial lands outside the Park’s borders.
The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is hopeful the World Heritage Committee will call on Canada to implement recommendations from an international panel of experts – the Reactive Monitoring Mission. Implementation of these recommendations would address the management or reversal of industrial activities and/or cumulative impacts from beyond the borders of Canada’s largest National Park and trigger collaboration between provincial, territorial and federal jurisdictions.
CPAWS also hopes the Committee will make a formal decision to closely monitor Canada’s progress. The Committee proposes a plan to reassess in three years’ time if enough of the recommendations outlined by the international panel of experts have been implemented.
“We have high expectations for what the next three years will look like for Wood Buffalo National Park, since we know anything less than an urgent and robust response from Canada puts its World Heritage Site status at risk,” says Gillian Chow-Fraser, Boreal Program Director with CPAWS Northern Alberta. “At the same time, we are concerned that three years could be just enough time to result in repeats of the devastating events that have unfolded in the past months: oil sands tailings leaks that were kept secret for many months, catastrophic overflows and spills into major surrounding rivers, and consistent failures in regulatory oversight.”
The waters that flow through the Peace-Athabasca Delta continue onto the Slave River and eventually the Arctic Basin, providing northern communities with drinking water.
“Wood Buffalo National Park is expected to be a reference site and safeguard for ensuring that water quality and quantity will sustain the livelihoods of communities downstream in the NWT. The current threats from industrial developments are a risk to fishers, hunters, trappers, and all land users who expect that water flowing from the National Park will be of drinking water quality,” says Kris Brekke, CPAWS NWT Executive Director. “However, there is currently a legitimate fear and mistrust among NWT residents that water quality is, in fact, inadequate. Continued investment in the Action Plan to ensure transparent and timely water monitoring and reporting must be a priority.”
“Canada has demonstrated great nature conservation leadership on the International stage, particularly in the past year”, says Chris Rider, CPAWS National Conservation Director. “Now it needs to show the same tenacity at home, by taking urgent and substantial action to protect Wood Buffalo National Park from external threats. A lot of good work has already been put into motion, however, more remains to be done, including amending the Park’s Action Plan to reflect the recommendations of the Reactive Monitoring Mission and ensuring there are sufficient long-term resources available for the Plan’s implementation.”
- The World Heritage Committee will meet this week to decide if they will add Tr’ondëk-Klondike in the Yukon as a World Heritage Site (Cultural) and L’Île d’Anticosti in Quebec as a World Heritage Site (Natural).
- Wood Buffalo National Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and covers about 45,000 square km in Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Wood Buffalo National Park first gained notoriety because of its collection of unique habitats from boreal forest to naturally occurring salt plains, wild roaming wood bison and Whooping Cranes, and one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world, the Peace-Athabasca Delta. Many Indigenous communities have lived in this delta for millennia, as the heart of social, economic, cultural, spiritual, and political activities. The loss of the health of the Peace-Athabasca Delta is an ecological and cultural impact.
- The Canadian federal government recognizes the importance of increasing the protection of nature. Alongside 70 countries, as part of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature, Canada has committed to protecting 30% of Canada’s lands and oceans by 2030 and signed the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.