Why a ‘World Heritage Site in Danger’ listing might be the cure for the deteriorating Wood Buffalo National Park
Samantha Pedersen, Gillian Chow-Fraser
Canada has a world-renowned reputation for our stunning natural landscapes and scenery, with people traveling from all over the world to visit them. Our international recognition even extends to our great privilege of housing 20 sites across the country deemed “World Heritage Sites”. The largest one is Wood Buffalo National Park, whose unique values include the Peace-Athabasca Delta and the millions of migratory birds that use the Delta. However, those very qualities and features have been rapidly deteriorating for the past few decades – meaning it could become Canada’s first ever World Heritage Site in Danger.
For Canada– a country known for breathtaking landscapes like Banff National Park, temperate rainforests in BC, and coastal sites in Nova Scotia – an “In Danger” listing might seem like a shocking possibility. Canada is positioned as a world leader for nature, in fact, the United Nations Conference on Biodiversity (COP15) will be held this year in Montreal, Quebec – a massive honor. With this huge opportunity to show Canada’s commitment and leadership in conservation, our focus comes back to the deteriorating condition of Wood Buffalo National Park.
While many people love and appreciate natural spaces, sometimes it is required to go the extra step to garner attention from our governments for places that need it most! Unfortunately, Wood Buffalo National Park is one of our treasured areas that has fallen through the cracks. For people that care about Wood Buffalo, we are faced with a difficult challenge: How can we raise awareness and push for action for an area that many people have never visited, or that remains largely inaccessible to the larger population? The UNESCO listing process presents an avenue that captures the attention of the Government of Canada because for Canada, it is an honor to have so many World Heritage Sites. Through UNESCO, we can hold Canada accountable to its international responsibility as a world leader in preserving nature, with the global community watching.
As per the UNESCO process, adding a site to the list of World Heritage in Danger is meant to alert the international community of issues to the site’s integrity and to encourage corrective actions as a result. A formal listing as a World Heritage Site ‘in Danger’ should trigger the Government of Canada to take formal steps to preserve and recover Wood Buffalo’s outstanding universal values – in other words, we work hard to get places on the ‘in Danger’ list so that its issues are taken seriously, and then work hard to get them off the list.
Wood Buffalo National Park should be listed as a site ‘in Danger’ so it can be taken out of danger more quickly.
The looming threat of a potential ‘in Danger’ listing is enough to catalyze swift conservation measures. CPAWS Northern Alberta has long supported the listing of Wood Buffalo National Park as ‘in Danger’ because of the ample evidence that the park’s ecological health is degraded (and in turn, community relationships with the area) and we feel actions still need to progress further. If there were more significant long-term commitments and resources dedicated to addressing internal and external problems – then there would no longer be strong reason to list it.
In the worst case scenario, without suitable action, the site could lose its World Heritage Site status completely. In recent history, four places have been delisted and have lost their World Heritage Site status.
Have other sites been listed as ‘In Danger’?
There are currently 52 sites on the list of World Heritage in Danger across the world. Three of these sites are in North America: Everglades National Park, Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California, and Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. Wood Buffalo National Park would be the first World Heritage Site in Canada to receive an ‘in Danger’ listing.
A short case study: Everglades National Park
The story of the Everglades National Park, located in the United States, provides some similarities with the pressures and challenges facing Wood Buffalo National Park. The Everglades was added to the list of World Heritage in Danger nearly ten years ago, due to degradation of water quality and changes in the timing and distribution of water flows in the park. Sound familiar? The Peace-Athabasca Delta is also facing significant degradation from changes in timing of water flows and flooding in the delta, and industrial impacts on water quality and quantity. A key similarity between the Everglades National Park and Wood Buffalo National Park is that many of their major issues are caused by activity outside their boundaries, upstream from the sites.
There is also an important difference with the story of the Everglades. It was the federal US government that requested an ‘in Danger’ listing for the Everglades with the hope that the process would assist in developing and implementing a conservation plan, helping remove the property from the ‘in Danger’ list as quickly as possible. Canada has not taken this route, but it could!
The Everglades is also a good example of how listing a site as ‘in Danger’ can help recover its ecological state. The park was listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger for the first time in 1993 following damage by Hurricane Andrew, along with concerns regarding urban encroachment and pollution. The World Heritage committee made a list of recommendations (psst: the World Heritage Committee has also made a series of recommendations for Wood Buffalo National Park) including land acquisition surrounding the park (similar to the protected areas that buffer Wood Buffalo), phosphorus limits from urban runoff (a major source of pollution for aquatic ecosystems), and the implementation of a water control plan. In 2000, the federal government and Florida state government co-created a Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). In 2004, they established the Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress, an independent group dedicated to the unbiased assessment of how the CERP was being implemented, meeting biannually. This system worked well, and things improved so much that following a review from the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in 2007, Everglades was removed from the ‘in Danger’ list.
When the site’s conditions once again began to deteriorate, the federal government requested another ‘in Danger’ listing in 2012.
Kishore Rao © UNESCO From UNESCO: The Everglades, at the southern tip of Florida, contains the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere, the largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie and the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in North America.
The US government and World Heritage Committee did not view this ‘in Danger’ listing as a threat, but as a tool to develop and implement corrective actions. It was an honest reflection of the park’s state.
In their 2020 biannual review, it was reported that the CERP implementation has progressed at a steady pace. They have since initiated six new science projects supported by the state and federal partner agencies to improve the park’s health. The committee is scheduled to meet again this year (2022), assessing the progress.
An Even Shorter Case Study: Sangay National Park
Another site that was added and then removed from the ‘in Danger’ list is Sangay National Park in Ecuador, which was listed from 1992-2005. Sangay National Park was threatened by potential road construction, livestock farming, land conversion, and potential oil/mineral exploration. In the years following its ‘in Danger’ listing, funding was provided for public education about the park and park conservation. These actions resulted in the mitigation of environmental damage from road construction, a reduction of hunting and raising livestock within the park, and an improved relationship between stakeholders and park administration such that the concept of oil/mineral exploration in the park was dismissed.
Has the threat of “In Danger” resulted in progress for Wood Buffalo?
Even the looming threat of a potential “In Danger” listing can trigger conservation action. The UNESCO listing and evaluative process has provided some progress so far and the Government of Canada has made substantial commitments to improving Wood Buffalo National Park since the petition for its listing first arose in 2016.
In 2019, Parks Canada released a 142 item action plan, filled with suggestions and actionable items, along with a pool of funding – but the implementation of the action plan has been sluggish and funding is set to run out in two years.
CPAWS believes that an “In Danger” listing is still the best option for garnering the broad and urgent corrective actions needed for Wood Buffalo National Park. While the federal government’s Action Plan (2019) is a great starting place, it is limited in scope and ultimately relies on progress from Parks Canada. We need a process that involves all levels of government to address cumulative impacts from land use and natural resource management on provincial public lands in Alberta and British Columbia, with considerations for impacts on the Northwest Territories downstream. We have seen the “In Danger” listing catalyze broad corrective actions for the Everglades, such as the Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress.
Canada has shown it has the capacity and resources to take action – but now is not the time to take the foot off the pedal.
In late August 2022, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and UNESCO World Heritage committee carried out a “Reactive Monitoring Mission” (a formal term for investigation into the ecological condition of Wood Buffalo National Park). The World Heritage committee requested this investigation to further look into the deteriorating ecological integrity of Wood Buffalo National Park, and to determine whether the site should be listed as a “World Heritage Site in Danger”.
ENGOs (environmental non-governmental organizations) had the opportunity to present their concerns regarding Wood Buffalo National Park’s integrity. Presenters included Gillian Chow-Fraser from CPAWS Northern Alberta, Carolyn Campbell from the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), Adam Norris from the Mighty Peace Watershed Alliance, and Dr. Cheryl Chetkiewicz from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada. Download a copy of their presentations here.
What’s happening in Wood Buffalo to put its ecological integrity into question? When did this all start? Check out this summary and short timeline.
What are the reasons Wood Buffalo National Park could be listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger?
Now that the Reactive Monitoring Mission is over, the committee is writing a report that will determine whether Wood Buffalo is listed as ‘in Danger’.