Déjà vu: Wood Buffalo National Park receives its second visit from World Heritage Committee to assess the declining integrity of Canada’s largest national park

August 11, 2022
By: admin

Déjà vu: Wood Buffalo National Park receives its second visit from World Heritage Committee to assess the declining integrity of Canada’s largest national park

Published [post_published]
Gillian Chow-Fraser, Elise Gagnon

We are on the cusp of a week-long investigation into the state of Wood Buffalo National Park, a joint effort by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and the World Heritage Committee. Why is this investigation happening? Well, the national park is considered a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) and has held that title for the past forty years. However, many of the globally unique characteristics that give the Park this status are actually disappearing – did you know, for example, that its delta has been drying up in the past decades?

What do you do when a globally significant place is in decline? You call in the big dogs. In other words: the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.  

For the past nine years, the World Heritage Committee has been looking into the state of Wood Buffalo National Park – ever since the Mikisew Cree First Nation raised the alarm about the park’s deteriorating conditions. The First Nation, with the support of boreal experts, academics, past park wardens, and environmental groups, petitioned for Wood Buffalo to become a World Heritage Site “in Danger”. Now, the Committee is assessing whether they should list it as “in Danger”, or not.

Wood Buffalo National Park, © J. McKinnon
Wood Buffalo National Park, © J. McKinnon

Are you having déjà vu? Didn’t we talk about this potential listing last August (August 2021)? And the summer before that? And maybe even a summer before THAT? 

Yes! The World Heritage Committee uses a standard protocol for assessing whether World Heritage Sites need to be added to the “in Danger” listing and it has a few steps. CPAWS has been closely following each step of this process and uses every opportunity to draw attention to this dire issue. This summer’s Reactive Monitoring Mission is the next step that is being taken toward this listing and it’s a very big deal.  

At CPAWS, we believe all the scientific, community, and cultural evidence suggests stronger action and more meaningful efforts need to be taken to diminish the threats facing Wood Buffalo National Park; from upstream oil sands development on the Athabasca River to hydroelectric projects on the Peace River.

Hello, Site C? It’s the World Heritage Committee calling.  

The impacts from provincial decision-making outside of the park’s borders culminate in negative impacts that are seen downstream in the Peace-Athabasca Delta, within the park and beyond. Management isn’t so great inside the park either: the area is incredibly important to the eleven Indigenous communities inside the park who are seeing painfully slow progress on co-management and no movement towards water governance.

The magnitude of the impacts and pace of deterioration inside Wood Buffalo National Park means Canada cannot take anything short of a major and timely response to save the park. Whether Canada and the provinces are ready to take the necessary action remains to be seen.

FYI: Terms & Concepts to Know

First things first: What in the world is a “Reactive Monitoring Mission”? 

Between the 18-26th  of August, the Mission leads (appointed by the World Heritage Centre and IUCN) will be meeting with federal, provincial, and Indigenous governments, and civil society organizations to gather information on the conditions within Canada’s largest national park. The investigation, officially called a “Reactive Monitoring Mission”, is tasked with figuring out if things are improving or not for Wood Buffalo. 

This summer’s mission is a follow-up from a Reactive Monitoring Mission that was carried out in 2016. We strongly believe that many of the threats that Wood Buffalo faced back in 2016, still exist today, and many have actually increased. For example, the federal and provincial governments have both been open about their development of regulations to release treated oil sands tailings waste into the Athabasca River. The high volumes of tailings fluids, which could still possess concentrations of harmful contaminants, would post a high potential threat to Wood Buffalo.  

Should the mission find that the park still faces immediate and grave threats, then there will be a recommendation for the park to be added to the list of “World Heritage in Danger” – 

Which would be a first in Canada.  

© Wood Buffalo National Park collection, IUCNweb
© Wood Buffalo National Park collection, IUCNweb

Deteriorating Conditions Within the Park Are Not New – A short Timeline of Events  

Need an abridged version of the timeline of events following the World Heritage status of Wood Buffalo National Park? Look no further:  

  • 2014 (December): The Mikisew Cree First Nation petitions the World Heritage Committee to investigate threats to Outstanding Universal Values of Wood Buffalo National Park. 
  • 2015 (June): At the 39th World Heritage meeting, the Committee requests Canada invite a Reactive Monitoring Mission to assess threats to the park and conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment. 
  • 2016 (September): A Reactive Monitoring Mission visits Canada. The powerful and strongly-worded final report makes 17 recommendations to improve the environmental outlook.  
  • 2017: At the 41st World Heritage meeting, the Committee calls on Canada to develop an Action Plan for Wood Buffalo.
  • 2018 (May): The Strategic Environmental Assessment of cumulative impacts on the park is released.  
  • 2018 (June): During the 42nd World Heritage meeting, Canada announces a $27.5 million investment in Wood Buffalo National Park to meet the recommendations from the Reactive Monitoring mission report. 
  • 2019 (February): The Wood Buffalo National Park Action Plan is released by Canada. It outlines 142 actions that will improve the environmental outlook of the park. Environmental groups and Indigenous groups have been vocal about the need for faster and more urgent implementation of the Action Plan.  
  • 2019 (June): At the 43rd World Heritage meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, the Committee commends Canada on its Action Plan but recognizes considerably more effort is needed to address threats.  
  • 2020 (December): Canada announces a $59.9 million investment in the implementation of the Action Plan. Canada also releases a State of Conservation Report.  
  • 2021 (July): At the 44th World Heritage meeting, the Committee confirms the deteriorating condition of the park could justify listing as a World Heritage Site in Danger and requests Canada invite a Reactive Monitoring Mission to determine if a change in status is warranted. 
  • 2022 (February): Canada releases its next State of Conservation Report. 
  • 2022 (August): The Reactive Monitoring Mission will take place. A final report will be released in the months following the visit, wherein we will learn the formal recommendation of the Mission. A decision should be made at the 45th World Heritage meeting, whose date has not yet been set.  
Photo David Dodge, The Pembina Institute
Photo David Dodge, The Pembina Institute

How can *I* help make sure things turn around for Wood Buffalo?

Believe it or not, an “in Danger” listing might be good news for Wood Buffalo National Park. Since the first petition in 2014, the goal has always been the same: let’s get help to make this right. Since the petition, Canada has invested almost $88 million over five years for the park’s Action Plan. We commend this investment – but so much more is still needed, actions need to be swift, and commitments need to be long-term.   

Minister Guilbeault needs to face the international community and show he and the provinces have the willingness to make take strong corrective actions to save the places that make Canada so special, like Wood Buffalo National Park.  

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