A letter to the UN: Our beloved national park keeps falling through the cracks

December 9, 2020
By: admin

A letter to the UN: Our beloved national park keeps falling through the cracks

Published [post_published]
Gillian Chow-Fraser

This blog post is the fourth in a series of blogs highlighting the importance of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta to Indigenous peoples and their leadership in saving it. Read part one (a brief Indigenous history of Wood Buffalo) here, part two (who stands up for Wood Buffalo?) here, and part three (the key to saving Wood Buffalo) here.

Internationally recognized as an outstanding site with a concerning future

The Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Yellowstone National Park in the USA. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. All of these areas are internationally recognized as having outstanding universal values, inscribed to the United Nations’ list of World Heritage Sites.

World Heritage Sites are globally unique sites that possess extraordinary characteristics. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) just assessed the conservation outlook for all of the World Heritage Sites across the globe. Sadly, they deemed the future of Wood Buffalo of “significant concern.” We share the same concern about the uncertain future of Wood Buffalo National Park.

Wood Buffalo National Park features stunning landscapes. The park is where the Peace and Athabasca Rivers meet, forming the beautiful and nutrient-rich Peace-Athabasca Delta. Photo by Garth Lenz.
Wood Buffalo National Park features stunning landscapes. The park is where the Peace and Athabasca Rivers meet, forming the beautiful and nutrient-rich Peace-Athabasca Delta. Photo by Garth Lenz.

An Action Plan requested by the UN

Since the World Heritage Committee was petitioned in 2014 to list Wood Buffalo as a World Heritage Site “in danger,” Canada produced an Action Plan to show the measures federal, provincial, and territorial governments would take to recover the park.

The Committee met two summers ago in Azerbaijan to review Canada’s actions. Because they felt the Action Plan looked good on paper, they did not list Wood Buffalo as “in danger,” but requested that Canada provide an update report in a year or so. 

This report was due last Tuesday (December 1, 2020).

The Athabasca River feeds into Wood Buffalo National Park. This life-giving waterway can be adversely impacted by upstream activities far from the park, such as oil sands developments. Photo by Garth Lenz.
The Athabasca River feeds into Wood Buffalo National Park. This life-giving waterway can be adversely impacted by upstream activities far from the park, such as oil sands developments. Photo by Garth Lenz.

Two years of work since the Action Plan was released

The Action Plan was finalized and released nearly two years ago, but Indigenous communities and environmentalists have consistently expressed concerns about the need for more resources and timely actions to address the scope and severity of threats facing Wood Buffalo.

CPAWS Northern Alberta, alongside a group of local Indigenous communities and environmental groups, penned an open joint letter to the UN to parallel Canada’s update report. The letter provides an on-the-ground perspective of how the Action Plan has been rolling out–and what steps have been skipped, stalled, and sub-par.

“With the international community watching, we cannot afford for Wood Buffalo National Park to continue to fall through the cracks, as it has for so many decades.”

Melody Lepine, Director of Government and Industry Relations with Mikisew Cree First Nation

An Action Plan undermined by activities outside the park

One of our major concerns addressed in the joint letter is that the Action Plan is actively undermined by ongoing activities outside the park. The success of the Action Plan depends, in part, on commitments made by the governments of Alberta, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. When provincial and federal responsibilities are not taken seriously or those commitments fall through the cracks, Wood Buffalo National Park suffers.

Several activities outside of Wood Buffalo can create threats to the park because they affect waterways that flow into the park. For example, hydropower dams on the Peace River have altered the water flowing into the park.
Several activities outside of Wood Buffalo can create threats to the park because they affect waterways that flow into the park. For example, hydropower dams on the Peace River have altered the water flowing into the park.

Here are three pieces we highlight in our letter that show that despite the Action Plan, unmitigated threats to Wood Buffalo are still enormous.

1. Alberta’s suspensions to monitoring of threats in the oil sands:

Do you remember last May, when the Province of Alberta and its Energy Regulator made a series of cascading decisions to pause several environmental monitoring and reporting requirements for projects in the oil sands? Because of immense public backlash, the requirements were reinstated nearly three months later.

This gap in monitoring data is concerning. Activities in the oil sands affect the Athabasca River, which flows directly into Wood Buffalo. Consistent and robust monitoring of the oil sands is necessary to manage indirect impacts on Wood Buffalo, like critical changes in water chemistry or contaminant loading in the Athabasca River. 

A key tenet of the Action Plan is that it is centered around strengthening relationships and collaboration with Indigenous communities. The suspensions were contradictory to this goal: they were carried out without consultation and even resulted in a legal appeal from three First Nations.

Athabasca oil sands operations. Oil sands activities can impact Wood Buffalo because contaminants can affect the water flowing into the park from the Athabasca River and migratory birds must fly over the oil sands to reach the park. Photo by Garth Lenz.
Athabasca oil sands operations. Oil sands activities can impact Wood Buffalo because contaminants can affect the water flowing into the park from the Athabasca River and migratory birds must fly over the oil sands to reach the park. Photo by Garth Lenz.

Even cumulative effects monitoring through the Oil Sands Monitoring Program was curtailed this year, with some fieldwork missed because of the COVID-19 virus. Our team at CPAWS took a closer look at this year’s budget and discovered that funds were entirely cut to four water quality projects that specifically contribute to the Action Plan. Industry was able to make adjustments to continue their operations, so it is counter-intuitive that those same adjustments were not also made to carry out the remote fieldwork.

2. Unchecked and growing risks from tailings ponds in the oil sands:

Earlier this year, a report concluded after a lengthy investigation that there was robust scientific evidence for tailings seeping into groundwater. Some leaking wells were as close as 150 metres to the Athabasca River! The report, carried out by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, re-affirms that threats from tailings ponds to Wood Buffalo’s ecological state are of significant concern, and that management and enforcement frameworks for tailings are inadequate.

Tailings ponds, which are used to store oil sands process water, represent an unchecked risk to the Athabasca River and Wood Buffalo. Photo by Garth Lenz.
Tailings ponds, which are used to store oil sands process water, represent an unchecked risk to the Athabasca River and Wood Buffalo. Photo by Garth Lenz.

A Tailings Risk Assessment was also committed to in the Action Plan. The assessment would review the significant risk and ecological consequences of catastrophic dam failures. With tailings ponds covering over 234 sq-km in Alberta, it is rather unbelievable that their environmental risks have not yet been assessed. Nor has the Tailings Risk Assessment yet been funded or initiated.

Meanwhile, we are potentially only two to three years away from the regulated release of processed oil sands waters directly into the Athabasca River, as the Alberta and Canadian governments advance processes to determine protocols. A few years is a hasty timeline to dump tailings waters into the Athabasca, especially without first understanding their existing impacts to know what effects are most important to mitigate.

3. Site C, the third dam on the Peace River, moves forward despite major concerns:

Regulation of the Peace River by hydroelectric dams in B.C. has been linked to changing the flows, water quantity, and water quality in the Peace-Athabasca Delta and beyond. Despite the advice of experts, Site C will be the third megadam built without proper assessment of downstream impacts on Wood Buffalo.

The Site C area, before construction and river diversion has begun, is a beautiful sprawling section of the Peace River. Photo by Garth Lenz.
The Site C area, before construction and river diversion has begun, is a beautiful sprawling section of the Peace River. Photo by Garth Lenz.

The construction risks of building Site C were revealed in an overdue report in July, 2020, describing issues with the Site C dam including unknown and significant cost overruns, schedule delays, and profound geotechnical troubles.

Frustratingly, river diversion for the Site C Hydroelectric Project is still starting soon.

With Site C’s future appearing problematic and risky, Canadian government attention must refocus on working with B.C. to determine how they can help re-create the necessary natural water regimes in the Peace-Athabasca Delta system.

Pressure is needed to change Wood Buffalo National Park’s future

“With the international community watching, we cannot afford for Wood Buffalo National Park to continue to fall through the cracks, as it has for so many decades,” says Melody Lepine, Director of Government and Industry Relations with Mikisew Cree First Nation. “A healthy Wood Buffalo National Park is a sign that we are responsibly managing the cumulative impacts on our landscapes, across provincial and territorial borders.” 

You can read our full letter to the UN here. Feel free to share the open letter widely, and tell your friends, families, and neighbours about the continued plight of Wood Buffalo National Park. Our team will continue to push for meaningful implementation of the Action Plan and cooperative management of the park, as well as concrete commitments from all levels of government to help address the ecological threats to this beloved and internationally important World Heritage Site.

Background information on Wood Buffalo’s World Heritage Site status:

The World Heritage Committee is the organization that oversees the list of World Heritage Sites. The Committee meets every year to assess all the existing World Heritage Sites, allocate financial assistance upon request, review State of Conservation reports, ask State Parties to take action when needed, and decides which sites to add to the list of World Heritage Sites.

The Committee was petitioned in 2014 by the Mikisew Cree First Nation to list Wood Buffalo as a World Heritage Site “in danger”–a title saved for sites under severe threats, either imminent (e.g., earthquakes or war) or potentially negative (e.g., climate change). An “in danger” listing would ideally focus attention and funds from the national and international communities for the threatened site. 

In response to the petition, the Committee made a series of requests to the Government of Canada to prove they were going to take immediate and significant measures to recover Wood Buffalo, including the development of an Action Plan to outline the actions that federal, provincial, and territorial governments would take to mitigate threats to the park. The Action Plan was released in early 2019.

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