Mismanagement of Canada’s Largest National Park Is Attracting International Scrutiny. Here's Why.

One year ago, after scathing reports by international agencies, the federal government promised to better protect Wood Buffalo National Park, with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna saying a warning from the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, followed by an equally dire assessment by the International Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), were a call to action.

But that action is moving at a glacial pace, even though the stated threats to the integrity of Canada’s largest national park, such as upstream oilsands development, climate change and construction of the Site C dam, are continuing unabated.

Change in the [Peace-Athabasca Delta] is undisputed and there are clear, consistent and conceivable hints at causal relationships with industrial development, confirmed by western science and local and indigenous knowledge,” the report warned. It also took aim at forestry, pulp and paper, uranium mining, agriculture and other resource development in the watershed.

Now, with World Heritage Centre deadlines approaching, a coalition of Indigenous and environmental groups is pushing for faster decisions and dedicated funding to help address the park’s many problems.

When our community heard Minister McKenna tell us that the mission report was a call to action we were hopeful,” said Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations at Mikisew Cree First Nation.

A year later, there is little concrete action to report to our elders except that we keep trying to get government to honour its commitment. So much more needs to be done and done fast,” she said.

Last July Lepine told a World Heritage Committee session in Krakow, Poland, that Canada is not acting in good faith and described how the Peace-Athabasca Delta — the world’s largest freshwater inland delta — is threatened by dams and rapid industrial development.

Wood Buffalo encompasses about 4.5 million hectares of boreal plains in northern Alberta and the southern Northwest Territories, is home to the world’s largest herd of free-ranging wood bison and is the breeding ground for the only wild, self-sustaining migratory flock of whooping cranes.

The park was visited by UNESCO inspectors after a 2014 petition from the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the subsequent report warned that, without a major and timely response, the organization would recommend that Wood Buffalo be included in the list of World Heritage in Danger, a list usually reserved for sites in countries dealing with disasters.

A November report by the IUCN raised further red flags, saying the park had deteriorated since the IUCN’s 2014 assessment and that the federal government’s response has been “inadequate in light of the scale, pace and complexity of the challenges.”

Wood Buffalo received the worst rating of all of Canada’s 10 natural world heritage sites and, only the Florida Everglades received a lower IUCN rating in all of North America.

The World Heritage Committee has asked Canada for a Strategic Environmental Assessment to be completed by next month and for an Action Plan to be submitted by December 1, so that it can make a decision on further action by summer 2019.

But even the planning has run into problems, with the federal government not taking into account some of the activities and threats outside the park boundaries.

Canada’s ongoing refusal to consider the impacts of the Site C dam dam on the Peace-Athabasca Delta is astounding, “ said Galen Armstrong, Sierra Club B.C. Peace Valley campaigner.

The committee agreed in its report.

As for Site C project, the mission notes that the joint review panel’s conclusion that project impacts on the Peace-Athabasca Delta would be “negligible” is not substantiated by any information presented in its report and appears to be based exclusively on the proponent’s definition of downstream impact area.

McKenna, in a statement, said the government is responding to the World Heritage Committee’s request and the 2018 budget proposes “historic investments” to protect Canada’s nature, parks and wild spaces.

Included in these investments in Canada’s natural legacy is a commitment to invest in the action plan that is being developed for Wood Buffalo National Park World Heritage Site,” she wrote.

Becky Kostka, Smith’s Landing First Nation lands and resources manager, said there have already been missteps and the initial draft of the Strategic Environmental Assessment was inadequate, simply pulling together previous studies, and did not represent Indigenous voices and Indigenous knowledge.

Local knowledge-holders would have liked a bigger part,” Kostka told DeSmog Canada.

Previously they (government) said there were no environmental changes north of the Peace River and when I talk to the elders they say there are significant changes happening across the park.”

However, there appears to be a willingness to make changes and a series of meetings are now being planned, she said.

Funding is another problem and diverting scarce resources previously allocated for Wood Buffalo will not suffice, said Kostka, who is also concerned about the tight time-frame for producing an action plan.

Those concerns are echoed by Alison Ronson of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

It is clear the World Heritage Committee is expecting Canada to deliver more than a plan to plan,” she said.

With the commitments for environmental conservation in the new federal budget, Canada can and must develop an action plan with real resources.”

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