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The Salt Plains in Wood Buffalo National Park in August 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The Salt Plains in Wood Buffalo National Park in August 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Unesco approves Wood Buffalo report that seeks updated action plan


The United Nations body tasked with preserving World Heritage Sites has approved a report calling for an updated action plan to save Wood Buffalo National Park.

Delegates at a Unesco meeting in Saudi Arabia voted in favour of a report filed earlier this year, following an inspection of the park in August 2022, and a “decision” outlining a range of steps for Canada to take.

Inspectors made 17 recommendations for change and highlighted a string of significant concerns, particularly the impacts of upstream dams in British Columbia and the potential future release of treated tailings water in Alberta.

Then came this spring’s revelations about months of spills at the Kearl oil sands mine. The park’s Peace-Athabasca Delta is downstream of that site.



More recent wildfire damage to vast areas of the park is not reflected in the report or the decision.

The park, Canada’s largest, spans the NWT-Alberta border near Fort Smith. Wood Buffalo is considered threatened by the consequences of oil sands development to the south, and last year’s inspection was the second in six years.

Parks Canada developed an action plan after Unesco first expressed concern in 2016. 

First Nations and Métis communities in and around the park have long maintained that the federal government is not doing enough to ensure its well-being. Parks Canada says Ottawa is making “an unprecedented investment of over $87 million” to help save the park, and is approaching the issue “in close collaboration” with Indigenous communities.



While the 2022 inspection didn’t recommend moving the park to a list of World Heritage Sites in danger, those inspectors called for an updated action plan and a new major inspection in 2026.

Last year’s inspection concluded that most threats to the park identified in 2016 “remain valid today” – pointing to tensions between governments, Indigenous peoples and industry, plus the impact of dams and oil sands and the absence of a “buffer zone” around the park.

The prospect of releasing treated oil sands tailings water into the Athabasca River, inspectors added, was “extremely concerning.” The federal and Alberta governments are drawing up regulations that would, if implemented, allow such releases to happen, a move fiercely opposed by conservation groups and downstream Indigenous communities.

Inspectors did find Parks Canada had made “important progress” in some parts of its action plan, particularly “efforts to strengthen Indigenous partnerships and ongoing efforts to move towards co-management of the property.”

But they said “it is too early to assess how far the action plan will succeed” and suggested Canada’s current budget for that plan probably isn’t enough.

The Unesco decision approved on Wednesday calls on Canada to file an updated action plan by February 1, 2024 that takes into account the 17 recommendations inspectors made.

Canada is also asked to file a report by December 1, 2024 outlining progress made and including a “systematic risk assessment of the tailing ponds in the Alberta oil sands region.”

The decision states that a fresh inspection by Unesco in 2026 will allow the body “to assess whether sufficient progress has been made to reverse the current downward trends and avert further degradation” of the park.



‘Real action is urgent,’ say Mikisew Cree

The Mikisew Cree First Nation, which has led calls for more work to protect Wood Buffalo National Park, said Unesco had highlighted “the need for Canada to strengthen” the park’s action plan.

In a press release, the First Nation said its government-industry relations director, Melody Lepine, had told World Heritage Committee members: “We are hopeful your decision will be met by Canada in the spirit intended: an opportunity to reflect on areas of progress but, most critically, to renew, rededicate and expand its commitment to save this vital area in full partnership with the Mikisew Cree.”

The First Nation called on Canada to “make clear commitments to meet the timelines” set out in the Unesco decision and “urgently take real actions, within the park and on the Peace and Athabasca rivers, to correct the harmful alterations to our delta’s hydrology.”

Parks Canada has been approached for comment on the decision and the recommendations made, particularly the request for an updated action plan and a new major inspection.

In July, Parks Canada responded to the inspectors’ report by acknowledging the existence of “important threats” but interpreting the report as an endorsement of “continued implementation of the action plan.”

“Ongoing protection and management of iconic species such as wood bison and whooping crane continues, as well as key conservation programming to mitigate the impacts of climate change, particularly with respect to water management in the Peace-Athabasca Delta,” Parks Canada wrote at the time.

“The Government of Canada remains committed to the continued protection and conservation of Wood Buffalo National Park and World Heritage Site and will continue to advance ongoing collaboration with Indigenous, provincial, and territorial partners to implement the action plan.”