Sweetgrass Station in Wood Buffalo National Park. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Parks Canada has greeted Unesco’s call for an updated Wood Buffalo National Park rescue plan with a response that stays the course in terms of promising “continued progress.”
At a meeting in Saudi Arabia, the United Nations body tasked with preserving World Heritage Sites approved a report calling for an updated action plan to save the park from threats like upstream dams and Alberta’s oil sands.
In the June report, inspectors who toured the park last summer made 17 recommendations. Since that inspection, details have emerged of vast spills in the oil sands upstream of the park’s Peace-Athabasca Delta, while wildfires have burned hundreds of thousands of hectares within the park.
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.
Asked for a response to that decision and those requests, Parks Canada issued a five-paragraph statement that replicated, almost word for word, a statement the agency had issued when the inspectors filed their report months earlier.
In its statement, Parks Canada made no mention of the decision’s specifics, except inspectors’ conclusion that the park should not yet be considered “in danger.”
The federal agency did not specify whether it would seek to meet Unesco’s February 2024 deadline for updated plan, the December 2024 deadline for an update on progress, or the request for a 2026 inspection.
“The decision underscores the importance of continued progress on a collaboratively developed multi-year action plan to address concerns regarding the outstanding universal value for which Wood Buffalo National Park is recognized as a World Heritage Site,” Parks Canada stated, noting what it called an “unprecedented investment” of more than $87 million to fund federal commitments under an action plan first published in 2019.
“Progress to date, in which over two-thirds of the action plan’s 138 actions are completed or under way, is encouraging,” Parks Canada stated, using variations of the word “continue” four times in two paragraphs to set out its plan to remain on the current trajectory, which it says involves a “braided” approach of science and Indigenous knowledge in collaboration with affected communities.
Progress and partnerships
Earlier in the summer, Indigenous communities whose fates are tied to Wood Buffalo National Park’s health expressed hope that Parks Canada would accept the inspectors’ recommendations and timelines.
“The Peace-Athabasca Delta, Canada’s largest boreal wetland, is facing massive threats. It’s still deteriorating. I think the report really confirms our concerns,” said Melody Lepine, the Mikisew Cree First Nation’s director of government-industry relations, in a July interview.
“The recommendations provide a lot more clarity on the issues. This is the type of clarity, and these are the type of timelines, that are necessary in putting the steps forward for saving this really important place for us.
“We’re confident that Canada’s going to welcome their recommendations and they’re going to really see value in working with the Mikisew Cree. The report shows that we’re making this progress because of this partnership, so that’s encouraging, I would say, for us.”
Carmen Wells, lands and regulatory director for the Fort Chipewyan Métis Nation, said the community “felt heard” by Unesco’s inspectors.
Wells emphasized the inspectors’ recommendations for systematic risk assessments of tailings ponds, plus a strategy for such ponds’ reclamation and the disposal of their contents.
“It asks for guaranteed protection of the Athabasca River and the Peace-Athabasca Delta water quality,” Wells said.
“The Athabasca River is Fort Chip Métis’s highway and it is part of their traditional territory, and they heavily rely on the waterways within the delta and Lake Athabasca.”
The Unesco process takes time, Wells said, and the Métis Nation still feels like it’s near the beginning of that process.
“But there is a relationship that is starting to be built,” she said.
“We have been working a lot with Parks Canada to continue this process and get to where we need to get to, to protect the park.”
“I’m confident – but at the same time, the report shows a pretty dire situation,” Lepine concluded.
“There could be an endangered listing before 2026. They’re calling for another reactive monitoring mission. So, 2026 is not too far away.
“Thinking about when we filed a petition, in 2014 – you know, here we are almost 10 years later and not a lot has been done. We’re going to continue to push hard.”