Canada has a new deadline to come up with a better plan to save Wood Buffalo National Park's world heritage site status.
In a draft decision last month, UNESCO – the United Nations body responsible for world heritage sites – stated the country's current plan needs "considerably more effort … to reverse the negative trends."
UNESCO's World Heritage Committee met on Wednesday morning in Azerbaijan to formally approve that decision.
The final decision requires Canada to submit an updated report by December 1, 2020. That report must include more detail on the impact of BC Hydro's Site C hydropower project and other dams on the Peace River.
Though UNESCO commended Canada on some steps already taken, Wednesday's final decision stressed the importance of studying the cumulative impacts of those dams, alongside the effects of oil sands tailings ponds in Alberta.
Laurie Wein, Parks Canada's senior manager for the action plan, said on Wednesday the Government of Canada was "very pleased" with UNESCO's feedback and the new deadline of December 2020.
In response, local First Nations and environmental groups questioned whether both Canada and UNESCO are doing enough.
“Without meaningful action right now, the park is doomed, and so are the people that depend on it,” said Gillian Chow-Fraser, boreal program manager for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) of Northern Alberta
In June, responding to UNESCO's draft decision, Parks Canada said its existing action plan "includes over 140 measures to increase protection of ecosystems, improve understanding and water management of the Peace-Athabasca Delta, strengthen relationships with Indigenous partners, and to support the recovery of iconic species for which the World Heritage Site was established, such as whooping cranes and wood bison."
"Importantly, the decision also recognizes and acknowledges that there are continuing concerns around a changing climate and external development pressures outside of the park which are having impacts on the Peace-Athabasca Delta," Wein told Cabin Radio.
UNESCO had concluded climate change, upstream development, and resource extraction are all intensifying, causing the park's "outstanding universal value" to deteriorate.
If Canada doesn't mitigate UNESCO's ongoing concerns – such as a perceived lack of comprehensive environmental monitoring, and a lack of engagement with Indigenous partners – the park could be placed on its list of endangered world heritage sites.
Wein said a "large amount of the work" in Canada's current plan will focus on assessments of the impact of hydro dams like Site C.
However, UNESCO said a description of the dam's impact on the park's outstanding universal value was missing. UNESCO has been recommending and requesting Canada detail impacts since 2016.
Canada 'looking at' more funding
The World Heritage Committee is also concerned about the cumulative impacts of oil sands projects, and suggested Canada complete a systemic risk assessment of the tailings ponds in Alberta.
There are 37 oil sands projects in operation right now and another 47 being considered. One of these, the Teck Frontier oil sands mine project, is located 30 km past the park’s southern boundary and is particularly worrying to UNESCO as it is upstream of the park.
On a more positive note, the committee commended the Government of Alberta on creating the Wildland Provincial Parks, which protects 6.7 million hectares of boreal forest outside the park as a form of buffer.
While Canada announced $27.5 million in federal funding last June to develop and implement the action plan over five years, UNESCO questions if that will be enough.
"Certainly we recognize that this action plan is not a done deal at this point," said Wein, when asked if Canada was considering injecting more cash.
"The $27.5 million under Budget 2018 was a federal investment to develop a plan and move early actions forward with implementation. But absolutely we recognize that this is a plan that is going to take many months and years to implement. We are actively looking at additional sources of funding and we will continue to work with our government partners to identify those sources."
The World Heritage Committee will review the report on Canada's progress when it meets again in 2021.
A 'wake-up call'
A spokesperson for Smith's Landing First Nation, one of Parks Canada's 11 Indigenous partners, said UNESCO should hold Canada to a higher standard.
"[The draft decision] keeps a bit of pressure on Canada, but really not enough to make a difference," wrote Becky Kostka, the First Nation's lands coordinator.
"We desperately need action from Canada," she said, noting water levels in the First Nation's territory this year have been lower than Elders can recall seeing.
Amy Lusk, with Fort Smith's Slave River Coalition, has been advocating that Canada follow UNESCO's request to complete a social and environmental impact assessment on Site C.
"We feel that if Canada cannot meet this recommendation, or commit to doing so within a reasonable time frame, Wood Buffalo National Park should be placed on the list of world heritage sites in danger," she wrote.
A further group of Indigenous communities and environmental organizations, led by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, agreed.
"[We] believe that the park meets the conditions for it to be inscribed as 'in danger,'" the groups wrote in a news release on Wednesday afternoon.
"We support the decision made by the committee to continue monitoring the status of the park as a first step, and call upon Canada to provide the resources necessary to fully address these serious issues threatening the park."
The groups called on Canada to establish water management agreements to return water to the park, protect the quality of water, invest in more monitoring, require impact assessments for any activity that could affect the park, and assess Site C.
“Canada has watched Wood Buffalo National Park degrade for decades and we’re disappointed in the government’s lukewarm action so far. The threats faced by this park are enormous and they have not been properly managed, even with the international community watching,” said Chow-Fraser of CPAWS Northern Alberta.
Melody Lepine, director of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, called for "big, bold action" by federal and provincial governments.
"We’re hopeful today’s decision is a wake-up call for Canada," said Lepine. "It must work with us and increase its efforts to stop the deterioration of the delta that the Indigenous communities of Fort Chipewyan rely on.”