Wildfires in High Level this summer have stoked concerns in Fort Smith – and neighbouring, isolated northern Alberta communities – about the need for an additional evacuation route through Wood Buffalo National Park.
This is not the first time an all-season road connecting Fort Chipewyan and Garden Creek to Peace Point has been discussed, but this may be the first time all local governments and First Nations are on board from the start.
Last time talks occurred, the Mikisew Cree First Nation – which felt it was not properly consulted – went to court to have the project stopped before a road was built through its land, community leaders recalled.
This time, the Mikisew called everyone together on July 30 to get discussions going and committed $50,000 toward the project.
Joining the Mikisew Cree were the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Salt River First Nation, Smith's Landing First Nation, Little Red River Cree First Nation, Fort Smith Métis, Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, and Town of Fort Smith. Most groups signed a memorandum of understanding.
Parks Canada staff were present but did not sign the memorandum, nor will they join a working group, as they would be a permitting authority if the project moves forward.
"The meetings went very well, I think there was a clear consensus on working together for a southern connection through Wood Buffalo National Park," said Kevin Smith, Fort Smith's deputy mayor.
Smith said a scoping document, outlining the project, is expected to be ready by the end of October.
"I think all the fires in northern Alberta over the last few years are a real catalyst of this happening," Smith told Cabin Radio. He said communities like High Level, which has multiple escape routes, still had difficulties evacuating.
Fort Smith and Fort Fitzgerald only have one road out of the community. Fort Chipewyan has no road access in the summer.
Evacuation has been a concern in Fort Smith of late. Territorial government work to narrow the community's runway has led some residents to complain that, if an evacuation by air were needed, the airport may no longer be as well-equipped to cope.
Smith believes the potential for tourism and economic development is also driving the conversation.
Chief Gerry Cheezie, of the Smith's Landing First Nation, agreed "support for the road is there."
"The discussion in the past was basically the same: people want that road for safety reasons, because we only have one road that goes out of our community," said Cheezie. "If we get cut off then we're basically isolated and have no place to go."
Smith's Landing is located just south of Fort Smith, in Alberta.
Cheezie said an old winter road existed between Peace Point and Garden Creek but has not been used in decades. He estimates 100 km of road and "numerous bridges" would have to be built if that route were to be reopened as an all-season road.
Despite the positivity surrounding the road, Cheezie cautioned his First Nation is concerned that poaching and over-fishing along the isolated road could become issues.
"We don't want all of our resources depleted by over-hunting and over-fishing," he said, adding Parks Canada's enforcement division will have a big job to do.
Earl Evans, speaking on behalf of the Fort Smith Métis Nation, said there used to be many roads in the park – but cutbacks over the years meant roads grew in.
Evans used to be a highway maintenance foreman. He worked on roads in the park, the South Slave, and northern Alberta for 40 years.
"Wood Buffalo National Park has always had the reputation of being a park for wildlife and being remote. They don't seem to want access," Evans said. He has heard people with traplines in the park express concern, and said those people would need to be looked after as they would be the most impacted.
However, he said, "Once that road gets put in and they see the benefits and the mobility they have to access their traplines … they might have a change of heart."
He also said if Teck Resources' Frontier mine is approved, a road south could give people in isolated communities access to work.
The Mikisew Cree First Nation did not respond to requests for comment.