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Alberta now has world's largest expanse of protected boreal forest

Alberta is now home to the largest area of protected boreal forest in the world, following an announcement Tuesday that set aside more than 13,600 square kilometres of land across much of northeast Alberta.

The conservation area is twice the size of Vancouver Island

This wetland in Birch Mountain will form part of the world's largest area of protected boreal forest. (Submitted/ABMI)

Alberta is now home to the largest area of protected boreal forest in the world, following an announcement Tuesday that set aside more than 13,600 square kilometres of land across much of northeast Alberta.

The provincial and federal governments, the Tallcree First Nation, oilsands giant Syncrude and the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced the creation of new protected areas at a news conference in Edmonton.

"It is very rare that you can announce a protected area network that is globally significant in such incredible size," said Bob Demulder, the NCC's regional vice-president for the Alberta region. "These things don't happen very often."

The province will formally establish four new parks — Kazan, Richardson, Dillon River and Birch River — and expand the Birch Mountains Wildland Provincial Park.

All of the parks, except Dillon River, border on Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The map above shows the four new parks (in red) announced on Tuesday. (CBC GRAPHICS)

The creation of all but one of the parks was announced in 2012 but never enacted, said Matt Dykstra, press secretary to the minister of the environment and parks.

Together with Wood Buffalo National Park and the existing and new parks, the protected land will form a conservation area of 67,735 square kilometres, almost twice the size of Vancouver Island.

The area will be off limits to logging and other industries, such as oilsands development.

First Nation and industry seal the deal

The Birch River park was created after complicated agreements between the Alberta and federal governments, the Tallcree First Nation and the NCC.

The Tallcree tribal government agreed to relinquish a timber quota it had no intention of using, which was then purchased by the NCC for $2.8 million, with Syncrude providing the majority of the funding.

Alberta is now home to the largest area of protected boreal forest in the world, following an announcement Tuesday that set aside more than 13,600 square kilometres of land across much of northeast Alberta. The provincial and federal governments, the Tallcree First Nation, oilsands giant Syncrude and the Nature Conservancy of Canada announced the creation of new protected areas at a news conference in Edmonton 1:13

"The boreal forest holds greater value to the First Nation for exercising our traditional way of life and the quiet enjoyment of our treaty rights," Chief Rupert Meneen, from the Tallcree tribal government, said in a news release.

The government will enter into management and monitoring agreements with First Nations and Métis communities.

The province said it will fund the process of integrating Indigenous traditional knowledge and will hire Indigenous monitors to maintain and offer education and outreach to park visitors.

Offsetting pressure from oilsands

Syncrude said in a joint news release the park will be used to offset land disturbance caused by its future industrial activities.

The company has contributed $2.3 million to the creation of the Birch River protected area.

"This agreement supports our commitment to responsible development of the oilsands resource, while contributing to the conservation of the boreal forest for future generations," said Doreen Cole, Syncrude Canada's managing director.

An aerial view of the forests near Fort McMurray. (Submitted/ Michel Rapinski)

Nearly one-third of the world's boreal zone lies within Canada, the NCC said in a news release. The forest provides fresh air, nurseries for migratory birds and is the planet's largest carbon sink, keeping carbon out of the atmosphere so it doesn't contribute to climate change.

The protected land will provide protection for many species, including wood bison, woodland caribou and the peregrine falcon, all listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act, the NCC said.

It will also relieve the burden the wildlife and environment faces from oilsands development in the Fort McMurray region.

"I don't believe it is a panacea, but it is certainly the right move," Demulder said. "We note from the First Nations and industry that are part of the supporters of that, they [too] see some places that are best left to nature and themselves."

Often a critic of the environmental record of the oilsands, the Pembina Institute applauded the move. The institute's deputy executive director, Simon Dyer, said it brings Alberta closer to hitting the United Nations target of protecting 17 per cent of all land.

"We're certainly willing to give credit were credit is due," said Dyer. "Any day where you are announcing the largest increase for protected areas is a good day."

With the formal creation of these new parks, 14.5 per cent of Alberta's land is now protected from development.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook and Twitter, or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca

About the Author

David Thurton

David Thurton is CBC's mobile journalist in Fort McMurray. He's worked for CBC in the Maritimes & in Canada's Arctic. Email: david.thurton@cbc.ca