Canada is dragging its feet in protecting Wood Buffalo National Park, critics say

One year after a United Nations agency warned about the environmental health of Canada's largest national park, First Nations and environmental groups say not enough has been done to respond.

UNESCO warned a year ago that Canada's largest national park faces environmental threats

The world's largest beaver dam in Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Parks Canada)

One year after a United Nations agency warned about the environmental health of Canada's largest national park, First Nations and environmental groups say not enough has been done to respond.

They say the federal government isn't taking the threats to Wood Buffalo National Park seriously.

"The urgency doesn't seem to be as strong as we would like," said Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. In 2014, it petitioned the United Nations World Heritage committee to help conserve the park.

In March 2017, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released a report saying the park is being threatened by energy development, hydro dams and poor management.

Canada was given an ultimatum: implement an action plan and report back by the end of 2018, or risk the park being added to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

The listing would make Wood Buffalo the first World Heritage Site in Canada to be considered "in danger,"  and the fourth in North America.

A spokesperson for Parks Canada told CBC in an email that the agency aims to have a draft plan completed by this summer. It plans to consult with Indigenous people and other members of the public in late summer.  

The final action plan is expected to be submitted by December.

'I just think a lot more could be done within the period of time we have,' said Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. (Submitted by Melody Lepine)

With a deadline less than nine months away, Lepine is concerned this timeline isn't realistic.

"To take one year… to figure out how are we going to work together to address these issues... I just think a lot more could be done within the period of time we have, given the criticalness of the issue," she said.

"We also don't see dollars attached to the action plan. We don't know how much is being committed in terms of the resources applied to move the action plan forward."

In an email, Meaghan Bradley of Parks Canada said the plan is being funded from $1.3 billion set aside in the 2018 federal budget to protect nature, parks, and wild spaces over five years. 

However, Bradley did not say exactly how much of that money would go toward Wood Buffalo National Park.

Impacts on 'huge and fragile' ecosystem

The action plan must incorporate 17 recommendations from the UN, including assessing the environmental impacts of BC Hydro's Site C dam on the river system.

Those assessments aren't happening, according to Galen Armstrong of Sierra Club BC, an environmental advocacy group in B.C.

'There are a lot of pressures on this huge and fragile… ecosystem,' said Galen Armstrong of Sierra Club BC. (Submitted by Galen Armstrong)

"There are already two dams on the Peace River that flow into the Peace-Athabasca Delta... Those two existing dams have already had a big impact on the flows downstream in that Delta," he said.

"Putting a third, very large mega-dam on that river is certain to have more negative impacts on an area that's already impacted from industrial activity.

"There are a lot of pressures on this huge and fragile… ecosystem, and so at the very least we need to understand what are the impacts going to be."

Lepine agrees. She feels the federal government isn't prioritizing the protection of Wood Buffalo National Park.

"The cultural value of the Delta and of Wood Buffalo National Park to so many — there's nothing else," she said.

"To many, it's home, and they just want to see the commitments that Canada had made in terms of protecting it adhered to."

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