'We're just frustrated': Missed UNESCO deadline a setback for Wood Buffalo National Park, advocates say 

Advocates in northern Alberta and the N.W.T. say a missed deadline in the protection of Canada’s largest national park means the federal government is not taking its conservation seriously. 

Parks Canada had until Dec. 1 to update UNESCO on conservation efforts in park that straddles Alberta, N.W.T.

Wood Buffalo National Park in 2018. (Lennard Plantz/CBC)

Advocates in northern Alberta and the N.W.T. say a missed deadline regarding Canada's largest national park means the federal government is not taking its conservation seriously. 

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) gave Parks Canada until Dec. 1 to submit a progress report on conservation efforts in Wood Buffalo National Park. The report will be used to figure out whether or not the park is at risk of losing its designation as a World Heritage Site. 

As of the date of publication, the report has not yet been submitted. 

Wood Buffalo National Park covers almost 45,000 square kilometres of land in northeast Alberta and southern N.W.T.

They can't get reports in on time, they can't implement an action plan. It's clearly concerning.- Melody Lepine, Mikisew Cree First Nation's director of government and industry relations

Eleven Indigenous groups on both sides of the N.W.T.–Alberta border work with Parks Canada on the survival of the park, including the Mikisew Cree First Nation. 

Melody Lepine, the First Nation's director of government and industry relations, says they were "not surprised" when they found out the report would be delayed. 

"We're just frustrated," Lepine told CBC. "We've been seeing this for decades." 

They can't get reports in on time. They can't implement an action plan … it's clearly concerning." 

Melody Lepine, director of government relations for Mikisew Cree First Nation, says the federal government is not meeting its commitments to Wood Buffalo National Park. (Submitted by Melody Lepine)

A statement from Parks Canada says they are still "finalizing" the report and expect to submit it "shortly." 

"We remain committed to protecting Wood Buffalo National Park," the statement reads. "We will continue to implement it to ensure the park remains a treasured place for generations to come." 

Parks Canada did not respond to a request for more information about why the deadline was missed and what the new deadline is. 

'It's embarrassing on a global scale'

Wood Buffalo National Park is the traditional territory of 11 Indigenous groups in Alberta and the N.W.T., who rely on the water and wildlife for their people's well-being. 

The park is also important from an ecological point of view: it's home to one of the world's largest freshwater deltas, the continent's biggest population of wild bison and is the world's only breeding ground for the endangered whooping crane.

A map showing the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park in the N.W.T. and Alberta. (Google Maps)

Still, the land has been deteriorating for a long time. In 2014, Lepine said the Mikisew Cree launched a petition, asking UNESCO to review the park's status as a world heritage site. 

UNESCO's latest report in 2019 concluded that the park's "outstanding universal value" was at risk because of climate change, upstream hydroelectric developments and resource extraction. 

The report also said that, if Canada doesn't commit to conserving Wood Buffalo, it could be placed on the list of endangered world heritage sites. 

Gillian Chow-Fraser, the boreal project manager for CPAWS Northern Alberta, said the park's designation is a "really big deal" because it's a recognition from the international community that the park is extraordinary. 

Gillian Chow-Fraser, boreal program manager with CPAWS, says the UNESCO designation is a big deal for Wood Buffalo National Park. (Submitted by Gillian Chow-Fraser )

She said Canada needs to start treating it that way. 

"To have … the possibility of having it listed as a world heritage site in danger, is really kind of embarrassing on a global scale," she told CBC. 

Action plan 'stalled' 

Chow-Fraser, Lepine and leaders from the N.W.T. sent a joint letter to the director of UNESCO's world heritage committee on Dec. 2, the day after Canada's latest conservation report was supposed to be due. 

The letter is a way of updating UNESCO on the promises Canada made in their 2019 action plan to protect Wood Buffalo National Park, Chow-Fraser said.

"Our on-the-ground perspective is that progress on several critical pieces of the Action Plan have stalled," the letter reads. 

The federal government's conservation plan has 142 points, including actions to enhance research, monitoring, and management of the park with its Indigenous partners. 

Conservation progress will be evaluated mid-2021

On its website, Parks Canada lists a series of projects it has started in Wood Buffalo National Park since the action plan was released in 2019. One example is new legislation that changes the way major projects are reviewed and approved, with the goal of getting more feedback from Indigenous groups and the public. 

But there are other areas, Lepine said, where there is limited or no progress.

Whooping cranes in Wood Buffalo National Park. This is the only site in the world where these endangered birds live. (Jane Peterson/Parks Canada/Wood Buffalo National Park)

For example, she said the federal government has already studied water control technologies in the park — but there's no guarantee for when those systems will be put in place or how much money they will dedicate to them. 

These technologies would help spread water to parts of the park facing drought, she said. 

"We're like, 'OK, just get it done,'" Lepine said. "The [Peace-Athabasca] Delta is drying, here's an opportunity for you to show the world heritage committee that you can get one significant piece of the action plan done."

The letter also asks the federal government to study the risks of releasing treated tailing waters from oilsands projects into the Athabasca River — a suggestion in line with UNESCO's recommendations.

Chow-Fraser said the federal government hasn't committed to that yet.

Canada's conservation progress will be evaluated by UNESCO's world heritage committee at their next meeting in Fuzhou, China in summer 2021.