Ottawa submits progress report on protecting Wood Buffalo National Park, promises another $59M

The federal government has submitted a report to UNESCO, outlining how much progress it's made on a 2019 action plan to protect Wood Buffalo National Park, a world heritage site.

The park straddling the Alberta-N.W.T. border is a UNESCO world heritage site

Wood Buffalo National Park in 2018. The federal government has promised another $59.9 million toward implementing a protection plan for the park which is a UNESCO heritage site. (Lennard Plantz/CBC)

The federal government has submitted a report to UNESCO, outlining how much progress it's made on a 2019 action plan to protect Wood Buffalo National Park, a world heritage site.

The federal government has also promised another $59.9 million toward implementing that plan, on top of another $27.5 million pledged in 2018. 

At stake is the park's status as a world heritage site. If UNESCO is not satisfied with Canada's efforts to protect the area, the park could be listed as world heritage site "in danger," according to Gillian Chow-Fraser, boreal project manager for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Northern Alberta.

"If things went really badly, it would be the first step to it losing its world heritage site status, actually," Chow-Fraser said.

"It would be, you know, a massive international embarrassment to have that happen." 

The 44,000-square-kilometre Wood Buffalo National Park spans the N.W.T.-Alberta border and is home to one of the largest free-roaming wood bison herds in the world. It also includes the last remaining nesting ground of the endangered whooping crane.

Last year, UNESCO said the park's world heritage status could be endangered because of impacts from hydro development in B.C. and oilsands projects in Alberta.

The 44,000-square-kilometre Wood Buffalo National Park spans the N.W.T./Alberta border. (Google Maps)

"Continued deterioration ... could eventually constitute a case for inscription of the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger," a UNESCO committee said in 2019.

Right now, there are 53 heritage sites listed on UNESCO's website as being "in danger," including Florida's Everglades National Park, and Mexico's islands in the Gulf of California. 

The UNESCO committee gave Canada a deadline of this month to submit a progress report on its action plan. The federal government missed the original deadline of Dec. 1, and instead presented that report on Monday.

"It was really just a matter of trying to make sure that it was complete and exhaustive. And as I say, UNESCO agreed that we could have that slight additional time," said Jonathan Wilkinson, federal minister of Environment and Climate Change, on Monday. 

"This is a very special area ... we want to make sure that we are protecting and enhancing it from an ecological perspective."

142 'actions' to be completed

The "state of conservation" report will be considered by UNESCO next summer.

The original action plan from 2019 included 142 "actions" that the federal government pledged to complete. Wilkinson said more than half of them are either underway or complete.  

Wilkinson said the $59.9 million announced Monday will help complete the remaining actions and is to be spent over three years, in addition to the $27.5-million announced for the project in 2018.

"It's new money," Wilkinson said of the $59.9 million.

"And it's to essentially continue the work with Indigenous communities, with the province and territory to ensure that we're taking action to conserve and to protect Wood Buffalo National Park."

He said more than half of the commitments laid out in the 2019 action plan are already completed or underway; the new money will help complete the rest.

The world's largest beaver dam in Wood Buffalo National Park, in 2018. (Parks Canada)

Laurie Wein, Parks Canada project manager for Wood Buffalo, called the park "a complex conservation challenge."

"Many of the pressures on the world heritage values at this site emanate from outside of its boundaries — things like the impacts from climate change, and the longer term drying trend within the Athabasca Delta, the pressures from industrial development outside its borders," Wein said.

According to CPAWS, the federal government has made some decent progress with its action plan, and the new money announced Monday is a good sign.

But Chow-Fraser says there needs to be "a little bit more urgency," as some elements of the action plan seem to have "stalled."

As an example, she points to the issue of hydro dams on the Peace River, and how there has been little progress in coming up with a plan to mitigate the impacts downstream, in Wood Buffalo National Park.

"Those conversations, as far as we have heard, have not continued. We know that they've had a meeting maybe a year ago, but those haven't moved forward," Chow-Fraser said.

She's also concerned that a risk assessment of mine tailings near the Athabasca River also seems to be in limbo. 

"It's honestly shocking that it hasn't started ... it's kind of baffling to me," Chow-Fraser said.   

According to Laurie Wein of Parks Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on some work to implement the action plan this past year, as meetings, workshops and consultations were postponed or changed to virtual meetings. But she said most field work in the park continued. 

"In general, monitoring work within the park was not significantly impacted, and certainly we managed to keep most of that going," she said.

With files from Bob Weber/The Canadian Press