Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has submitted an action plan to protect Wood Buffalo National Park in an effort to avoid a black eye on the nation. The park is one of 19 sites in Canada designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Following a 10-day investigation of the park, a UNESCO committee reported in March 2017 that Wood Buffalo was at risk from understaffing and encroaching development. It produced 17 recommendations and warned Canada that an inadequate response could result in the park being moved to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
UNESCO’s concerns over Wood Buffalo National Park were prompted by a petition by the Mikisew Cree First Nation, which cited a proposed open pit mine, inadequate response to climate change, lack of Indigenous participation in monitoring programs, the Site C dam and oil sands developments as threats to the park.
The federal government has responded with a 140-point action plan that commits to greater involvement of Indigenous peoples, stronger monitoring and evaluating protections outside the park’s boundaries. Specific measures, either promised or already undertaken, that could have an impact on future development outside the park include:
- a revision of the terms of the environmental assessment of the Frontier Oil Sands Mine Project, a planned 260,000 barrels per day bitumen mine near the park’s southern boundary; the government also committed to ensuring that all current and future environmental assessment reviews under federal law would consider impacts on the park
- the establishment of Wildland Provincial Parks on the east and southern sides of Wood Buffalo National Park
- a commitment to a systematic tailings risk assessment, and ongoing work by the province of Alberta to support tailings ponds management.
So far, the Mikisew Cree have responded cautiously to the plan.
“Putting proposals on paper has never been the problem,” said Melody Lepine, director of Mikisew’s Government and Industry Relations, in a statement. She characterized the intentions of the plan as fair, but warned that they need to be backed up by investment and action.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will respond to Canada’s action plan at its 43rd session in Baku, Azerbaijan from June 30, 2019 to July 10, 2019.