Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the Alberta-NWT border, is an area that can only be described with superlatives. To begin with, it is huge – 45,000 square kilometres, an area bigger than the Netherlands. It contains one of the world’s largest inland freshwater deltas (the Peace River Delta) and protects the world’s only breeding ground for whooping cranes as well as the largest wild herd of bison on the planet.
But it is also troubled. Tar sands development to the south and hydro-electric development to the west have both seriously impacted water levels and flows within the park. Tar sands mining and waste dumping has also led to a growing risk of contamination by toxics and air and water pollutants. And these threats are growing. The massive Site C hydro dam project in British Columbia will have impacts that will be felt all the way upstream to the park. New tar sands mines are also being developed on the Athabasca River in the remaining gap between the park and current mines and tailing ponds to the south.
WCS will be talking about how to address these issues at the United Nation’s World Heritage Committee conference in Krakow, Poland in early July. Wood Buffalo is officially a World Heritage Site and thanks to the efforts of the Mikisew First Nation, UNESCO’s attention has been drawn to the deteriorating state of the park and the associated impacts on Indigenous people and wildlife.
Recently, UNESCO sent a “Reactive Monitoring Mission” to see firsthand what is happening in Wood Buffalo. The mission was blunt in its assessment, stating "The mission fully agrees with most observers that continuation of the development approach of the last decades renders the future of (the park) uncertain at the very best."
Wood Buffalo is a perfect example of the need to look at the cumulative impacts of development decisions and not just individual projects or site-specific effects. WCS Canada has been urging the federal government to reform its outdated environmental assessment process and to make better use of tools such as Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA - Parks Canada has now agreed to conduct an SEA for Wood Buffalo on the recommendation of the monitoring team). For Wood Buffalo, such an approach could make a big difference by forcing decision makers to finally acknowledge that we can’t keep piling on problems for key wild areas.
WCS will be looking for a strong response from the Canadian government in Krakow, one that shows it is serious about avoiding having Wood Buffalo listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger.
Photograph from: Parks Canada
Photo credits: Banner | William Halliday © WCS Canada