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UNESCO begins monitoring mission of Wood Buffalo National Park

Wood Buffalo National Park is home to what is considered the largest freshwater boreal delta on the planet.

Because of this, the area — created by the convergence of the Athabasca and Peace rivers — was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983.

Now, 33 years later, the site may end up on another United Nations list, one describing it as being threatened. There are a total of 55 world heritage sites listed as threatened, and Wood Buffalo National Park would be Canada’s first. 

If listed as threatened it would mean the World Heritage Centre could allocate immediate assistance from the World Heritage Fund. It also encourages corrective action and alerts the international community to the situation.

UNESCO is conducting a review of the site this week at the request of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, who petitioned the world body in 2014 to list the park as being under threat from various developments.

Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation said she wants to see the area “that means everything to the Mikisew” to be designated as endangered.

“We really feel that it is at risk, that we’re losing our delta,” Lepine said. “The impacts of drawing low water levels is of serious concern along with fear of further contamination. We would like to see it placed on the listing of endangered UNESCO world heritage sites.

"It’s a world heritage site and it was listed as a world heritage site for the very reason that it is important to not only Canada but to the world.”

Lepine will be on the team traveling through Wood Buffalo National Park for the UNESCO review.

The mission will review the effects that damming has had on the area, the potential effects of the planned Site C Hydroelectric Dam and the impact of existing and planned oilsand projects in the Athabasca region.

Lepine said one of the biggest issues the community is facing is the low water level caused by damming. She said the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in northern B.C. constructed in the 1960s “changed the delta and the change has never been reversed.”

“The Mikisew Cree and other indigenous groups, it’s affecting our culture, our way of life, in terms of not being able to access our traditional land, exercise our aboriginal treaty rights.”

Site C

The mission will also be examining the potential effects that the controversial B.C. dam, Site C, will have on the area’s hydrology.

UNESCO's World Heritage Centre concluded in 2015 that a review of cumulative effects on Wood Buffalo National Park was warranted, and in the meantime asked that Canada not make any other development decisions that “would be difficult to reverse.”

Nonetheless, the Trudeau government issued federal fisheries permits this summer to allow construction to go ahead on Site C, which will dam an 83-kilometre-long reservoir on the Peace River.

“They should have waited until they knew the outcome of the mission and the actual state of the Peace-Athabasca delta in terms of its ecological integrity and needs,” said Lepine.

“So to approve another project that could have those irreversible impacts I think is deeply concerning. It’s not fair to the community, it’s not fair to the Mikisew, it’s not fair to the heritage site that they’re supposed to be managing.”

Site C is currently being challenged in federal court by two B.C. first nations.

Buffer zone

The 10-day “reactive monitoring mission” of Wood Buffalo began Sunday in Fort Smith, N.W.T.

The trip will take a committee of international UNESCO experts to Fort Chipewyan, Alta., where experts will be taken out on the delta; to Fort McMurray, Alta., to see an oilsands site; and Edmonton, where the mission will wrap up with meetings with B.C. Hydro and other developers.

Through the duration of the mission, the crew will be meeting with the relevant stakeholders including representatives of Indigenous people and industry.

Lepine hopes that getting the designation of endangered will “push Canada to take more corrective action in managing the sites.” She said the action would have to address the upstream oilsands and hydroelectric development.

“We’re asking for a buffer zone placed around [the site] so we don’t have activities going right to the border of Wood Buffalo National Park, that the watersheds be protected so that there is no mining direct to watershed.

"Everything should not be sacrificed, our environment should not be sacrificed, our water should not be sacrificed only because of industrial development. I think everything can be done in balance.”

The report with recommendations put together by the mission team will be sent to the Canadian government for consideration.

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna welcomed the UNESCO monitoring mission, which could only come with the invitation of the federal government.

“The government of Canada is committed to preserving our national parks, some of which are recognized world heritage sites, and doing so in partnership with local communities, Indigenous peoples and other stakeholders,” McKenna said in a statement Friday.

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