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A bison is shown in Wood Buffalo National Park in a handout photo. The park ranks among the biggest inland deltas on the planet.Rob Belanger/The Canadian Press

Canada is poised to gain a UNESCO World Heritage site even as it struggles to halt the ecological decline of another UN-designated park on the edge of Alberta’s oil sands.

The World Heritage Committee is set to weigh 36 nominations for possible inclusion on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization’s list of prominent cultural and natural sites when it meets for its 43rd session June 30 to July 10 in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Among those up for consideration is Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, a sacred Blackfoot site in southeastern Alberta that is known for its sandstone cliffs, hoodoo formations and Indigenous petroglyphs that predate contact with Europeans.

The nod comes as the committee’s technical body reiterated concerns about the ecological health of Wood Buffalo National Park, an existing Heritage site that covers an area bigger than Denmark along the Alberta-Northwest Territories boundary.

Wood Buffalo contains the world’s largest free-roaming wood bison herd and nesting grounds for endangered whooping cranes, as well as ranking among the biggest inland deltas on the planet.

But it faces severe strain from Alberta oil sands mines and hydroelectric projects in British Columbia, including the massive Site C complex currently under construction by BC Hydro.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) told the committee the park’s outstanding universal values remain on a downward trend but stopped short of recommending its removal from the list of World Heritage sites, pending an updated report from Canada due by December, 2020.

Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations with the area’s Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN), said the draft recommendation shows Canada needs to step up conservation efforts if it wants to retain the UN designation.

“It’s sort of giving Canada one more chance,” she said in an interview from Baku ahead of the meeting.

The MCFN warned UNESCO of acute pressures in 2014, and a subsequent independent monitoring mission called the scale of threats faced by the park “exceptional.” In response, Ottawa has pledged to study cumulative effects of industrial development in the region and committed about $28-million to restoration efforts.

But in a written submission to the committee, the Switzerland-based IUCN noted that Canada ignored a request for a detailed study of effects from Site C and also expressed concern that a strip mine proposed by Teck Resources Ltd. would bring oil sands development within 30 kilometres of the park’s southern edge.

The industry is also working with the Alberta and federal governments to craft regulations that would permit the release of treated effluent from sprawling tailings ponds containing the byproducts of oil sands mining into the Athabasca River.

“Considerably more effort will be needed to reverse the negative trends, at a time when climate change combined with upstream industrial developments and resource extraction are intensifying,” the scientific body said.

In southern Alberta, efforts to designate Writing-on-Stone date back to a note included in a 1997 park management plan, park supervisor Aaron Domes said.

In 2000, a group of Blackfoot elders joined the push. The park was later added to Canada’s tentative list of World Heritage sites and earned designation as a National Historic Site.

The current nomination was submitted in January, 2018. A decision could come as soon as July 6. About 60,000 people visit the park every year, he said.

Martin Heavy Head, a Blackfoot elder, said Writing-on-Stone sits in the middle of Blackfoot territory that once spanned a vast area from the North Saskatchewan River south to Wyoming, and east from the Rockies as far as Manitoba.

The rock art was said to foretell the future. “It’s always been considered a very sacred place,” he said, used by travellers and warriors alike since time immemorial.

“It just shows to the world how long we’ve been in this place. That’s one of the landmarks that shows very plainly how long we’ve been here. All the scientific proof is there."

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