Ottawa is pledging to weigh cumulative impacts on Northern Alberta’s Peace-Athabasca delta in reviews of major energy projects as part of efforts to retain the World Heritage status of Canada’s largest national park.
The federal Liberal government unveiled a long-awaited action plan Friday to address international concerns about the failing ecological health of Wood Buffalo National Park.
It comes almost two years after the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) warned that the park was in danger of losing its World Heritage status owing to poor management.
The 96-page action plan identifies 140 measures, including a commitment that all future environmental assessments under federal jurisdiction consider specific and cumulative effects on the park.
Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations with the region’s Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN), said it’s a positive step that will ensure companies study water flows on the Athabasca and Peace Rivers when they propose new projects.
“But it’s still not clear there’s going to be enough water to meet the delta’s ecological needs," she said Friday by phone.
Concerns over low water flows date back years to construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam on the Peace River in the 1960s.
More recently, BC Hydro’s massive Site C dam did not include an assessment of cumulative impacts, and the federal government said it lacked authority to launch a new study, despite an earlier UNESCO recommendation to do so.
Environment and Climate Change Canada has since told the joint review panel studying Teck Resources Ltd.’s proposed Frontier oil sands mine to consider cumulative effects of the project, which is located about 30 kilometres from the park’s southern edge.
Ottawa says it expects a response to its plan when the World Heritage Committee holds its 43rd session in Baku, Azerbaijan, June 30 to July 10.
Ms. Lepine, whose community has signed a support agreement with Teck for the Frontier mine, said the federal blueprint lacks funding commitments and timelines for implementing its many recommendations. “We need to see it backed up,” she said.
“We just need more certainty that Canada’s actually going to take action, instead of just saying all the things that they’re going to do.”
Last year’s federal budget set aside $1.3-billion over five years for national parks. About $28-million of that was for Wood Buffalo.
The sprawling park straddles the Alberta-Northwest Territories boundary and covers some 45,000 square kilometres.
It’s home to one of the world’s largest free-roaming wood bison herds, nesting grounds for endangered whooping cranes and also ranks as one of the world’s largest inland deltas.
The park was named Canada’s eighth UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, but has come under severe strain from developments both new and old.
The MCFN warned UNESCO of acute pressures in 2014, and a subsequent independent monitoring mission called the scale of threats “exceptional.”
A study last summer commissioned by Parks Canada concluded the delta’s ecological health is getting worse, citing impacts from climate change, as well as low water flows that result from B.C. hydro dams, and heavy industry in Alberta’s oil sands region.
In response to those concerns, the federal government said it plans to boost park staffing and increase scientific monitoring of tailings from the oil sands. There are also plans to “enhance” spring flooding to help restore the delta’s lakes and streams.
But Ms. Lepine questioned that plan, noting there is nothing in existing water management frameworks to compel releases from major hydro reservoirs in B.C.
“That’s an example of what we would like to see in the action plan that’s not there,” she said.