Canada has eight months to put forward a detailed plan to improve the health of its largest national park or risk having the United Nations add it to a list of world heritage sites considered to be in danger.
Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories, has been a world heritage site since 1983. In March the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization issued a report warning the park was at risk from industrial development, including oil sands and hydroelectric dams, and would be designated "in danger" if Canada didn't implement 17 recommendations to save the park.
The park is home to one of the world's last self-regulating bison herds and is the only remaining nesting ground of the endangered whooping crane.
The UNESCO report, based on a visit to the park by experts last fall, came after a complaint from the Mikisew Cree First Nation in 2014. The UN agency's world heritage committee recommendations include improved staffing, better collaboration with indigenous partners on the park's management and a risk management review of oil sands tailing ponds, focused on the impact on the Peace-Athabasca delta.
Now it has set a deadline of February 2018 for Canada to show its plan to meet those recommendations and another deadline of December 2018 to show progress on that plan.
Mark Gustafson, a lawyer representing Mikisew Cree First Nation, told the Canadian Press on Tuesday that "in danger" is a designation usually given only to sites affected by war and government breakdown, such as the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria and Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"It would mean Canada has failed to protect some of the world's most critical natural habitat," said Gustafson.
He said he thinks UNESCO will begin to move on such a designation as early as next summer if there is no action plan in place by the end of February.
NDP environment critic Linda Duncan said Tuesday she is livid that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in the House of Commons last week the government is working with 11 indigenous communities on a co-operative management framework.
"Not only has she not consulted with them, she isn't even returning their phone calls," said Duncan.
In a letter to McKenna this week, Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations for the Mikisew, said the community hasn't been able to even get a single meeting with Parks Canada to start talking, nor could it even get information on who at Parks Canada is working on the file.
The only recommendation Ottawa did not accept was to do another environmental assessment of the Site C hydro dam project in British Columbia, arguing the project had already been assessed and approved. The UNESCO committee said it was dismayed by that decision.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, McKenna said she welcomed the UNESCO review as "an important reminder that we must always work to protect Canada's special places."
Conservative environment critic Ed Fast said Canada should look at the recommendations, but not feel beholden to them because Canada is a sovereign nation that should be able to make its own decisions about the balance between development and environmental protection.
"It's almost as if UNESCO is issuing a threat to Canada, which is unfortunate," said Fast.
He said shutting down Site C is "insanity" and he hopes the government holds to its resistance against that recommendation.