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UNESCO issues warning about Wood Buffalo National Park due to dams, development

Last Updated Mar 10, 2017 at 1:20 pm PDT

An United Nations agency has issued a warning about the environmental health of Canada’s largest national park.

In a report released Friday, UNESCO says northern Alberta’s Wood Buffalo National Park is threatened by energy development, hydro dams and poor management. It warns that unless the area is better cared for, the park will be added to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger.

The report acknowledges that the overall condition of the vast park — bigger than the Netherlands — remains good. But it concludes there’s no guarantee that will continue.

“There is long-standing, conceivable and consistent evidence of severe environmental and human health concerns based on both western science and local and indigenous knowledge,” the report says.

“The concerns coincide with the absence of effective and independent mechanisms to analyze and address these concerns at an adequate scale.”

Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna welcomed the report.

“The findings and recommendations contained in this report represent a call to action,” she said in a release. “A true response to this report will only be possible through collaboration.”

UNESCO inspectors visited the park in September and October. They came at the urging of First Nations, who have long expressed concern about the cumulative effects on the Peace-Athabasca Delta of hydro projects in British Columbia, oilsands development in Alberta and climate change, which is already changing the landscape.

“The key issue is the declining water level,” said Melody Lepine of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

“There’s mud flats everywhere and we just can’t get out on the land. When you can’t navigate on our river systems through our delta, it’s preventing us from exercising our rights and passing on our culture.”

Concerns about water levels go back to the construction of B.C. Hydro’s Bennett Dam, built in the 1960s without environmental assessment.

No study has ever been conducted on how much water the delta needs to sustain ecological functions, even as industrial demands increase. Shifting precipitation patterns from climate change are already lowering summer water levels.

B.C. Hydro says the UNESCO report “chose to disregard evidence” that found its Site C project “will have no measurable effect on the Peace-Athabasca Delta.”

It says the report recommends an environmental and social impact assesment for the hydroelectric dam and generating station, but says those have already been done.

The park is also being affected by upstream energy development, the report says.

UNESCO says evidence suggests the oilsands are depositing contaminants in the air, water and land. It says toxins such as mercury are showing up in the food web via bird eggs and fish.

“Governments and industry seem to be unwilling to adequately monitor or accept these claims.”

The report points out one new proposed oilsands mine is near the southern border of the park.

The Alberta government, which is responsible for environmental monitoring in the area and regulation of energy development, was not immediately available for comment.

UNESCO’s report includes 17 recommendations. They include suggestions to work more closely with First Nations, conduct studies on water flow and improve monitoring.

“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.”

Lepine welcomes the recommendations.

“The report seems to capture all the concerns we have. There’s still time to save the delta.”

Wood Buffalo National Park comprises 45,000 square kilometres that straddle the boundary between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The park covers grasslands, wetlands and boreal forests laced with numerous rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds.

It is home to the world’s only breeding ground for endangered whooping cranes as well as to the largest herd of free-ranging wood buffalo left anywhere. It is also the summer habitat and breeding ground for billions of boreal songbirds whose migration routes spread throughout the continent.

It became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1983.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960