Upstream oilsands development is partially to blame for the International Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifying Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) as having the worst conservation outlook in Canada and the second worst in all of North America, according to Kecia Kerr.

“Any sort of oilsands development has to be taken into account when you are thinking about [WBNP],” said the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Northern Alberta chapter. “You can’t really think of them as separate issues. They are basically intertwined because of the fact the park is upstream.”

In its newly-released 2017 World Heritage Outlook, which assesses conservation threats to natural World Heritage sites, WBNP is the only site in North America to receive a “Significant Concern” rating and to have had a deteriorating conservation outlook since the last review in 2014 when IUCN assessed the park to be “Good with Some Concerns.” Only Everglades National Park in Florida received a worse — “Critical” — outlook in North America.

“For a country like Canada, this is something we should be pretty embarrassed about,” Kerr told the Bulletin. “It is the only World Heritage site in North America that has declined in its status since the 2014 report, and it was named a World Heritage site for a lot of pretty amazing reasons.”

She added: “It has this gigantic inland delta, it is the whooping cranes only breeding site, and then there are the bison that are there — the Ronald Lake Bison herd — just south of the park.”

According to Kerr, it is troubling that well-known and massive environmental challenges regarding this area fail to receive their deserved attention despite consistent concerns from stakeholders. For example, water quality and quantity is an issue for the park, which is downstream from major industrial resource development.

“Water quantity is a big issue right now because of the declining water availability on the delta. The delta is essentially drying up and there are a lot of factors there, but oilsands water usage is one of them. Water quality is, of course, another big issue, and cumulative effects that haven’t been really assessed — things like the potential impacts of tailings ponds, and the cumulative impacts of development overall on migratory species.”

Oilsands development along the Athabasca River in Alberta is part of the reason for outlook concerns, according to CPAWS, as is other upstream industrial development along the Peace-Athabasca Delta such as existing and planned hydroelectric dams along the Peace River in British Columbia.

Development and the park cannot be separated, suggested Karr, and even if development is not occurring directly within the park limits, it is nonetheless causing issues for that habitat. Therefore, she believes a systematic assessment of tailings ponds on the park and better monitoring for tailings ponds impacts to be necessary. Further, she told the DOB a “buffer zone” is needed to better protect WBNP.

“So far, there has been a sort of de facto buffer zone. When the park was designated as a world heritage site, buffer zones were not implemented at that time, but they are now. We think that should be taken into account.”

The report suggests the response from government and industry to park deterioration is inadequate given the scale, pace and complexity of challenges. A significant investment to better understand and monitor impacts and risks from industrial development, as well as enhanced water governance across jurisdictions and better First Nations and Métis engagement with regards to management and decision making of national parks and surrounding areas, is needed.

From industry, CPAWS would like to see support for action plan implementation that protects WBNP, as well as more proactive pushes for independent monitoring.

Kerr said: “We are at a risk of losing some really amazing ecological value. World Heritage sites are characterized and basically named on their universal values that are considered to be outstanding relative to the rest of the world. It is something we should be protecting.”

While Wood Buffalo and the Everglades perhaps did not fare well in the IUCN assessment, certainly Canada and the United States overall did. North America has the highest percentage of sites — 90 per cent — either to be deemed “Good” or “Good with Some Concerns,” followed by Oceania (81 per cent), Asia (74 per cent), Europe (63 per cent), Arabia (62 per cent), Africa and South America (both 48 per cent) and Mesoamerica and the Caribbean (45 per cent).