1.         Wood Buffalo National Park (Canada) (N 256)

Year of inscription on the World Heritage List  1983

Criteria  (vii)(ix)(x)

Year(s) of inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger  N/A

Previous Committee Decisions  see page https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/256/documents/

International Assistance

Requests approved: 0
Total amount approved: USD 0
For details, see page https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/256/assistance/

UNESCO Extra-budgetary Funds

N/A

Previous monitoring missions

September/October 2016: Joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission; August 2022: Joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission

Factors affecting the property identified in previous reports

Illustrative material  see page https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/256/

Conservation issues presented to the World Heritage Committee in 2023

On 1 February 2022, the State Party submitted a state of conservation report, available at https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/256/documents and summarized below, responding to Committee Decision 44 COM 7B.190, and having incorporated the perspectives of government and indigenous partners, focusing on the period from 2019 when the Action Plan (AP) was developed to December 2021:

On 15 March 2022, the State Party submitted further information to officially announce the expansion of Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park (KNWPP).

The joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission took place from 18 to 26 August 2022 and the report is available at https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/256/documents/.

Since the mission, the World Heritage Centre has received information from third parties on the 10-year review of the on the seepage of OSPW from tailings ponds at the Kearl oil sands project, situated near the Athabasca River, 75 km upstream from the property. This information was transmitted to the State Party by letters dated 14 February and 9 March 2023. A reply was received from the State Party on 6 April 2023.

In a letter dated 16 June 2023 to the State Party, UNESCO expressed its solidarity with the citizens of Canada, its federal government, and the governments of all the areas, including Wood Buffalo National Park and Nahanni National Park, affected by the devastating fires and extreme weather conditions and their far-reaching consequences.

Analysis and Conclusions of the World Heritage Centre and IUCN

The Reactive Monitoring mission concluded that most threats to the OUV of the property remain, in particular:

Evidence from the SEA conducted in 2018 shows that current trends for key attributes remain negative and that the state of conservation of the PAD, which hosts many of the attributes underpinning the OUV of the property, remains of particular concern.

The 2022 mission acknowledged that in response to the recommendations of the 2016 mission, the State Party has developed and is implementing a structured AP with the aim of reversing the current downward trends in some of the desired outcomes. Considering that its implementation only started in 2019, the mission noted that it was too early to assess the extent to which the AP will succeed in reversing the current negative trends and restoring the OUV of the property, including the ecological integrity of the PAD.

The mission observed important progress in the implementation of some parts of the AP, in particular efforts to strengthen partnerships and move towards co-management of the property with the indigenous rightsholders, the creation of additional protected areas to the south of the property to act as a buffer and better protect the values of the property, measures to improve the conservation of the Roland Lake Bison herd, and work on the development of an Integrated Research and Monitoring Programme, using both science and indigenous knowledge.

Significant effort and investment are also being made to develop a hydrodynamic model a functional modelling platform, which can inform decision-making, will not be available before 2024 and the mission concluded that progress in hydrodynamic model development to date has not yet resulted in concrete measures to restore the ecological and hydrological integrity of the PAD.

Major concerns remain about the lack of progress in addressing cumulative impacts of industrial developments around the property. Expansion of existing oil sands projects has continued without full consideration of the potential impacts on the OUV of the property. A systematic risk assessment of tailings ponds in the Alberta Oil Sands region, focusing on the PAD, has not yet started. New proposals to allow the release of treated OSPW into the Athabasca River are extremely concerning. The Federal Minister for Environment and Climate Change assured the mission that OSPW releases would only be allowed if the released water was treated to a standard of ‘drinking water quality’, while other options were also being considered to dispose of OSPW accumulated over decades of oil sands development. In this context, the recent confirmation of seepage of OSPW from tailings ponds at the Kearl oil sands project is extremely alarming and further demonstrates the potential impact of the tailing ponds on the OUV of the property and on the livelihoods of indigenous communities, while highlighting the urgency of addressing this threat.

The mission considered that efforts to address the multiple threats to the OUV of the property will need to be sustained beyond the current timeframe of the AP and that more substantial funding will need to be mobilized. While the AP is ambitious in some respects, the mission considered it needs to be strengthened in other areas. The mission proposed 17 priority recommendations to improve the AP and address current weaknesses.

Based on the findings of the mission, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN conclude that the OUV of the property continues to face significant ascertained and potential threats, in particular as a result of changes in the hydrology of the PAD exacerbated by the impacts of climate change and industrial developments around the property. The AP should be further strengthened based on the recommendations of the mission. Moreover, financial support for its implementation needs to be sustained beyond its current timeframe until 2026. It is further recommended that a new joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission be invited in 2026 to assess whether the current downward trends and observed degradation of the OUV of the property have been reversed and whether the property meets the conditions for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger, in line with Paragraph 180 of the Operational Guidelines.

Decision Adopted: 45 COM 7B.22

The World Heritage Committee,

  1. Having examined Document WHC/23/45.COM/7B.Add,
  2. Recalling Decisions 39 COM 7B.18, 41 COM 7B.2, 43 COM 7B.1 and 44 COM 7B.190 adopted at its 39th (Bonn, 2015), 41st (Krakow, 2017), 43rd (Baku, 2019) and extended 44th (Fuzhou/online, 2021) sessions respectively,
  3. Notes with concern the conclusion of the 2022 joint World Heritage Centre/IUCN Reactive Monitoring mission that the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property continues to face significant ascertained and potential threats, in particular as a result of changes in the hydrology of the Peace Athabasca Delta (PAD) exacerbated by the impacts of climate change and of the industrial developments around the property;
  4. Acknowledges that the State Party has developed and is implementing a structured Action Plan with the aim of reversing the current downward trends in some of the desired outcomes linked to the attributes of the OUV, and notes the conclusion of the 2022 mission that it is too early to assess how successful the Action Plan will be in restoring the OUV of the property, including the ecological integrity of the PAD;
  5. Welcomes the progress made in implementing parts of the Action Plan, including efforts to move towards co-management of the property with the indigenous rightsholders, the creation of additional protected areas to the south of the property, the measures taken to improve the conservation of the Roland Lake Bison herd, and the work on developing an Integrated Research and Monitoring Programme;
  6. Appreciates the ongoing work to develop a hydrologic model to understand the flows required to deliver environmental benefits to the PAD, but expresses concern that a functional modelling platform, which can inform decision-making, will not be available before 2024 and that, to date, no operational strategy or protocol for implementing potential water releases or control structures that might be proposed based on the outcomes of the hydrologic model has been agreed;
  7. Reiterates its utmost concern about the lack of progress in addressing the cumulative impacts of industrial developments around the property, the continued expansion of existing oil sands projects without full consideration of the potential impacts on the OUV of the property, the continued absence of an adequate risk assessment for large tailings ponds upstream of the property despite evidence of major risks, including seepage as well as proposals under consideration to allow the release of treated oil sands processed water (OSPW) into the Athabasca River;
  8. Requests the State Party to implement all recommendations of the 2022 mission to further strengthen the Action Plan and its implementation, including to:
    1. Strengthen efforts to transition to a genuine partnership with indigenous rightsholders in the governance and management of the property,
    2. Complete hydrodynamic modelling and environmental flows assessment,
    3. Ensure that no further dam projects on the Peace River are approved, including the proposed Amisk Project, until sufficient evaluation tools are in place to evaluate impacts on the hydrology of the PAD,
    4. Urgently establish a sound decision-making mechanism for ecological flow releases,
    5. Decide, before 2026, on a set of concrete mitigation measures to correct the impacts of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam and other alterations to the hydrology of the PAD and agree on operational strategies and interjurisdictional protocols for the implementation of the adopted mitigation measures, together with a sufficient budget for their implementation,
    6. Conduct an independent systematic risk assessment of the tailings ponds of the Alberta Oil Sands region, with a focus on risks to the PAD, before the end of 2024,
    7. Re-evaluate and adapt collaborative, systematic, science-based monitoring of oil sands impacts on the Athabasca River and PAD to ensure sufficient parameters, sampling design, and protocols are employed to detect impacts,
    8. Develop, before 2026, a clear, consensus-based strategy consistent with precautionary principles for the reclamation of tailing ponds, including the treatment and disposal of OSPW, which guarantees protection of the water quality of the Athabasca River and the PAD and avoids any impact on the OUV of the property,
    9. Ensure that all major development projects in the PAD watershed, including all oil sands mining extension projects, are subject to federal impact assessments and specifically address potential impacts on the OUV of the property, in line with the Guidance and Toolkit for Impacts Assessments in a World Heritage context,
    10. Ensure that all impact assessments of other projects in the larger landscape around the property that are not subject to federal impact assessment and that are under the responsibility of the Government of Alberta fully consider the OUV of the property and the concerns of indigenous rightsholders beyond the direct project footprint,
    11. Further strengthen the monitoring of flagship species, in particular the whooping crane and the wood Bison,
    12. Continue efforts to create a buffer zone under the World Heritage Convention around the property,
    13. Revise the 10-year Management Plan based on an agreed indigenous-led vision for a shared governance model for Wood Buffalo National Park and integrating strategies to address the key conservation concerns of the property,
    14. Further streamline the implementation of the Action Plan, including by improving inter-agency coordination, defining clear impact indicators, ensuring long-term and multiannual support and funding for capacity-building for indigenous rightsholders to enable full and effective participation, and ensuring that appropriate budget allocations are made for its implementation;
  9. Also notes the recommendation of the mission not to inscribe the property on the List of World Heritage in Danger at this stage to allow more time to implement the Action Plan updated with the above recommendations and also notes that a new Reactive Monitoring mission in 2026 would allow to assess whether sufficient progress has been made to reverse the current downward trends and avert further degradation of the OUV of the property, and whether the property meets the conditions for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger;
  10. Also requests the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2024, an updated Action Plan taking into account the recommendations of the 2022 mission;
  11. Finally requests the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre by 1 December 2024 an updated report on the state of conservation of the property and the implementation of the recommendations of the 2022 Reactive Monitoring mission, including the systematic risk assessment of the tailing ponds in the Alberta Oil Sands region, for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 47th session.