UNESCO asks Canada to check impact of oil sands projects on national park

UNESCO asks Canada to check impact of oil sands projects on national park

Aerial view of the park. (Image courtesy of Parks Canada)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is calling Canadian authorities to conduct a strategic environmental assessment of Wood Buffalo National Park, the country’s largest, to determine the impact of oil sands projects on its wildlife and vegetation.

UNESCO has also urged Ottawa to halt development projects that would be difficult to reverse until a full review has been conducted, The Globe and Mail reports.

The U.N. body is also seeking permission to send its own team of researchers to the park, which straddles the border between northern Alberta and The Northwest Territories.

The decision, reached Wednesday at the 39th session of the World Heritage Committee in Bonn, Germany, comes in response to a petition filed by Fort Chipewyan’s Mikisew Cree First Nation last month, asking for help protecting the park from the impact of oil sands development and dam construction in British Columbia.

“We thank the World Heritage Committee for taking Mikisew's concerns seriously in today's decision," Mikisew Chief Steve Courtoreille, said in a statement.

“We look forward to assisting the joint UNESCO/IUCN field mission as it investigates the threats facing Wood Buffalo National Park and the Peace Athabasca Delta in the coming months," Melody Lepine, head of the Mikisew delegation in Bonn, added.

UNESCO asks Canada to check impact of oil sands projects on national park

Courtesy of Parks Canada.

The park, granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1983, is home to a variety of elusive species, including black bears, wolves, moose, foxes and beavers. It is also the summer home and last known site of the whooping crane, the largest North American bird and a critically endangered species. Also, along the southern edge of the park is the world's largest beaver dam, which is approximately 850 metres long.

Other than alleged potential pollution from the oil sands, just south and upstream, the park is also said to face potential threats to its water supply and the endangered whooping crane population.

The Alberta government has said more studies need to be done on whooping cranes' migration routes through the oil sands region before considering action.