Mikisew Cree First Nation gets Alberta to protect almost 150,000 hectares of forest

The provincial government announced nearly 150,000 in new parkland. This was made possible because of Indigenous advocacy.

Yesterday, the Alberta government announced the expansion of a park in northeastern Alberta by 143,800 hectares. There seemed to have been quite a bit of confusion since the announcement, so I thought I’d give some background on the park.

Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park was announced in March 2019, just 8 days before NDP leader Rachel Notley dropped the writ, officially launching the 2019 provincial election.

The park borders the southeastern portion of Wood Buffalo National Park and was part of a larger initiative started the year before that had seen the creation of 3 new parks and the expansion of a 4th existing park to make the largest contiguous boreal protected area in the world.

The 2018 announcement created the following 3 new wildland provincial parks:

  • Kazan (659,397 hectares)
  • Richardson (312,068 hectares)
  • Birch River (331,832 hectares)

It also expanded the already existing Birch Mountains Wildland Provincial Park by 1,563 hectares.

Like Kitaskino Nuwenëné, these 4 parks also bordered on Wood Buffalo Nation Park, helping to conserve a total of over 6.7 million hectares of boreal forest in the northeast corner of the province (and into the Northwest Territories).

Except that 2018 announcement wasn’t exclusively the work of the NDP government.

In 2010, the Lower Athabasca Regional Advisory Council approached the provincial government regarding creating the Kazan, Dillon River and Richardson parks, as well as expanding the Birch Mountains park. The council consisted of representatives from municipalities, industry, First Nations, and environmental non-governmental organizations.

Two years later, the PC government completed the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, which—among other things—identified these areas as having “low economic potential”.

For the following 4 years, the PC government and NDP government collectively spent $45 million on purchasing bitumen mining and metallic mineral leases in the areas that would eventually become the above parks.

Finally, in 2018, the NDP convinced the Tallcree First Nation to relinquish its timber license and quota in the A9 forestry management unit. As part of the relinquishment, Tallcree was compensated with funding support through the Nature Conservancy of Canada, as a result of contributions from Syncrude and the provincial and federal governments. In return for their contribution, Syncrude received “conservation offsets” from the government, which allowed them to “offset future industrial activities”.

Two months later, the NDP announced the new expansion.

Less than a year after that, they announced the Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park, which at the time was 161,880 hectares in size. This park was initially proposed by the Mikisew Cree First Nation as early as 2016. It wasn’t included in the 2018 announcement because Teck, Cenovus, Imperial Oil, and Value Creation Group owned bitumen mining leases in the area. The latter sold their leases to the Mikisew Nation, and the other three relinquished their leases without financial compensation.

Here’s a map of the 2019 Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland boundaries relative to Wood Buffalo and the other parks.

Kitaskino Nuwenëné is the neon green highlighted toward the bottom of the map. Birch River borders it on the west and Richardson borders it on the east. Kazan is in the top portion of the map, bordering Wood Buffalo to the east.

The announcement made yesterday increases Kitaskino Nuwenëné’s size by 143,800 hectares, nearly doubling it. See this map:

You can see the expanded area in the blue striped shaded area.

Keep in mind that this announcement wasn’t just the doing of the UCP government.

This new land wasn’t included in the 2019 announcement of Kitaskino Nuwenëné’s creation because much of it was tied up in mineral rights held by Athabasca Oil Corporation and leased land held by Cenovus. The provincial governments had been working with the companies since the original announcement to reclaim this land.

Shortly after the 2019 announcement, Mikisew representatives were already saying that more land needed to be added in order to have an effective full buffer to prevent resource extraction too close to Wood Buffalo. Melody Lepine, who was Mikise’s industry relations director at the time, estimated the need for 150,000 more hectares to make that buffer feasible, which she identified as being west of the Athabasca River.

Yesterday’s announcement comes close to making that full buffer possible, thanks to the advocacy work of Mikisew and others.

I do have one final thing about something Jason Kenney, premier for Alberta, said in yesterday’s announcement: “Today’s announcement creates the largest protected forest area in Alberta history.”

I mean, sure, it’s technically true. But the area was already the largest protected forest area in Alberta’s history for nearly 3 years. They just made it 2.1% bigger.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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