With support from Syncrude, the Tallcree First Nation, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and the federal government, Alberta is establishing the world’s largest contiguous area of protected boreal forest.

The province is formally creating five new and expanded wildland provincial parks that were identified in the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) in 2012. The lands connect with Wood Buffalo National Park and other existing wildland parks to create a total of 67,000 square kilometres of protected area. It is the largest addition to the Alberta parks system in the province’s history.

“This continuous protected area is more than twice the size of Vancouver Island. It is bigger than the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia and it is ten times the size of the greater Toronto area,” Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips told a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.

“Now for most of these parks, which were first identified under the regional planning process back in 2012, industry tenure was compensated years ago, but there was one key piece that remained, and that was the establishment of the Birch River Wildland Provincial Park.”

The area that will now be the Birch River Wildland Provincial Park included land designated as part of the Tallcree First Nation’s timber quota, which gives the community a percentage of the annual allowable cut or a specified timber volume.

Phillips said the province has been working with Tallcree and the NCC on a collaborative plan for the area, which eventually led to a “remarkable agreement” that included the federal government and Syncrude.

Syncrude contributed $2.3 million to help purchase the timber quota, enabling the community to relinquish that interest. While Syncrude will receive a conservation offset for future mining development from the province in return, the land in question is not directly tied to the project’s operations.

“We were presented with an opportunity, and we were thrilled to be a part of this,” Syncrude spokesman Will Gibson told JWN, adding that the area is home to 68 species of conservation concern including three species at risk. This includes wood bison, woodland caribou, Peregrine falcon as well as numerous migratory birds and songbirds.

While it is not currently known how big the offset will be, Gibson said the joint venture expects to apply it in part to its proposed Mildred Lake Extension, a 184,000 bbl/d project currently in the regulatory process that is expected to extend Syncrude’s operations into the 2030s.

“Purchasing this timber quota does provide an offset, but it is one of many things that we are doing to demonstrate responsible development as well as mitigating our environmental impact,” Gibson said.

“With the Mildred Lake Extension we are also using existing extraction and upgrading facilities and no new infrastructure or tailings ponds are going to be required, the bridge will include a wildlife corridor so that animals can travel safely through the area, none of the infrastructure impacts the MacKay River and there is no increase in our import of fresh water from the Athabasca River required.”

For the five new and expanded wildland provincial parks, the Government of Alberta also proposes to enter into cooperative management arrangements with Indigenous communities — an initiative that received praise from McMurray Metis CEO Bill Loutitt, whose traditional territory is part of the plan.

“Over a decade ago, the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, LARP, was developed. The process at times was long and difficult but today’s announcement proves that the LARP process worked and our concerns were heard loud and clear,” Loutitt told Phillips and the news conference.

“A cooperation management agreement with the regional Metis and our First Nations cousins for the new parks is something we requested and you, Minister Phillips, delivered.”

The Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) praised the province and its partners in creation of the new parks, as well as the government’s consultation with First Nations on cooperative management, which it says an important advancement in regional planning, but added there is more work to be done.

“We also urge the government to fulfill its 2016 commitment to create two northwest Alberta wildland parks important to caribou,” AWA conservation specialist Carolyn Campbell said in a statement. “The northwest wildland parks do not conflict with existing industry and it’s time to secure them too.”

AWA added that “it is critical for Alberta to fill the remaining gaps in cumulative effects management of Alberta’s oilsands region: caribou range plans, biodiversity frameworks, access plans and industrial 'footprint’ plans are all years overdue.”

Image: Government of Alberta