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Parks and Protected Areas in the Athabasca Watershed
Watershed Issues | parks and protected areas and watershed | April 2024

Petra Rowell, Executive Director, Athabasca Watershed Council

In 2022, the Government of Alberta announced the expansion of the province’s newest protected area – Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland, an area south and east of Wood Buffalo National Park that partially lays in the Athabasca River watershed. This same year, the United Nations Biodiversity conference in Montreal called for at least 30% of terrestrial and inland water areas to be effectively conserved by 2030, as part of the Global Biodiversity Framework.  

These announcements made me curious about the parks and protected areas found across the Athabasca watershed. How many are there? Where are they? And collectively, what proportion of the Athabasca watershed do they make up? Note that we consider both the Athabasca River sub-basin and the Lake Athabasca sub-basin as the area we are interested in, making up the entire ‘Athabasca watershed’. Fortunately, there are some excellent GIS people at Alberta Environment and Protected Areas, who in addition to updating our base map, also provided me with a list of parks and protected areas and their size within the Athabasca watershed.  

So, it turns out there are 115 federal and provincial parks and protected areas that have at least a portion of their area in the Athabasca watershed, making up about 15% of this basin. Some of these areas are very large, like Jasper National Park (9322 km2) and Willmore Wilderness Area (1053 km2) in the Athabasca headwaters; or the Richardson (3028 km2), Marguerite River (1961 km2) and Dillon River (1290 km2) Wildland Parks in the lower Athabasca. These 5 areas account for about 73% of the parks and protected areas in the Athabasca watershed. The remaining 100 areas are smaller, ranging from 790 km2 (Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland) to just 0.16 km2 (Beaver Lake Provincial Recreation Area).  

Under the federal jurisdiction of Parks Canada, there are three national parks that touch the Athabasca watershed. Jasper National Park (JNP) and a Heritage River designation protects the first 162 kms of the Athabasca River and its surrounding drainage. This watershed accounts for about 83% of JNP’s land base or 9,322 km2. A very small portion of Banff National Park (0.302km2) also lays in the Athabasca watershed. And finally, the Athabasca River forms the eastern boundary of Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) with a very small portion (399 km2, less than 1%) of the southeast corner of this very large World Heritage Site, within the Athabasca watershed. 

Provincially, there are 8 different classifications of parks and protected areas in Alberta. The Athabasca watershed does not have any Heritage Rangelands or Wilderness Areas. We do have ecological reserves, wildland provincial parks, provincial parks, provincial recreation areas and natural areas. Special legislation also created the Willmore Wilderness Area Park. You can find all of Alberta’s parks on this interactive map. Federal and provincial parks and protected areas in the Athabasca watesshed are summarized in the table below:  

Type Purpose No. Area (km2) Comments 
Federal Parks Created under the Canada National Parks Act for the benefit, education and enjoyment of current and future Canadians.  9721.3 Mostly JNP, with a small area of BNP and WBNP.  
Ecological Reserves To preserve and protect natural heritage in an undisturbed state for scientific research and education. Established under the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act.  89.7 Includes Whitemud Falls, Athabasca Dunes, Crow Lake, Goose Mountain and Homes Crossing Sandhills 
Wildland Provincial Parks To preserve and protect natural heritage and provide opportunities for backcountry recreation. Established under the Provincial Parks Act.   Additionally, about 1/3 of the Lake Athabasca watershed, an area of about 6483 km2 within Alberta, is covered by the Kazan, Colin-Cornwall Lakes and Fidler Grey willow Wildland Provincial Parks.  18     3  9425.6      1944.9 Largest is Richardson Wildland (3028 km2); smallest is Lesser Slave Lake (35 km2
Provincial Parks To preserve Alberta’s natural heritage. Support outdoor recreation, heritage tourism and natural heritage appreciation activities that depend on and are compatible with the natural environment. Established under the Provincial Parks Act.  16 503.7 Largest (119.3 km2) Lakeland PP; smallest Pembina PP (1.763 km2
Provincial Recreation Areas Support outdoor recreation and tourism. Provide access to lakes, rivers, reservoirs and adjacent Crown land. Established under Provincial Parks Act.  33 55.5  Poacher’s Landing is the largest at  17.5 km2 but average size less than 2 km2
Natural Areas To preserve and protect sites of local significance while providing opportunities for low-impact recreation and nature appreciation activities. Established under the Wilderness Areas, Ecological Reserves, Natural Areas and Heritage Rangelands Act36 102.6  Largest is Wildhay Glacial Cascades at 24.7 km2 but average size just under 3 km2
Willmore Wilderness Area Park Created by the Willmore Wilderness Park Act for the use of the people of Alberta for their benefit, education and enjoyment, to be maintained for the enjoyment of future generations. 1053.1  
Total Parks and Protected Areas in the Athabasca watershed 115 22,896.4 ~15%  

A final note, this quick synopsis does not include lands in trust or under conservation easement, municipal parks or commercial campsites. Nor does it include Crown lands that are available for recreation and random camping, or other initiatives for protecting and conserving biodiversity through tools like policies, land use plans and industry best practices. And finally, it does not provide any information on the state of biodiversity, parks and protected areas in the Athabasca watershed. For more information about this topic, check out the many conservation and other non-government organizations working to protect Alberta’s wild spaces. To get you started, here are a few listed in the resources below. 

For further information:  

Alberta Conservation Association (and ACA Conservation Sites

Alberta Wilderness Association 

Athabasca Recreational Trails Association 

Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society 

Cows and Fish  

Foothills Recreation Management Association  

Friends of Jasper National Park 

Nature Alberta 

Northern Lights Fly Fishers (Trout Unlimited Canada – Northern Chapter)