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A Tale of Trial and Protection


The Athabasca Sand Dunes almost defy belief. Approaching them from any direction by air, one first has to cross a huge expanse of Boreal Shield ecosystems that feature rock, jack pine and spruce forests, muskeg, rivers and lakes for hours at a time. And then suddenly, on the south shore of Saskatchewan's largest lake, Athabasca, lies our largest "desert".

Stretching for about 100 kilometres along the south shore of Lake Athabasca, they are Canada's largest active sand surfaced landscape, and the most northerly sand dune area in the country. They also contain 52 rare plant species, including nine plant species unique to only this area.

The Athabasca Sand Dunes have likely been recognized as a significant natural area for as long as they have been known. Local aboriginal peoples of the Athabasca Denesuline (Dené Nations) have a legend about the creation of the area by a giant beaver, which befits the mystical nature of the landscape. People from the community of Fond du Lac have a Reserve in the dunes, and still engage in a wide variety of traditional resource uses in the area.

Early documentation on natural values comes from the International Biological Programme (IBP) which indicated a need for protective designation in 1969. This raised interest in the area, and lead to a proposal by the Saskatchewan Natural History Society (Nature Saskatchewan) in 1973, and a subsequent provincial government proposal for the establishment of a protected area, which failed for lack of community support.


- Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park
  Photo by Peter Jonker


This initial proposal did lead to significant research into the natural values of the area. This included an extensive study by the Saskatchewan Research Council in 1981, investigations by Saskatchewan Environment into a potential Ecological Reserve in 1982, identification by Parks Canada as one of five Saskatchewan natural sites of Canadian significance in 1985, and recommendation as a wilderness park in the Provincial Parks System Plan, released in 1990.

The passage of a new Parks Act for the province in 1986 provided a mechanism to pursue designation of the dunes, and in October 1988 the area was designated as the Athabasca Sand Dunes Park Land Reserve. After four years of public consultation, on August 24, 1992, an area encompassing 1925 square kilometres was officially designated as the Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park, only the second wilderness park in our parks system.

And still the journey is not over. While the area does have the protection of the Parks Act, it is experiencing increased use, in a setting of fragile natural landscapes, no facilities for visitors, and infrequent monitoring. In addition, there are concerns by the people of Fond du Lac over management policies, and the lack of benefits to the community of this park that is still part of their traditional lands and activities. Discussions are ongoing.


CPAWS Work in the Forest
An overview of CPAWS Saskatchewan's conservation work in the forest.
The Athabasca Land Use Plan
Learn about the largest regional planning initiative ever undertaken in Saskatchewan.
The Athabasca Region
Learn about the "Land of Little Sticks."


Tazin Lake and Selwyn Lake Upland Ecoregions
Learn about Saskatchewan's northern-most ecoregions.
Cree Lake
coming soon...
Special Places
Read stories about special places in Saskatchewan including the Athabasca Region.