It takes a lot of time for bare earth to transform into a forest again, but a handful of oil companies are doing their best to speed up the process.
The project has been dubbed Faster Forests by the members of the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI), a group of oil sands producers that includes ConocoPhillips Canada, Nexen, Shell Canada, Statoil Canada, Suncor Energy and Total E&P Canada, and it is a significant change from past practices where lease sites would commonly be left to reclaim themselves without human intervention.
“Where it makes sense, we would have left sites for natural regeneration,” said Jeremy Reid, an environmental specialist with Nexen and project manager with the Land Stewardship Working Group of OSLI, discussing the work that began in 2009.
Reid noted that companies would also plant grass seed in cases where it was necessary for erosion control.
“And there was a large push to spread mulch in the past,” he added.
The industry has been moving away from that practice because it accomplished the opposite of that which OSLI is attempting to achieve with Faster Forests.
“In cooperation with the government, we’ve determined that mulch isn’t a good way to go with these sites because it inhibits vegetation growth,” said Reid, remarking that a mulch layer greater than five centimeters in depth is detrimental to regeneration.
At the same time that OSLI companies began to move away from using mulch, they were discussing how they could quicken the pace of reclamation on their lease sites.
“And planting trees, where it makes sense, is an option that we’re using,” said Reid.
They began by planting commercial forestry species.
“Because they’re readily available,” Reid explained.
“The local forestry company grows tons of them for planting every year,” he continued. “So, we would sort of piggy-back on their planting programs.”
Initially, they were primarily planting common and abundant boreal tree species – poplar and white spruce.
“The strategy we made,” said Reid, “is to expand the number of species we’re planting. So, we’re not just planting those forestry species. We’re planting other native trees like black spruce, birch. And then a bunch of shrub species as well to more closely mimic the natural ecosystem.”
OSLI companies use the Alberta Vegetation Inventory to help them return those sites to what Reid calls their “pre-disturbance forest condition.”
They also take wildlife into account.
“In the wildlife context,” said Reid, “we are evaluating where we plant with another program we have called LEAP (Landscape Ecological Assessment and Planning), which uses forestry modeling to model the forest after we’ve planted these sites.”
The geospatial database and modeling project can allow OSLI members to get a glimpse of their reclamation work anywhere from five years to fifty years in the future, which can help them determine what additional work needs to be done or what sites are priorities for reclamation work.
It is closely tied to another project, the Algar Caribou Habitat Restoration, which is focused on reclaiming linear features such as seismic lines in the interest of protecting caribou populations.
Linear features are one of the contributing factors to declining caribou numbers because they provide avenues for predators such as wolves to easily prey on the ungulates.
It is still too early to be certain of any benefits to wildlife stemming from this reclamation work.
“We work with the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute,” said Reid. “They’re monitoring around our area. But we also have a project specific wildlife monitoring program that, as a regulatory requirement, we report to the government. This work is fairly new to draw meaningful conclusions from that monitoring. But it’s something that we will look to in the future.”
So, for the time being, the main focus is on the plants.
“We’re definitely planting more species every year,” said Reid.
This season was the first time that OSLI planted trees and shrubs grown from seeds they collected from provincially designated seed zones late in the summer of 2011.
That crop, which was raised in Alberta Nurseries greenhouses, amounted to 600,000 plants in total.
“This year, we really took control of the program to ensure we are able to plant the number of species and type of species we need to make our reclamation activities more effective,” said Reid.
Shrubs are becoming a greater priority for the project every year. The first shrubs – about 10,000 to 20,000 – were planted in 2011. This year they are planting 300,000 shrubs, partly because they replace fast-growing grasses that are tough competition for the trees where nutrients and water are relatively scarce.
“We’d like to get as many species as we can,” said Reid. “And we’d also like to plant more sites every year.
“That would hopefully mean we plant larger numbers every year wherever it makes sense.”