Over 50 species of grass, wildflowers, shrubs and trees native to the region will be produced in approximately 14,000 square feet of greenhouse just north of Chetwynd, British Columbia this summer.
It is good news for the natural resource sector and local residents with concerns about maintaining the ecological integrity of the area, not to mention the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations who are about to work with the mining and oil and gas industries in a new way as equal owners of the native plant nursery.
"My company's facilitating the development of a new native plant nursery business that's being called Twin Sisters Native Plants," said Mike Keefer of Keefer Ecological Services.
The idea actually stems from a similar project with Ktunaxa First Nation in his hometown of Cranbrook, B.C.
"We opened a native plant nursery down here that's now called Tipi Mountain Native Plants," he explained. "And we have 24,000 square feet of greenhouses. And what we do is we grow native species for use in, primarily, reclamation or ecological restoration. Down south, our biggest market are the coalmines.
"Twin Sisters' biggest market will be the Walter Energy mine, and then other coal mines, plus, of course, the oil and gas sector."
Walter Energy has been part of the project as a significant funding partner and potential customer from the very start.
Their operations in the area include the Brule coalmine 45 kilometres south of Chetwynd, the Willow Creek coal mine 45 kilometres west of Chetwynd and the Wolverine coalmine 25 kilometres south of nearby Tumbler Ridge.
Walter Energy has committed to using locally sourced native plants for their reclamation projects, particularly those associated with the Brule Mine.
"The need for these plants is very substantial," said Keefer, noting that Tipi Mountain Native plants virtually sells out every year, its customers including BC Hydro and mining companies operating in both the south and the northeast.
"I would envision this new nursery, with its current size, to almost sell out just meeting the needs of the coal sector alone," he added.
That suggests the long-term potential of the business could be huge, particularly considering the growing demand from the oil and gas industry for their reclamation work.
"Shell does already use them on a number of their projects," said Keefer.
"Over the years, Shell has taken representatives from First Nations, members of the community and environmental groups to our active reclamation sites to share our work and seek their feedback," said Shell Canada spokesperson Stephen Doolan.
"Shell plans reclamation activities early in our projects with the goal of returning the land as close to its original state," he continued. "With that in mind, it would make sense that Shell would use some of the same native plant species available at local greenhouses in our Groundbirch reclamation activities."
Groundbirch sits between Dawson Creek and Chetwynd.
"They've moved away from traditional reclamation," Keefer said of Shell. "I believe many of the other companies are ready to follow."
Traditional reclamation techniques involve planting non-native grasses and legumes via a process known as hydroseeding, which is simply spraying a mixture of seeds and mulch over an area. The usual result is a manmade grassland.
"And those grasslands are known to very much change the migrations of wildlife and cause long-term shifts in ecosystems," said Keefer.
That is an important consideration when movement of ungulates such as deer and moose into caribou territory, following the trail of grasslands perfect for grazing, are being examined as a contributing factor to declining caribou numbers. Wolves are thought to follow the deer and moose into those areas and subsequently prey on the caribou as well.
"Now that we have mountain and boreal caribou as a major issue, we really don't want to be luring the deer and elk into ecosystems they weren't previously found," said Keefer.
"What we try to do with the native species approach is mimic what nature does following disturbances. So, the end results are ecosystems that closely match what was there before the industrial disturbance."
Using native plants for reclamation could also help correct the invasive and noxious weed problem that is growing in the northeast.
"Very often lower grades of seed are used for the hydroseeding, which include invasive species," said Keefer.
"Some of the invasive species include timothy grass, alfalfa, Kentucky bluegrass, Canada bluegrass, smooth broom - these are part of some of these reclamation mixes."
Additionally, the manmade grasslands created with those seed mixes tend to remain as grassland rather than gradually turn into forest typical of that site because of the amount of grazing by ungulates.
"If it was a forested site [and] you plant the right plants, it should go back to forest," said Keefer.
"Many of the invasive species need full sun," he explained. "So, what we're doing is essentially helping nature create the shade that will repel those species."
"The first step is to establish a greenhouse [where] we can grow native plants that can be used in ecological restoration," said Rick Publicover, the lands manager with the Saulteau First Nation, also remarking the potential use of the plants goes beyond reclamation work in the oil and gas and mining industries to work being done in the forestry and wind energy sectors as well.
"It crosses all resource sectors," he said.
"One of the issues that affects First Nations is, when a mine goes forward, often the impacts are very long term," he continued. "And so we want to make sure that [we] re-establish what we call functioning ecosystems."
That isn't just to benefit wildlife, but also to ensure that the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations can keep practicing their traditions.
"That can be from a gathering perspective in terms of berries or medicinal plants or other food plants that are used by First Nations," said Publicover. "And so that's what we're trying to target in terms of the growth of these plants. And have them incorporated into ecological restoration plans by companies."
Publicover is also enthusiastic about the educational opportunities.
"There are no formal education programs for native plant nurseries," he said.
It looks as though that is about to change, however, as the two First Nations have begun working with mining companies Walter Energy and Teck, Keefer Ecological and their Tipi Mountain Native Plant Nursery, Royal Roads University and Northern Lights College to develop a curriculum for a native plant horticulture program.
The program would likely include subjects such as seed identification, collection, storage and stratification, as well as the other essentials of maintain a garden and a greenhouse.
The First Nations and the mining companies would be contributing funding for the education program, as well as the Investment Agriculture Foundation of British Columbia.
The nursery could also provide educational opportunities for young people in the region, particularly First Nations children who want to explore the traditions of their people by learning from elders at the nursery about the food and medicinal uses of native plants that grow in the region.
Another initiative is an ethnobotany project that will bring together information about the traditional importance of the plant species.
The economic potential is considerable.
"We're hoping to train probably 10 to 15 people to work in the nursery," said Publicover, noting that the regular staff will only be about half a dozen people, but additional staff will be necessary during the busy season.
"We're working with Walter Energy, as well as other companies, in terms of developing [a system] where we survey areas prior to mine development to look at what species are growing out there, developing ecological restoration plans that include strategies for enhancement of certain wildlife species," he continued.
"Developing businesses around ecological restoration."
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