Temporary forests flourish faster

Surmont forest reclamation oil sands

When ConocoPhillips Canada wanted to find more effective ways to revegetate areas of the Surmont oil sands lease, they engaged the experts at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) Centre for Boreal Research with a 10-year research funding commitment. The centre develops practical, cost-effective methods and technologies to help oil and gas companies reclaim former facility sites and ensure the long-term health of Canada’s boreal forests. 

At Surmont, a joint venture with Total E&P Canada, ConocoPhillips is investigating the temporary reclamation of an existing facility soil stockpile. Stockpiles are created during the construction of oil sands sites to store surface soils while the site is in use. When they are dismantled, sometimes decades later, the nutrient rich soil is spread back over the facility site to enable forests to re-establish. 
So why bother to reclaim a piece of land only to take it apart later? That’s where the science comes in. Temporary forests set up final reclamation for greater success, explains Amanda Schoonmaker, NSERC Industrial Research Chair for Colleges in Boreal Reclamation and Reforestation at the Centre for Boreal Research, who heads up this unique research initiative. “Growing a forest on a soil stockpile has multiple benefits. The trees provide valuable woody materials for reclamation and the root systems of the trees and shrubs can sucker, creating an instant stand of woody vegetation once the soil is spread on a new site. Ultimately, natural recovery takes place a lot faster.”

Not only do trees take root earlier, canopy closure may occur faster due to increased density of trees and shrubs, slowing weed growth and allowing other native plants to establish. As a result, less herbicide is used to keep down weeds and fewer new trees need to be planted. Overall, it amounts to greater efficiency and a smaller environmental footprint for the company involved.

“By starting with stockpiled forest soil made up of the roots and seeds from a diversity of forest species, you could have a site that quickly converges to a natural ecosystem with a greater variety of trees, shrubs and plants,” Schoonmaker adds. “The site has greater biodiversity as a result and begins to support a variety of other species almost immediately.”

This kind of research plays out over years, not days, and it takes time to see results. “We have to be patient when we’re growing a forest,” Schoonmaker says. The research team continues to monitor the site and collect data that is shared as widely as possible within the oil sands industry and other sectors. 

ConocoPhillips’ initial investment spawned several different research trials in Alberta’s oil sands, all aimed at testing innovative ways to accelerate the establishment of healthy boreal forests.

That dissemination of knowledge is where COSIA plays a role. “The value for us is we have a direct line of communication to members to discuss best practice around reclamation,” Schoonmaker says. “COSIA joins a lot of different people together and through this network we can develop new research, as well as share valuable expertise.”                                                             

Interested in reading more stories like these?
•    Land reclamation 101: How does it work?
•    Point of View: Creating new land 
•    First four years of a young boreal forest

Are you interested in more information about reclamation best practice? See our free online library of videos and manuals: 360 Tours and Silvicultural Toolkit

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