Forest restoration tour facilitates sharing of diverse perspectives

Restoration of disturbed boreal forest lands is a costly, complex business. And because the work is typically done in such remote areas, and over the span of many years, it’s sometimes difficult, even for people familiar with land reclamation practices, to visualize results and fully understand the challenges involved.

The focus of COSIA’s 2018 Fall Field Tour — an annual event hosted by the Land Environmental Priority Area — was on restoration and it brought together a diverse group of participants to see, first-hand, how historic well sites and seismic lines, as well as some oil sands exploration sites, have been treated to encourage a return to forest cover.

Participants included industry members, federal and provincial environmental specialists, researchers, land managers and First Nations representatives. They came together on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range, near Bonnyville, Alberta, to view a few restoration projects undertaken by Cenovus Energy and Canadian Natural Resources Limited. A full day of site visits was followed by a wide-ranging half-day facilitated discussion of the opportunities and challenges involved in boreal forest restoration.

“This was probably the most diverse group yet for a Fall Field Tour,” says Matthew Pyper, Ecologist and Science Communicator Principal for Fuse Consulting Ltd., which organized the event. “For some, it was their first opportunity to see this kind of work up close.”

The first site the group visited was a lowland oil sands exploration restoration trial, started by Cenovus in 2008. This offered striking visual evidence for how different approaches to restoration yield different outcomes. Part of the site was left “as is” to recover on its own. Another part was planted, but without site preparation. The remainder was fully prepared using excavator buckets to overturn the soil (a process known as “mounding”) and then planted with black spruce and tamarack tree stock.

“The differences in outcomes were very stark,” says Michael Cody, Specialist, Land and Biodiversity, Cenovus. “The ‘leave-for-natural’ part of the site had not changed in the past 10 years, with the exception of a couple of willows. Whereas the part that was mounded and planted now looks like a young forest.”

The site demonstrated many of the benefits of mounding, including the ability to better mimic the topography of a natural forest and to provide warmer, richer soil conditions that support tree growth.

Participants also toured a number of former seismic lines that had received site preparation and planting. This included a seismic line that Canadian Natural mounded and planted in 2011 and was subject to a wildfire in 2015.

Participants saw that, despite significant burning of trees and forest floor adjacent to the site, many of the restored lines did not burn — especially those within wetter, lowland habitats. But there were also positive signs on the drier, higher grounds where wildfires typically do more damage.

“Since 2015, we’ve seen a fair amount of regeneration on these higher grounds,” says James Agate, Manager, reclamation, Canadian Natural. “While there was impact from the fire, we are seeing natural recovery that makes us optimistic we’ll see the forest return.”

The field tour gave participants insights into opportunities and challenges faced by COSIA member companies and others as they collaborate on solutions to encourage biodiversity and restore disturbed caribou habitat across the vast boreal forest.

At the facilitated discussion the following day, there was much talk about the costs and logistical challenges of restoration and what might further incentivize companies. There was also discussion of how the local treatments they’d seen on the tour could be linked to broader restoration efforts.

“That to me was the richest part of the discussion and perhaps the most challenging,” says Michael. “Because it’s difficult when you are standing and looking at a treated well site or seismic line to imagine the scale of that phenomenon once you extend it across hundreds of thousands of hectares.”

Why are these field tours valuable?

“We set up COSIA to collaborate and, inherent in that, is getting to a common problem statement,” says Michael. “Without that, we can throw all the effort in the world at collaborating, but we’ll still be pulling in different directions. These field tours are critical for getting people to identify problems and potential solutions.”

James agrees with that assessment. “There’s a lot more going on in the restoration field than is perhaps understood,” he says. “So, these field tours are great for raising awareness and communicating about the successes and challenges of what we do. This particular tour had the most diverse set of participants yet and that meant we got to hear from a wide range of perspectives. To my mind, that was its greatest value.”