Land reclamation and forest science

Cenovus Energy’s Christina Lake oil sands drilling project, located 150 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, requires specialized methods to drill and pump the oil to the surface.

Photo courtesy of Cenovus Energy Inc.

The forest science expertise of Natural Resources Canada–Canadian Forest Service (CFS) aims at improving land reclamation results and the environmental performance of Canada’s oil and gas industry while also advancing the restoration of forest landscapes.

Improving forest land reclamation with Canadian Forest Service expertise

Land reclamation is the process of turning disturbed land into a productive or other desired state.

Forest landscape in northern Alberta.

In Canada, land reclamation efforts are most often directed at land disturbed during natural resource development, including mining and oil and gas operations. Because this development often takes place in forested areas, re-establishing healthy, resilient forest ecosystems is an important part of land reclamation and landscape restoration. Forests provide many “ecosystem services,” such as carbon storage and nutrient cycling. CFS expertise in this area can contribute significantly to returning forest lands to healthy states.

Current CFS land reclamation research is focusing on the oil and gas sector, including oil sands mining and in situ operations. However, the knowledge and practices developed for that sector are expected to be just as relevant to other natural resource sectors across Canada.

The need for forest science solutions in land reclamation is growing

Hundreds of major resource projects are either underway or planned in the next 10 years in Canada. Most of the projects are in the energy and mining sectors, and most will take place in forest regions.

Given the extent and duration of these developments across the country, governments and the resource sectors themselves recognize that improving environmental performance of current and future operations is critical. New scientific knowledge and technologies are needed to inform and guide reclamation policies and practices that will enhance reclamation of forest land for a variety of uses, such as wildlife habitat, commercial forestry, or wild berry forage grounds.

Land reclamation research projects are already finding solutions

Petasites palmatus, a native plant species, growing on a forest floor – mineral mix soil capping treatment, two years following reclamation of an oil sands site.
  • Reconstructing forest ecosystems on reclaimed oil sands mining sites
    Several CFS research projects are investigating ways to rebuild healthy, resilient boreal forest ecosystems following oil sands development. Work to date includes comparing the establishment and growth of trees and other forest vegetation in response to various reclamation practices and to natural regeneration in the region.

    One recent CFS study on seedling establishment by trembling aspen and other deciduous trees on a reclaimed oil sands site found that establishment was greatest on soils that had high soil moisture and surface roughness. Fertilization decreased natural tree seedling establishment, likely because of the increase in vegetative competition. Findings from research like this are informing reclamation and best management practices, leading to both improved environmental performance and reduced reclamation costs.

  • Testing willow species for the reclamation of coal mine sites
    Willow trees and shrubs are common in Canada and have adapted to a wide range of site conditions. Several CFS research projects are testing the ability of willow species to revegetate disturbed mine sites; and investigating characteristics (such as rate of root growth and biomass yield) that can be used to determine which species are best for achieving rapid land reclamation and potential biomass production for commercial purposes.

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