Canadian Forest Service Publications

Reclamation of boreal forest after oil sands mining: anticipating novel challenges in novel environments. 2015. Audet, P.; Pinno, B.D.; Thiffault, E. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 45(3):364-371.

Year: 2015

Issued by: Northern Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 35912

Language: English

Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)

Available from the Journal's Web site.
DOI: 10.1139/cjfr-2014-0330

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Boreal forests in northern Alberta have a growing anthropogenic footprint due to a rapidly growing oil sands mining industry. Although land reclamation is a necessary aspect of responsible industrial development, these activities nearly always affect higher order landscape components such as the broader landform, and its hydrology and biogeochemistry. Recent anthropogenic impacts are then believed to result in new environmental conditions and obstacles under which the boreal forest is developing, potentially leading to irreversibly different environments that could be characterized as novel ecosystems. Reflecting an emerging trend across the field of restoration ecology, these novel ecosystems are not necessarily undesirable. Instead, they are an unavoidable consequence of pervading anthropogenic effects on natural ecosystems. It is our view that successful reclamation outcomes can still be derived so long as policy and regulatory requirements are afforded the necessary scope and economic flexibility to account for the development of hybrid and novel ecosystems among highly disturbed mine sites. Hence, this analysis seeks to situate current and anticipated challenges affecting the reclamation of boreal forest following oil sands mining by describing (i) how regulatory criteria shape reclamation practices and targeted end goals and (ii) how these approaches embody latest trends and priorities in the area of restoration ecology.

Plain Language Summary

Boreal forests in northern Alberta have a growing anthropogenic footprint due to an expanding oil sands mining industry. Post-mining land reclamation activities strive to recreate boreal forests, but these reclaimed landscapes nearly always have different environmental conditions ( i.e., water and nutrient conditions) than natural forests. These new conditions under which the reclaimed boreal forest develops could lead to the formation of novel ecosystems, which are different from the surrounding forests that resulted from natural disturbance (e.g., fire). These novel ecosystems are not necessarily undesirable as they can provide numerous valuable ecosystem services (e.g., water quality and quantity). In Alberta, the reclamation requirement of achieving equivalent land capability is similar to the current concept of novel ecosystems in that it requires land to support various uses after reclamation but not necessarily be the same as before industrial activity. This article is a scientific concept paper that argues that successful reclamation of oil sands mines can be achieved through acceptance of novel ecosystems in policy and regulatory approaches.