Back to The Beginning

The Natural Boreal Forest: a journey of reclamation and Indigenous stewardship of our land.

The Canadian Boreal Forest is one of the largest intact forest and wetland ecosystems remaining on Earth at 1.3 billion acres. It is a major source of North America’s freshwater, and home to some of the planet’s largest populations of wolves, grizzly bears, and woodland caribou.

Covering approximately 58 per cent of Alberta in a mosaic of deciduous, mixed wood and coniferous forests interspersed with wetlands, the Boreal Forest is also home to the Athabasca Oil Sands Area.

Though oil sands extraction covers a relatively small percentage (0.2 per cent) of the more than 378,000 square kilometres of boreal forest in Wild Rose Country, land reclamation and sustainable development remain a priority – both legally and ethically.

Unlike many other oil-producing jurisdictions, there is a simple rule here enforced by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER): if energy companies are going to profit from Alberta’s energy resources, they must be responsible, and properly abandon, remediate, and reclaim their sites.

Of the estimated 90,000 square kilometres that contain active oil sand deposits, only five per cent are close enough to the surface to be mined. The remaining reserves are deeper underground.

Mining causes significant land disturbance with the mines covering about 895 square kilometres: an area slightly larger than Calgary. In-situ methods cause little surface land disturbance.

Two of the longest producing oil sands companies in the region each lay claim to reclamation firsts.

Suncor Energy has Wapisiw Lookout, originally Pond 1 that was transformed into a 220-hectare watershed with a mixed wood forest and multiple streams. Wapisiw means swan in the Cree language, and is also close to Wapasun, the name of the first person to bring a sample of oil sand to a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost in 1719.

Syncrude has Gateway Hill, a former overburden site that was transformed into a 104-hectare rolling forested area peppered with hiking trails and look-out points.

Each reclaimed site is now home to a variety of wildlife and plants; just as nature intended.

While reclamation is a key regulation for resource development, it’s also the right thing to do, says Tracey Wolsey, director of Indigenous and community relations for Suncor.

“While it’s a requirement for us to do it, it’s also integral to our stakeholders, to the Indigenous communities, and to the regulators. The people of Alberta expect that companies like Suncor would do this, so it’s incredibly important to us to live up to those expectations, and to execute on our commitments.”

Over the next few decades, progress on Wapisiw Lookout will be monitored, including the growth of 620,000 trees, shrubs, and aquatics planted in 2010. Ongoing soil, water, vegetation and wildlife assessments help ensure this site is on course for return to a self-sustaining boreal ecosystem.

“Our purpose is to provide trusted energy that enhances people’s lives while caring for each other and the earth, and as part of that purpose, we think it’s critical to advance reclamation.

“We were extremely excited to be the first company to surface reclaim a tailings pond. It was important to the industry to show that we were committed, and that we did it. It was exciting for us as well because it helps us in our future reclamation.”

There will be lessons learned from Wapisiw Lookout, which will be applied to other reclamations Suncor is undertaking, notes Wolsey.

As Canada’s leading integrated energy company, it’s important that Suncor lead on a number of fronts.

“We were the first oil sands mine, and it makes sense that we’re then the first to reach this milestone reclamation as well.

“Caring for the earth is a critical part of how we think about the work we need to do, and reclamation plays a really pre-eminent role in how we think about that. As a mining company, we have deep expertise in reclamation, so we’re excited to continue on the reclamation journey.”

That journey includes projects like the Nikanotee Fen which opened in 2013. Suncor was one of the first companies in the world to complete reconstruction of this type of wetland.

Lake Miwasin, Suncor’s demonstration pit lake, is part of its aquatic closure technology development program designed to ensure it can successfully reclaim mine sites. Pit lakes are a necessary part of successful closure and reclamation plans, and are considered a best practice in mining industries around the world.

Wildlife sampling last year in northern Alberta was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, remotely triggered wildlife cameras continued to operate, recording 27 wildlife species at Base Plant and Fort Hills with18 of those species recorded in reclaimed habitats.

Suncor’s Firebag and MacKay River in-situ sites have been in operation since 2004 and 2002, respectively. Since then, approximately 15 hectares have met the requirements for permanent reclamation, and have been certified and returned to the Government of Alberta (GOA). Last year, Suncor submitted two applications to the AER for reclamation certificates relating to its Firebag site.

COVID-19 also impacted plantings at the Firebag site. To preserve quality, the seedlings were frozen and were to be planted this year. The seedlings were selected based on GoA guidelines developed through the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) with input from local Indigenous communities.

CEMA had been a long-time key advisor to the provincial and federal governments. This non-profit organization based in Fort McMurray closed its doors in 2015 due to a lack of industry support and government funding. Until then, this multi-stakeholder group made guidance recommendations, and produced management frameworks to manage the cumulative environmental impacts of oil sands development in northeastern Alberta.

“CEMA’s track record was very good in that the majority of recommendations made to the provincial government were implemented as policy,” recalls Glen Semenchuk, former executive director. “In a number of cases, especially in the area of reclamation, the CEMA cover was taken off a report, and the Alberta Environment cover was put on as the official policy.”

He firmly believes that CEMA’s work played a key role in advancing the acceptance of reclamation above regulatory requirements, explaining it involved cutting-edge research by widely acknowledged experts. Secondly, the work was designed, supervised and reviewed by the appropriate working groups, which were composed of individuals representing the regulators, overseers, industry, and interested third parties including Indigenous communities and environmental groups.

“So in fact, the work and results were ‘approved’ before they even went forward to government to form or influence policy,” maintains Semenchuk.

It took about 26 years for Gateway Hill to be issued a reclamation certificate from the GoA in 2008.

“We have learned a lot since we began reclaiming Gateway Hill, and that increased knowledge has shaped our reclamation practices,” states Will Gibson, Syncrude spokesman. “The evolving science is also reflected in the reclamation standards for today compared to what was in place when we were reclaiming Gateway Hill.”

He noted that Syncrude has received 241 Canadian patents, and many of the technologies used in the Alberta oil sands today were developed by Syncrude, and adapted by other companies.

“Syncrude has a history of getting it right,” he adds. “Syncrude is consistently among Canada’s top corporate R&D spenders. The majority of our R&D budget – more than 50 per cent — is dedicated to environmental initiatives.”

Syncrude has spent $1.5 billion on research and development since 1964 with almost $950 million in the past decade. That research has produced technologies valued at $35 billion.

Reclamation of oil and natural gas production sites begins before any land disturbance. Detailed land reclamation plans form part of a company’s application to the AER for project approval. Once a project is approved, and as part of the land management and reclamation plan, soil (sometimes including muskeg or peat) is removed and stored for use when the site is reclaimed.

The reclamation process can take years, even decades, depending on how the land functioned before it was disturbed, whether it was forested land, native grassland, peatland, or farmland, and the amount of soil disturbance.

As the regulator of one of the world’s largest oil and gas industries, the AER works with companies to help manage energy development to ensure they are prepared to meet their obligations at the end of a project’s life. The AER also manages the consequences of companies not being able to meet their responsibilities to safely abandon and reclaim their energy development sites.

The AER continues to develop innovative approaches, programs, and processes to manage these liabilities and risks while supporting economic development in the province. That approach has to balance multiple interests: environmental protection, public safety, landowner interests, investment, royalties, jobs, and market volatility.

It also collaborates with jurisdictions across North America and globally that face the same problems to find solutions.

Syncrude has been reclaiming since the early 1980s, and reclaims progressively, meaning as areas are no longer required for operation activities, they are reclaimed, points out Gibson.

“We have disturbed 21,234 hectares of our 103,000 hectares of leases.”

It is currently reclaiming the former East Mine, an undertaking on the approximately 1,150 hectares site that began in 2000. Revegetation is expected to be complete around 2025. This area includes the 57-hectare Sandhill Fen research watershed, restored using reclaimed tailings as the landform substrate. In the wetland, the surface water quality falls within the range assessed in natural marshes and other fens. Numerous natural wetland plants have established, and the forest surrounding the area has over 190 different plant species.

Efforts are also underway to transform the former West Mine into a freshwater lake using pit lake technology, which places water on top of tailings to create an aquatic ecosystem. The water is already home to a variety of aquatic life, including algae, insects and microscopic animals.

Syncrude has planted 11 million trees and shrubs on more than 4,300 hectares of reclaimed land as of 2019. Another 1,100 hectares are ready to have vegetation planted.

“Our reforestation program helps to encourage a rapid return of plant biodiversity similar to conditions in the local region,” points out Gibson. “We have recorded the presence of over 300 characteristic species within seven years of an area being reclaimed.”

A 2018 research study of eco sites on Syncrude’s reclaimed areas found the presence of 83 per cent of regional characteristic species. Of this, around 165 different boreal species were detected in reclaimed uplands, including over 60 which have been identified by local Indigenous communities as possessing traditional value. On reclaimed wetlands, more than 200 boreal wetland plant species have been recorded, including 17 species of moss, and six species of liverworts.

“We know the public expects our industry to provide energy in a responsible way,” he acknowledged. “Syncrude is committed to responsible development, including continuously improving our environmental performance. Reclaiming the land we disturb is an important demonstration of that commitment.”


Sohkastwâwin – A climate reliance strategy driven by community

Bison are icons of Canada’s history and identity. While integral to the lives of Canada’s pioneers, bison are synonymous with this country’s Indigenous communities.

So it makes sense that these ecologically critical creatures are key to one Indigenous community’s plans to breathe new life into the local environment.

These pillars of ecosystem health interact with nature in such a way that they create a landscape that generates greater diversity, and it’s that ecosystem engineering that Justin Bourque envisions utilizing to spur reclamation from industrial development.

“An enduring vision for many Indigenous peoples is restoring bison herds on tribal and public lands, which will protect and enhance the remaining grasslands where bison once roamed,” explains Bourque, CEO of the Willow Lake Métis Nation (WLMN).

Once upon a time, he recalls, the Métis had built their economy on bison.

“It’s going to back to our roots.”

As bison forage, they aerate the soil with their hooves, which aids in plant growth, and disperses seeds, helping to maintain a healthy and balanced ecosystem. When they roll on dry ground, they create wallows, bowl-like depressions that provide habitat for other animals. They deposit droppings that act as fertilizer for plants and support insect populations, which in turn feed bird species, and are a source of food for predators. Bison provide numerous benefits to nature and other animals.

The Parks Canada information adds that restoring bison to the landscape is also an opportunity to renew cultural and historical connections.

Under Bourque’s guidance, the WLMN is creating a bison eco-ranch, starting with a herd of 10 south of Fort McMurray along what he terms “SAGD Alley.” He is referring to the stretch of Highway 881 from south of Fort McMurray to Lac La Biche.

The eco-ranch is one component of the WLMN’s overall climate resilience strategy appropriately named Sohkastwâwin, a Cree word meaning the act of being resilient.

He envisions strategically housed herds will eventually dot the land between Anzac and Cold Lake.

“Scientifically, these are the best animals to support reclamation. Every hoof on the ground is boosting the environment for climate preparedness,” says Bourque. “There are so many inter-dependencies. In North America, when the bison populations plummeted, our entire continent had to reset itself; all of its ecosystems, and we’re living in that today.

“We need to realize the whole history of what’s available to our arsenal. In reclamation efforts, bison are never discussed. They’re native to the land. They shaped this land.”

The WLMN will be seeking partners in the near future to increase the ranch size, which currently sits at 10 hectares.

The WLMN will be conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) similar to ones completed by industry at the beginning of a project. When industry completes an EIA, it highlights the condition of the land and its characteristics so it can be reclaimed to that. The bison eco-ranch EIA will demonstrate how the land has been improved thanks to the bison herd.

“When we have that research, and those documents, we’ll have the proof. It’s a strategy to improve reclamation. Then when we have a discussion with industry, it’s less around, ‘You should do this because it’s the right thing to do,’ and more, ‘You should do this because it can decrease the time period for your reclamation certificate by utilizing bison on the land.’”

Using bison will also help create healthier environments currently lying unused as wasteland.

While the plan around re-introducing bison herds to the land is increasing biodiversity, and enhancing reclamation and climate preparedness, it’s also about a return to their Métis roots.

“We’re effectively re-creating our culture, creating an economy around the bison for our peoples. Sohkastwâwin is our community-driven climate resilience strategy built around an ecosystem of food, culture and economy,” explains Bourque.

“It’s always said traditional ways are what’s going to save us. The Indigenous peoples are the most resilient people in the world. Bringing the bison back is investing back to the traditional ways.”

Faster Forests

About 20 years ago, there was a growing recognition that traditional reclamation practices were resulting in a proliferation of grassy meadows that were slowing the re-growth of the Boreal Forest.

To address this and improve reclamation outcomes, a consortium of industry, regulators and academics, coordinated by Circle-T Consulting, collaborated with the University of Alberta to find out why it was taking so long for forests to grow back, and what could be done to speed up forest growth.

This collaboration essentially gave birth to Faster Forests and also helped to inform updates to the reclamation criteria for boreal forests in Alberta. In 2008, the Removing the Wellsite Footprint research led to a series of key findings and recommendations.

“ConocoPhillips has been a leader in the development and broader adoption of the Faster Forests initiative since its inception in 2009,” explains Robert Albricht, senior co-ordinator, Environmental Operations, ConocoPhillips Canada (CPC).

“This initiative is exceptional in that it goes beyond regulatory compliance to accelerate recovery of disturbed sites towards self-sustaining boreal ecosystems.”

The Faster Forests program has expanded in scale and diversity, growing from five companies and one tree species planted on in-situ oil sands exploration (OSE) sites in 2009, to include seven participating companies, several tree and shrub species, and non-OSE sites today. A Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) project, Faster Forests is led by CPC and currently includes Canadian Natural, Cenovus, CNOOC International North America, Husky Energy, MEG Energy and Suncor.

The vision was ambitious: to visually discern the difference between a Faster Forests site and a standard site five years after treatment.

“We acted collaboratively at a meaningful scale to ensure that disturbed sites progressed quickly to a self-sustaining boreal forest by challenging the status quo and embedding better practices into our operations.”

This accelerated boreal forest reclamation program has led to improved construction and reclamation practices, and wider adoption of planting a mix of suitable trees and shrubs soon after disturbance to accelerate site recovery.

Implementing the best practices developed through the Faster Forests program also enables operators to achieve formal reclamation certification along a predictable and accelerated timeline as compared to the pre-Faster Forests era. Listening to First Nations recommendations regarding desirable and culturally important species has also informed the thinking and approach to re-vegetation practices.

The first seedlings for Faster Forests hit the ground in the summer of 2009. Drawing on recommendations from the University of Alberta’s long-term study on reclamation, which indicated that sites required trees and shrubs that match the surrounding ecological conditions, ConocoPhillips planted a number of tree species including aspen, spruce, pine and balsam poplar.

The program has also developed A Visual Guide to Planting that summarizes the program learnings towards their approach to revegetating sites.

“Plant species selected for planting are matched with the site conditions to ensure the best chance for survival and establishment,” says Albricht.

Shrubs allow trees to grow healthier, faster and with less competition from fast-growing grasses for limited nutrients and water. Berry-bearing shrubs such as blueberry and saskatoon are important to Indigenous communities and supply food for wildlife. The planting of green alder helps to increase available nitrogen in the soil, and its presence helps to shade out undesirable grass while the conifers establish below the forest canopy.

Through appropriate construction and reclamation practices, and the careful selection of native plants and shrubs, the Faster Forests program is helping to ensure that oil sands exploration sites return to self-sustaining boreal ecosystems as quickly as possible.

Over the life of this 10-year project to accelerate the restoration of Canadian oil sands exploration sites, Faster Forests partners planted over five million trees and shrubs on more than 5,550 acres. That’s equivalent to more than 4,200 CFL football fields or 14,200 NHL hockey rinks.

CPC also celebrated the planting of over one million trees and shrubs on its Surmont oil sands in-situ lease as part of the program.

Although the Faster Forests program accomplished its mission, the work is ongoing; the COSIA group continues to share Faster Forests knowledge and best practices through field tours, and working with the regulator and researchers on further innovations.

“Faster Forests is still very much alive, with industry members and others adopting the Faster Forests principles in the reclamation of oil sands exploration sites, and other disturbances in Canadian boreal forests,” says Albricht.

CPC continues to practise Faster Forests principles, using the reclamation practices, for example, at its Montney assets in northern British Columbia, and to restore a right-of-way following pipeline construction.

The success of Faster Forests has also enabled CPC to challenge historical reclamation practices on other industrial disturbances in the oil sands such as seismic lines, borrow pits and winter access roads.

“Faster Forests principles are highly transferable, and members have successfully applied the principles and guidance to other forest disturbances,” notes Albricht. “We’ve made Faster Forests principles a best practice within the industry.”

The vast majority of in-situ oil sands sites in Alberta are now following Faster Forests guidelines.


Acknowledging Success With a Wary Eye

Jim Boucher remembers the challenges when resource development began, saying his community and companies did not relate to each other in a regulatory environment.

Jim Boucher remembers the challenges when oil sands development began, saying his community and companies did not relate to each other in a regulatory environment.

“It was a fight, and the people opposed every application that went before them because they relied on the land for their living, which included hunting, trapping and fishing. All these were being affected in a negative way by development.”

Boucher was chief of the Fort McKay First Nation from 1986–1994 and 1996–2019.

When the community faced a bleak future thanks to a fur ban legislated by the European Union, and a downturn in the economy, he acknowledges that industry offered a means of employment, and presented opportunities for meaningful business partnerships.

“With that in mind, the people proposed an industry relations corporation, and developed agreements with the companies with respect to how they managed their environmental portfolio as well as how we relate to each other. It was a very good, forward-thinking proposition document that was put forward by Fort McKay, and well received.”

Reclamation remains a topic of active discussion for residents who engage with industry in reclamation plan development. Boucher promises they will oppose any development they believe will have an adverse effect on the environment.

He notes a number of technical issues remain unresolved around wastewater, including the use of solvents; a major concern for the community.

“The challenge for the government, the regulator, and the companies is the enduring expectation the land will be retuned to its natural environment,” stressed Boucher.

A group of Indigenous and environmental organizations have taken the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) skeleton to create the Traditional Environmental Knowledge Association to further some of the work initiated by CEMA.

“Without proper reclamation plans, there will be no Boreal Forest as we know it across much of north-eastern Alberta,” states Glen Semenchuk, former CEMA executive director, adding regulators are easing ultimate requirements obligated to industry regarding what the end product of reclamation will be.

The big question of allowing end pit lakes as a substitute for proper reclamation of mining pits is one example, he cites.

“CEMA outlined all the factors a regulator should study before even talking about this option. Very little is being done as the old adage ‘ignorance is bliss’ prevails,” said Semenchuk.

Living on his trap line is what Justin Bourque attributes to keeping him grounded.

“It makes sure I know what I’m speaking about, and what I’m working for; working towards.”

The CEO of the Willow Lake Métis Nation sees a day when society will turn to the traditional ways of the First Peoples for more guidance when it comes to reclaiming the land, and recovering from damage of what he calls “our carbon intense lifestyles.”

He says there is an urgency for reclamation, which is seen by some as simply the cost of doing business, and not a priority.

“It’s a post-operation requirement that does not impact the day-to-day in a normal operation.”

That is a shared blame, he maintains, as producers only have to do what is dictated by legislation, which allows them to “produce this big massive impact on the land,” but they don’t have to repair it until the operation is finished.

“It’s always been said that at some point, we’re going to revert back to our traditional understanding and ways, and that’s what’s going to save us.

“If industry does it right, and utilizes the Indigenous opportunities for ownership and traditional knowledge; if they include those, oil sands could potentially become the most ethical oil instead of the dirty oil that it’s called today.”

Contributor | + posts

Carol Christian loves to write and tell people’s stories. She is a former journalist with a few awards, but no Pulitzer…yet…and loves being behind the camera catching awesome smiles and beautiful landscapes. 

She is a strong believer in teamwork and helping others, and lives by the Golden Rule. Always engaged with her community, Carol is a long-time volunteer who always gives back. She thoroughly enjoys the outdoors, and all the pursuits that go with it … hiking, camping, and kayaking, and so on.

Carol is a human slave to two furry felines, believes music and books are amazing. 

With a love of exploring, travelling is a big part of her life… and why her credit cards are always maxed out.

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