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A Big LEAP Forward

COSIA takes reforestation to an all new level

Reclamation isn't just about turning brown spaces into green spaces anymore.

That appears to be the mantra of the Alberta oil producers comprising the group known as Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). The association has taken bold steps alongside their partners in the provincial government and the forestry industry to turn the process of simply reclaiming a land disturbance into the act of restoring the ecological integrity of the region.

"The idea with LEAP is to gather a bunch of landscape level data together," said Jeremy Reid, an environmental specialist with oil sands producer Nexen and a member of the Land Environmental Priority Area Steering Committee with COSIA, explaining the COSIA initiative known as Landscape Ecological Assessment and Planning (LEAP).

That information includes forestry data that provides meaningful insight into the ecology of the area and the disturbance footprints of the various oil and gas companies operating in that region.

"We can look at the landscape and look at our footprint on the landscape to start to draw conclusions about potential impacts," said Reid.

LEAP doesn't just look at oil and gas industry impacts, but the collective footprints of all land users, and examines the potential impacts on indicators such as boreal songbirds that can tell a lot about ecosystem health.

Caribou is a particularly important indicator.

"We know what caribou habitat looks like," said Reid.

This is where the forestry companies play a significant role.

"As a part of their business - part of their management of the forest - they're able to grow the forest through time," Reid said of the modeling work done by that sector.

"They take a bunch of scientific data and put it into what are called growth curves for trees and you can start to sort of grow the forest," he continued. "You can say, 'In 50 years, the forest will look like this.'"

Forest fires and forestry company harvest plans can be included in the models.

"If you're an oil and gas company, you can put your future potential footprint into the model and then say, 'What does the forest look like? What's it going to look like in the future?'"

It also allows them to see what that forest will look like in terms of different wildlife species and habitat types.

Reid said that is the true value of a multi-stakeholder approach to an issue.

"Information that will allow us to do meaningful work," he explained. "Having the forestry companies there, the government and oil and gas, we all brought appropriate data into one place, and then were able to look at it together and start to plan collaboratively."

Still, the project wasn't without its challenges.

"A major challenge with bringing this type of data together is what are the parameters of the data," said Reid.

"It's about making all the data that you bring together standard [because] you want to be able to compare apples to apples," he continued. "Because, otherwise, it's hard to draw conclusions."

It is a question of accuracy and ensuring that one element on one map is really the same as another element on another map.

"How wide is that road?" said Reid, offering an example. "How can we compare them? We don't have the specific width of the two roads; we can't say that they're equivalent roads because you only have a certain level of information from one road to the other. This is getting into the minutia."

The forest information was fairly easy.

"That's Alberta Vegetation Inventory," said Reid. "We can say this is black spruce over here, this is black spruce way over here, and we're confident that we're right in both cases.

"But then we start to get Company A's and Company B's data together, they don't always match. So, you've got to dig into the details and say, 'How is Company A tracking data versus Company B? What are the differences? How might that affect how we analyze the data?'"

After that work was done, COSIA decided to put it the test with a reforestation pilot project over 56,915 hectares southwest of Fort McMurray.

"What we wanted to do was pilot coordinated restoration on an area," said Reid. "We wanted to choose an area that was of reasonable size. It wasn't so big that it would get overly complicated, but it wasn't so small that it wouldn't be meaningful. So, we chose the multiple township area - six townships - as sort of a size that was manageable for us to pilot this planning process on and then be able to carry it through to field implementation.

"We went with the particular area we chose because it's in caribou habitat," he continued. "It's in the caribou zone designated by the province and it's in critical caribou habitat designated by the federal government.

"And we know that linear features have an effect on caribou habitat. This is an area with linear features."

Many of those linear features were old seismic lines, pipelines and forestry roads.

"The first thing we had to do was a linear inventory," said Reid.

Not all of that information was gathered during the initial data collection, simply because it wasn't associated with the companies involved in the process.

"And we had to do some stakeholder engagement," he continued. "And the Alberta government led that part."

Local land users were told about the work COSIA and their partners were planning and asked which of those linear features they used regularly, so that restoration wasn't interfering with activities such trapping or guide outfitting.

"We had to figure out how old they were and whether they were regenerating during this linear inventory," said Reid, beginning to describe the work that was actually done on those linear features.

"If the line is five years old and you're seeing some vegetation re-growing on it, that's a line we don't want to touch again. It's going to grow back in a relatively quick amount of time," he explained.

Other linear features were anywhere from 10 to 40 years old.

"Lines where there wasn't vegetation responding or re-growing," Reid said of the older disturbances.

Many of those older lines were turning into grasslands.

"Species that outcompete the trees for moisture and nutrients," Reid continued, referring to those grasses. "They prevent the forest from coming back on those lines. And then the lines get used by wildlife, and they affect wildlife predator-prey dynamics and wildlife habitat.

"One of the first things that we wanted to do with the lines was restore some of the immediate function of the lines, to disrupt their negative effect on wildlife habitat. And that's one of the things that the site [preparation] did."

The site preparation technique used is a method known as mounding.

"We went through the lines and we used some heavy equipment to break up the surface a bit to create mounds," said Reid. "That's a technique used in forestry. And that more approximates what the offline condition of the forest is."

The forest floor is typically a series of hummocks and hollows.

"When we create a linear feature on a landscape, we create a flat line," he added.

"We have to recreate that hummock and hollow situation first of all, which is what we did, and then we planted trees in the hummocks or the mounds."

Some of the planting was done during the winter because the area can be very soft and wet during the summer. That reforestation pilot project was actually part of experiments with winter planting that also took place at the Evergreen Centre for Resource Excellence in Grande Prairie.

"That elevates them above the water table a bit and puts them more in a natural situation where they're more likely to be successful," Reid said of the mounds.

Black spruce was planted in an attempt to create good caribou habitat.

"Another technique that we used is we brought in some of the trees that were standing adjacent to the line," said Reid.

"If there was downed woody material, which means trees that had been on that line and were pushed aside, we brought that back over the line. Or if there wasn't any of that, we would intermittently pull a tree just off the line and put it on the line. We got regulatory approval to do that.

"We studied that use of coarse woody material over the last three years and we're using it a lot more now."

One benefit of the practice of occasionally taking spruce trees from the adjacent forest and placing them on the lines is that the tops of those spruce trees often hold a great number of seed cones. That seed source is helpful in regenerating natural forest conditions on the disturbances.

"We worked with the regulator to get approval to do that," said Reid. "And the condition was that we're not taking down lots of trees all the way down the line. We're taking one here and there every few metres or ten metres. We take a tree down, put it on the line and it provides that extra resource."

This is just the start for LEAP.

"It's a great pilot project," said Reid.

"We've worked on about a township and a half, which is a substantial area," he continued.

"We've done about 116 kilometres of line. And that's great in that local area. But we have to do a lot more of this work in order to rehabilitate the habitat that's been disturbed, not just from our industry, but from other industries that have been working in the area for decades."

Reid believes it is the responsibility of the oil and gas industry to lead the way.

"Because we're developing the area right now and we're likely going to continue developing the area," he explained.

LEAP and the associated reforestation project have been recognized by the Alberta Emerald Foundation, which shines a light on environmental leadership in that province through its annual Emerald Awards program.

COSIA is an Emerald Awards finalist for those efforts this year.

"It's important for encouraging more of this type of work," Reid said of the Emerald Award nomination.

"It is great to be nominated for the award," he added, "but this is just the start of us taking a proactive habitat management position."