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Land reclamation in Canada's mining sandbox: do novel ecosystems require novel approaches?

Paper from the Proceedings of Mine Closure 2015 conference held in Vancouver, Canada, June 1-3, 2015. (downloadable PDF)

Authors: P. Audet, EDI Environmental Dynamics Inc., Canada; B.D. Pinno, Canadian Forest Service, Canada; E. Thiffault, Université Laval, Canada

Published by InfoMine Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-9917905-9-3
Copyright: 2015, InfoMine Inc.


Abstract

Boreal forests in northern Alberta have a growing anthropogenic footprint due to a rapidly expanding oil sands mining industry. While land reclamation is a necessary aspect of responsible industrial development, these activities nearly always affect higher order landscape components such as the broader landform, its hydrology and biogeochemistry, which present significant obstacles when attempting to reinstate near natural landscapes. The fact that some highly disturbed ecosystems following oil sands mining have been carefully rehabilitated and “certified reclaimed” suggests that successful land reclamation is possible. Yet, the number of sites still “under reclamation” far exceeds the number that has been reclaimed, indicating that this path is neither smooth nor direct.

Focusing on the oil sands mining landscape of northern Alberta, this analysis seeks to situate current and anticipated challenges affecting the reclamation of boreal forest following oil sands mining by describing: (a) how Alberta’s regulatory criteria (e.g., Equivalent Land Capability) shape reclamation practices and targeted end-goals, and (b) how these approaches embody latest trends and priorities in the area of restoration ecology. Echoing wider opinions regarding the management of degraded landscapes, a significant development across the field of restoration ecology is the acknowledgement that highly assertive disturbances, such as mining, can (and often do) cause irreversible effects to natural landscapes leading to the emergence of novel ecosystems. And so, land reclamation and conservation frameworks that target the return of the post-disturbance landscape to its pre-disturbance condition may not always be possible or even practical. We are then challenged to identify potential barriers and opportunities for reclamation practices in these post-disturbance landscapes that do not compromise higher standards of environmental stewardship.


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