How to reclaim land disturbed by resource development

Article By:

Studio Manager—Winnipeg | Landscape architect

When I was growing up, my family use to jump in the car and drive over 1300 kilometres from Winnipeg to Edmonton. It was our annual western adventure as we visited close family friends and camped in the Rocky Mountains. I looked forward every year to this road trip, eagerly watching out the window from the back seat of my parent’s car and searching for the pump jacks located on either side of the highway. I knew that when I found them, we had arrived in Alberta.

The friends that we visited each summer worked in the oil and gas industry in Fort McMurray. One year, when I was fifteen, our friends took us on a tour of the oil sands and the company they worked for at that time. I remember the giant heavy-duty tires and shallow buckets that amplified the size of each machine we passed by. I can still remember the sweet smell of crude oil that was in the packages of oil sands (aka bituminous sands) that were handed out.

The oil and gas industry has been synonymous with Alberta since the 1800s. At one point, the province produced 629 thousand barrels of conventional light, medium, and heavy crude per day. However, over the last few years, there has been a conscious effort to move away from oil and natural gas and into clean energy, and as we move farther away from fracking and oil rigs, how do we reclaim these areas that have been affected by this type of resource development?

Land Reclamation

One way we can restore the land from the impacts of oil and gas development is through land reclamation. It involves returning the landscape that was disturbed and affected by natural resource development projects back to the desired state, or one that re-establishes the ecosystem and habitat that was once there.

According to the Government of Canada, natural resource development often occurs 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… expertise in this area can contribute significantly to returning forest lands to healthy states." Moreover, the provincial government requires oil and gas companies in Alberta to return the disturbed land to a self-sustaining natural state that is as close to its original conditions. However, only .2 per cent of the area disturbed by oil sands development, which encompasses around 47,832 hectares of Canadian boreal forest, has been reclaimed.

Fionn Byrne, an instructor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, has worked extensively in this area, including the exhibition: Reclamation in Progress: The Potential of Waste, which asks, "Will efforts be made to return the land to a pre-extraction state? Landscape architects should ask themselves the following questions, as presented by Byrne: How will reclaimed landscape be designed? How do we prioritize what habitats, ecologies and species are most significant? Byrne presents an interesting idea about how to think about land reclamation projects, which involves going beyond just returning the land to a pre-extraction state, but to think about the oil sands as a “vast human-designed ecosystem” in the mindset that as designers we have a positive role to play.

There is a tremendous amount of opportunity for professionals to work together with landscape architects to reclaim more of this disturbed land. The Canadian Forest Service (CFS), is an example of an organization that investigates how to reconstruct forest ecosystems on reclaimed oil sands and mining sites. They look into ways to rebuild healthy and resilient boreal forest ecosystems on reclaimed oil sands mining sites by studying the establishment and growth of trees and vegetation undertaken in restoration projects and comparing it to natural regeneration in these areas. Landscape Architects can collaborate with the CFS to help create construction standards and designing plans that will revitalize and regenerate the boreal forest ecosystems that are on reclaimed lands.  

Other land reclamation activities that can include landscape architects’ involvement can consist of the following, which the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has outlined:

  • Re-vegetation: The establishment of a self-sustaining native plant community is a benchmark of reclamation success, including the control of noxious weeds.
  • Contouring and erosion control: Disturbed surface areas are re-contoured to blend with the original landform. Adequate erosion control will provide for site stability and generally achieved by successful revegetation.
  • Reclamation certification: Following reclamation, the landscape is evaluated to ensure there are no erosion or drainage issues, topsoil quality and quantity is confirmed, and the health of vegetation (e.g., plant density, height, productivity, diversity, etc.) is adequate.

One person to look at in land reclamation is Christine Daly, a senior sustainability advisor for Suncor who possesses a master’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Windsor in Canada. As per the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance website, she worked with Suncor Energy and Imperial Oil Limited and Shell Canada in the construction of a three-hectare fen—a type of wetland, named Nikanotee (Cree for “future”) on minable oil sands lands in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, AB. The fen is essential to the ecosystem in these areas as they provide habitat for wildlife and plant species, it’s important for carbon storage, and these peat-forming wetlands are also culturally significant to indigenous communities. Restoring the wetlands is a significant land reclamation activity, as they cover about 50 per cent of the total land area of 844 square kilometres where active mining takes in the regional municipality.  Suncor is actively involved engineering the groundwater system and revegetation efforts in the fen and monitoring of it.

Nadi has also been involved in a significant landscape reclamation project that involved designing one of the largest urban prairie parks in Winnipeg. We redesigned the City of Winnipeg’s Landfill 24—now Shaheed Bhagat Singh Park—to include native prairie grasses and trees, dedicating over 35 acres of land to sustainable native plantings. We also monitored the minimization and mitigation of methane gas emissions from the site to ensure that the creation of this park was safe, and that the park remained a sustainable, low-maintenance and attractive place.

The Brady Road Resource Management Facility also enlisted our land reclamation expertise to create a landscape plan for Brady Landfill. Our goal was to create a habitat with a diversity of plantings and to buffer the surrounding neighbourhood from the odours from the landfill. They asked us asked to provide a strategy to address the immediate concerns of the landfill on new developments and design a 100-year plus landscape master plan to be phased in as the city decommissioned landfill sites. We created a master plan that can be phased in by the city to decommission the landfill sites, fix disturbed landscapes and revitalize and naturalize them over the next century.

These two projects exemplify how even the most disturbed and affected landscapes can return to the ecosystem and habitat that was once there. Landscape architects, other allied professionals and oil and gas companies play a vital role in the restoration of affected landscapes from this type of resource development. There are many more projects that have taken place and are currently underway that involve returning the landscape that was disturbed and affected by these projects back to their desired states and or ones that re-establishes the ecosystem and habitats that were there pre-development. I agree with Byrne when he says we need to consider if efforts will be made to return the land to a pre-extraction state or if we can see beyond the environmental destruction. Our positive role as designers is to understand the oil sands as a vast human-designed ecosystem that we make every effort in factoring in land reclamation and restoration planning from the beginning. It is imperative we consider the relationships between sustainability, ecology and design when restoring these landscapes, ecosystems and habitats.

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