Reclamation Monitoring in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region of Canada Using a Long-term Plot Network

Virgil Hawkes
Gillian Donald
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Oil sands mine operators in the Athabasca oil sands region of northeastern Alberta are required to revegetate disturbed land to target the establishment of a self-sustaining, locally common boreal forest integrated with the surrounding area. The Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) is a non-profit, multi-stakeholder organisation based in Fort McMurray, Alberta, whose role is to produce recommendations to government regulators pertaining to the cumulative impact of oil sands development in northeastern Alberta. These recommendations include guidance documents for revegetation to forest ecosystems and a criteria and indicator framework for reclamation certification. To support the development of the guidance documents, CEMA manages a long-term plot network that includes permanent sample plots on reclaimed lands and in natural, undisturbed mature forest stands. A review of the monitoring conducted from 2000–2010 on the long-term plot network recommended modifications to the plot network to support the implementation of an adaptive management framework that would achieve an evaluation of: (1) the effectiveness of the revegetation guidance outlined in the guidance documents; (2) the physical and biological indicators identified through research initiatives as suitable measurement parameters to demonstrate that a self-sustaining, locally common boreal forest is establishing on the reclaimed lands; (3) the efficacy of management activities applied on the reclaimed lands to support the establishment of self-sustaining forests; and (4) whether reclaimed lands are achieving thresholds required to qualify for reclamation certification. This paper presents the regulatory context for revegetation planning and outlines how modifications to the CEMA long-term plot network will support the implementation of an integrated monitoring program that will assess the efficacy of the guidance documents and the progress of current reclamation practices towards achieving the goal of establishing a self-sustaining boreal forest on reclaimed lands in the Athabasca oil sands region. An adaptive management framework incorporating a modified long-term plot network would provide an opportunity for the monitoring data to describe the ecological condition of the reclaimed lands and to define appropriate management strategies for achieving the revegetation goals.