Indigenous plant reclamation: A partnership between Walter Energy and First Nations groups

Lynsey Kitching
There are many reasons why responsible ecological reclamation is necessary to retain the beauty found around us here in Northeastern BC. “For about 20 years we have been talking about doing reclamation work. Primarily it was oil and gas but we couldn’t get a foothold in with that. When Walter Energy came up we started talking to them about opportunities for reclamation because it’s an area we are really interested in,” says Chief Roland Willson from West Moberly First Nations. “To get things back as close to the way they were before so we could get back to the things we do on the land. We talked to Walter Energy about it and presented them with the idea to have a greenhouse in the community.” 
After a bit of time spent wrapping their heads around the idea, Walter Energy came back to West Moberly First Nations with a proposal. They partnered with Saulteau First nations and made a contract with Walter Energy in regards to reclamation of their mine site. Chief Willson says, “We want to replant indigenous plants to the area instead of doing the typical forestry mix that gets sprayed around here. It’s similar to a Kentucky blue grass that gets sprayed. Chief Wilson explains there was no catalogue of indigenous plants to the area. So their idea was to catalogue what’s there and gather the seeds. “They start mining, we start the growing of the seeds. As they move along we come in behind them and plant what’s there as much as we can. It’s not going to be the same as it was, but it will be close,” says Chief Willson.
This partnership has created the only greenhouse in Northeastern BC so West Moberly First Nations eventually want to expand it to all the other coal mining companies. “Any industry that is up here, they should be reclaiming with the indigenous plants from the area,” says Chief Willson.
Two greenhouses have been built but aren’t in operation yet. The greenhouses are located between the West Moberly First Nations on a chunk of Crown Land at the lake up there. Chief Willson says, “The structures are big, really big. I’m not sure when we’re going to start planting seeds, but we’ve been gathering seeds and cataloging them.”
The idea is to re-establish vegetation and space for all forest dwellers, however at the moment caribou are on the top of the list in terms of protection. Chief Willson says, “All the caribou in the South Peace have been moved from threatened to endangered. We just had the North American Caribou conference in Fort St. John. They’re expecting that if immediate action isn’t taken all the caribou could be gone from the territory. This is primary due to industry going into caribou habitat to develop mines. We’ve created an atmosphere that’s predator friendly, not caribou friendly.”
The low populations of caribou has developed over a long period of time and for the West Moberly First Nations, it holds not only environmental, but cultural problems. “For First Nations, we have a constitutional right to harvest caribou and we haven’t been able to harvest caribou for 40 years. ” says Chief Willson. The greenhouse initiative is hoping to be ground breaking not only in terms of corporate responsibility, but also in terms of the specific species grown in the greenhouses. Chief Willson says, “One of our big interests, that has never been done, is to see if we can re-establish lichen. It’s never been grown in a setting like this.”
It takes 50 years to establish lichen naturally, so people have never been able to reproduce it in a greenhouse atmosphere. Boreal lichen and terrestrial lichen are primary food sources for caribou. Chief Willson says, “We want to see if we can come up with something to replace lichen because part of caribou management is the rehabilitation and enhancement of caribou habitat.” 
The greenhouses will also be growing many kinds of shrubs, berry bushes, and other greenery that grows in the area. Part of the cataloging is documenting where the seeds came from and where those plants were located, so they can replace them.  Chief Willson says Walter Energy is leading the way in this section of responsible business. He says, “All of the companies have an obligation to reclaim land. No one else has stepped up. For Walter Energy, it is kind of their niche in the market; they want to get it going.”
However, once the program is up and running West Moberly First Nations hopes to open up the greenhouses to all the mining companies in the area. “Once we get it going we want to grow seed for everyone. We will be approaching Teck. It is more cost effective for us to gather the seeds than to grow them somewhere else and ship them back. It makes sense. Hopefully the business model will prove that it makes good business sense to grow it here and support local economy.”
This partnership with Walter Energy, as well as the West Moberly’s training initiatives with Peace River Coal, show that First Nations want to be involved in resource based industries. Chief Willson says, “I know there have been a lot of people taking about how the West Moberly people are opposed to coal mining. That is not true at all. What we oppose is unnecessary impacts and irresponsible development. If we’re supposed to be trying to recover the caribou than we have to look at different ways to develop the resources in order to do that, not just ignore it.”