Winter Wetland Reclamation in Alberta: First of its kind in the world

In this pohoto you can see the excavator used to ground up the peat moss to create great growing ground for the spruce tree seedlings. Most of the northern wetland areas are difficult to access during the spring, summer and fall. Winter planting has demonstrated to be a fantastic new technique for planting spruce tress in wetlands and achieving a high survival rate.

Lynsey Kitching

Wetlands are a tree planter’s worst nightmare. Trudging around through the swamps, getting your boots stuck in the black muck and trying to hop from one mossy patch to the next. It chops into productivity, not to mention, you know a lot of the trees won’t make it.

With the low survival rate for spruce seedlings in wetland areas, researchers have come up with a new technique for getting the trees to make it. The method is planting the trees in the wintertime.

There is an abundance of peat moss present in the northern Alberta boreal forest; and researchers are using this incubator to help the spruce trees through their first year of life.

Imagine planting spruce tree seedlings in minus 17 degree weather and having a 94 percent survival rate. This is what the Grande Prairie Regional College’s Pollutants to Products (P2P) Initiative supported by the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) has achieved in order to increase their ability to practice responsible reclamation with indigenous plants.

OSLI is a collaborative network between ConocoPhillips Canada, Nexen Inc., Shell Canada, Statoil Canada, Suncor Energy Inc. and Total E&P Canada. Other partners include Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Global Restoration Corp. and Next Generation Reforestation Ltd.

This collaboration began in 2010 and led to the winter planting of 900 black spruce seedlings in Grande Prairie, which have had a 94 percent survival rate.

In addition to the previous support of $35,000, OSLI has agreed to provide $26,000 in additional funding over the course of the next four years. The project is known as P2P’s Winter Planting project.

Oil exploration often disturbs the northern wetlands of Alberta. In the summertime these areas are often difficult to plant because access is limited and also because of excessive moisture at the site causing poor tree growth.

Planting in the winter however, allows easier access and everything is frozen.

The key ingredient to this method of planting is peat moss. Dr Weixing Tan, Principal Investigator from Grande Prairie College says, “Across the boreal north wetlands there is deep peat moss naturally in the forest. Basically, in some places in the wetlands, peat moss can be about ten to 30 meters deep. We use an excavator to break the surface, when you dig into it about 15 cm, it is warm. Below 10–15 cm the soil temperature in the winter never drops below zero degrees because of the peat moss.”

If you walk into the forest, you will see low spots, in the shape of a bowl. In the same area you will find trees that are very stunted, those are natural spruce trees that are well adapted to cold wet areas. In the lower wet areas is where you will find a lot of peat moss.

Because of this, the roots of the seedlings are able to take root and survive the first growing season. The first year’s results were so successful, that OSLI decided to put the technique into practice in their reclamation work in winter 2012.

Dr Tan says, “Eventually we want to forest different species, that is the goal, we have just been too busy. We have several projects we are working on.”

So far, there have been 100,000 trees planted for the reclamation work in 2012. “This is a unique innovation in terms of addressing the disturbed wetlands. Oil sand companies are the most interested in the project; however I do see the forest companies in places like Tumbler Ridge eventually using this technique in areas with poor access in the summer.”

One of the other experiments keeping the researches busy is a project where they are using poplar trees to clean up the waste water from the municipal waste water plant. The poplar is able to help clean the water, and the tree actually grows three times faster during the process.

There is a hectre in Grande Prairie where they pump treated waste water from the lagoon into the plantation. This project is in collaboration with Natural Resource Canada and a company called Ainsworth.

These two success stories are among three other experiments in the Pollutants to Products initiative being carried out by Grande Prairie Regional College.