|BOTANICAL ELECTRONIC NEWS|
|No. 422 March 10, email@example.com||Victoria, B.C.|
The Herbarium of the University of Victoria will be closed from February 12 to August 31, 2010, while our building undergoes a seismic upgrade. Skeleton operations will be continuing in a temporary location on campus (phone, email and mailing address remain the same). Loans may be returned during this period, but the main collection will not be accessible for loans or visits during this time.
Canada's boreal region is one of the largest intact ecosystems on the planet, containing a quarter of the world's frontier forests (Bryant et al. 1997). It provides habitat for migratory songbirds, waterfowl, bears, wolves and the world's largest heard of caribou. Canada's boreal zone is of international importance because it stores more fresh water in its wetlands and lakes and more carbon in its soils, forests and peat than anywhere else in the world (Schneider & Dyer 2006). The boreal region of northern Alberta is described as a mosaic of wetlands and uplands with wetlands making up over 50% of the land base. Of these wetlands, over 90% are peatlands (Vitt et al. 1996). Peatland complexes are dominated by wooded fens and bog islands (Vitt et al. 1996).
In this same region, oil sands mining development is occuring at an astonishing pace. Since 2000, the industry has expanded significantly, and production now exceeds one million barrels crude oil per day (Bott 2000). Approximately 2 tons of oil sand is needed for each barrel of oil. The total area deemed suitable for surface mining is circa 2500 km 2 and active mining is occurring on over 250 km 2 (Woynillowicz et al. 2005). When this area is fully developed, it will probably be the world's largest open-pit mining complex (Schneider & Dyer 2006).
Although currently most oil sands mining is occurring in open-pit sites, other mining techniques will become increasingly important in the next decades. Over 80% of the oil sands deposits are deep below the surface and must be extracted using 'in-situ' techniques (Alberta Energy and Utilities Board 2005). The primary technique used is injecting high- pressure steam into the underground deposits which liquefies the bitumen so that it can be piped to the surface (Bott 2000). If all available resources are mined, the area affected by in-situ mining would correspond to 138,000 km 2 - approximately the size of Florida and fifty times larger than that of the open pit mined area (Schneider & Dyer 2006).
The energy sector has been identified as the greatest source of disturbances to peatlands of boreal Alberta (Forest 2001). Habitat destruction associated with open-pit mining leaves huge ecological footprints (Figure 1b). To date, approximately 500 km 2 have been disturbed (Grant et al. 2008). Thirty-one percent of this landscape is covered by peatlands - approximately 155 km 2 of peatlands thus have been destroyed, which adds up to 0.15% of the disturbed peatlands in Alberta as estimated in 1995 (Vitt et al. 1996).
Where pre-mined landscapes are dominated by peatlands, post-mined landscapes will be dominated by lakes which currently cover 130 km 2 , or 27% of the post-minded landscape (Grant et al. 2008). These lakes contain water contaminated with higher salinity, naphthenic acids and heavy metals (Grant et al. 2008). Will peatlands be able to establish in areas with high concentrations of oil sand process affected water? Pilot projects are being undertaken by the two largest oil companies to 'recreate' peatlands in the post-mined landscape (Graf et al. 2009; Wytrykush et al. 2009). Research is being conducted by the oil companies to target peatland plants that will tolerate water affected by the mining process. Linear disturbances associated with conventional oil and gas as well as in situ oil sands mining (i.e. roads, pipelines, seismic lines, power transmission lines) are considered less intensive because they essentially leave the landscape intact (Figure 1c). However, due to the sheer geographical extent of these disturbances, some believe they have the single largest impact on boreal peatlands of Alberta (Forest 2001). Applications for 924,016 km of seismic lines were approved between 1979 and 1995, over 88,588 well sites existed by June 1997, and over 73,103 km of pipeline have been laid by December 1996 in northern Alberta (Alberta Environmental Protection 1998).
The main effects on peatlands caused by these disturbances are 1) fragmentation of the landscape, 2) destruction of habitat, 3) changes to hydrology caused by drainage and compaction, and 4) soil and water contamination from hydrocarbon spills or mineral/clay soils used for construction. The best way to mitigate these effects is through improved management practices and restoration of affected areas which are no longer in use.
Northern Alberta is mainly public land. In 1993 the Alberta Water Resource Commission released a draft policy for managing peatlands in Alberta's unsettled area. The unsettled area makes up 53% of Alberta and contains the majority of the province's peatlands. This policy was never ratified and currently there is no policy for provincial peatland conservation or management in Alberta. The provincial draft policy does not endorse a "no net loss of wetland functions" principle like the federal policy does. Alberta Environmental Protection (1994) provided a course guideline for protecting 400 km 2 of peatlands in the oil sands region; however, reserves have not been set up. Vitt et al. (1996) criticize these conservation guidelines because bogs and fens with internal lawns are underrepresented.
These landforms represent high landscape heterogeneity and should be a priority for conservation (Vitt et al. 1996). The vast majority of disturbed peatlands are not restored. Presently, the Alberta government does not require decommissioned well sites, roads or pipelines located in wetlands to be restored back to wetlands (Alberta Environment 1995), and it will not require this in the near future (Reclamation Criteria Advisory Group, 2008). Creating peatlands in the post-mined landscape of open-pit mining has begun, but will address only a small percentage of the landscape. While development of the oil sands area is certain, the footprint of these disturbances could be reduced greatly by improved management practices and restoration of sites after decommissioning.
If we look at oil sand mining, what do we see? On first view we see disaster. If our Russian oil companies need a green leaf to demonstrate how 'clean' they are, they could compare themselves to companies mining oil sands in Alberta, Canada. The open mining areas are an ecological catastrophe. Even if you base your assessment only on the promotional videos of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (http://www.capp.ca/canadaIndustry/oilSands/oil-sands-videos/Pages/Oil-Sands-Tour.aspx), the feeling of apocalypse hardly escapes you.
First of all the entire destroyed area is really very large. It is unique even in the mining industry that the open cast mine itself covers 5-15 km 2 and the adjacent destroyed lands 30-40 km 2 . Secondly, the open cast mine covers the entire wetland landscape starting directly from the Athabasca river bank and spreading through the valley to terraces and the watershed. Thirdly, we are dealing with the unique situation where a large area of peatland is destroyed without even using the peat. The only parallel would be construction of infrastructure, but even there the peat is often utilized. And the size is definitely less. There is no chance to restore the original peatland ecosystems because of the complicated hydrology of the landscape shaped by thousands of years of sedimentation processes. We are not just looking at a few raised bogs here, but at a mosaic of bogs and fens and shallow forested peatlands. And finally, the scale of impact of hundreds of square kilometres of bare mineral soil particularly on mesohydrological processes has not been evaluated and is not understood. The new landscape replaces the complicated mosaic of deep and shallow peatlands, streams, mineral upland forests etc. The water flow from watershed to river is severely interrupted in a stretch of 60-90 km along both sides of the Athabasca River.
All these problems come combined with a complicated Canadian legislation, with a land use decision making tool that depends on plenty of conditions hardly connected to environmental conditions and consequences. Project cycle design, regulations and conservation should specifically also address peatlands.
The lakes that are created by open cast mining are not restoration objects. These lakes are mainly created to store water in order to reuse it in the extraction process. But why must these toxic ponds be situated so close to the river? At present the water quality will not allow terrestrialisation by peat formation.
Currently, the 'restoration' practice for open cast mining areas entails filling up with left-over sand, levelling and planting trees - a far cry from the natural mosaic of peatlands, paludified lands and dry forest lands.
The 'restoration' practice for 'in situ' mining areas is afforestation which of course does not include closing ditches as that contradicts the forester mentality.
The Canadian compensation practice in this case focuses on wetlands and does not include peatland as a separate compensation object. It allows compensation of one type of water object by any other type. A lost creek can be compensated by an artificial lake. One company created a lake to 'replace' a peatland with 8 m peat depth. Nonrecognition of peatlands as valuable ecosystems is of course a general problem worldwide. Peat use is not an issue for the oil companies. Some of the peat is stored for use as surface soil in restoration projects, but it is unclear how much is treated as waste. It is thus impossible to calculate the peat turnover and carbon balance. The integrated climate effect of oil sands should besides the direct emissions from combustion, include emissions from land use. The emissions caused by deforestation are reported by Canada under the Kyoto protocol, but the loss of soil organic carbon (peat) is not included in this conversion from 'forest land to other land'. Also emissions from the drained peatlands for in-situ operations and tailing ponds in open mining should be included. Oil sands production is economically feasible only if the oil price is above 70 USD. If oil and gas remain the main energy source the importance of the Canadian oil sands will only increase. The area of the deposits is huge and so is the potential area of impact on the boreal peatland-forest landscape. Companies are spending large sums of money on mitigation and restoration measures. The question remains whether appropriate knowledge exists with the responsible scientists. Comprehensive understanding of ecosystem functions and services is needed where in contrast the restoration objects are usually as small as the budget and the outcome often dictated by economic interests or by the oil companies themselves hiring the scientists. Mitigation, restoration and compensation practices can certainly be improved. The first step should be to develop a national plan for oil sand mining, focussing not only on energy interests, but addressing wider demands of climate, biodiversity and landscape integrity.
Don't judge this book by its title. The word "urbanizing" is not a common one, and even if it is familiar to you, reading about the decline of native plants and their replacement by those adapted to an urban environment may not strike you as an enjoyable read. Perhaps more attractive is the prospect of learning about the past 200 years of botanical activity in the Portland area, and that is the subject of the first 60 pages of this book. Topics include a chronology of botanical exploration in the region, biographies of the principal plant collectors, and the historic and modern vegetation and habitats of Portland-Vancouver region. The text is well-illustrated with historical photographs of the city environs and the botanists who collected here. This section concludes with a thorough analysis of the factors contributing to the historical and ongoing changes in Portland's flora, and provides an excellent perspective on the dynamic interplay between native and exotic plants in an urban environment. Several well-known plant collectors played important roles in the botanical history of the region, but the star of this story is Martin Gorman (1853-1926). Gorman's profession was accounting, while his passion was botany. He was also a founding member of the Oregon Alpine Club and Mazamas, and curator of the Forestry Building from 1906-1926. Built for the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition, the Forestry Building was a "hub of botanical activity" during Gorman's tenure. Gorman collected about 200 plant specimens from the Portland area, and most importantly, he wrote several articles on the region's flora, culminating in his List of Plants in the Vicinity of Portland, Oregon published in 1916 and 1917. Tragically, the botanical journal Muhlenbergia ceased publication before the complete manuscript was published, and the issue containing the last instalment (over 200 species) was never distributed! One of the most significant contributions of Christy et al. is the first publication of Gorman's complete species list and notes (transcribed from the only known original housed in the University of Oregon's Knight Library). Gorman's information is conveyed in tabular format, together with other historical and current information. This "catalog" fills 186 pages, and encompasses 1553 native and naturalized plants known within the same region that Gorman defined: a 15 mile radius from downtown Portland. One column of the table combines Gorman's text in bold with other historical records (gathered from herbarium specimens and other publications). A second column summarizes the "current condition" of each plant including whether it is native or exotic, rare or common, its period of introduction, modern records, and miscellaneous comments. Much fascinating information is contained in this table, and it is an extremely valuable resource for anybody interested in the plants, and changing flora, of Portland and the Pacific Northwest.
An extensive bibliography and six appendices complete the text. These include a gazetteer, additional excerpts from Gorman's papers containing many observations of historical interest, and lists of 580 rare native plants, 312 rare exotic plants and 279 ballast plants (it was a popular pastime among Portland area botanists to collect the plants that grew from the soil used by ships for weight, transported around the globe, and dumped on the banks of the Columbia River in Portland). The five authors are to be congratulated for producing a valuable addition to our understanding of the interactions of plants and people in the Pacific Northwest. They expertly combine historical scholarship with a comprehensive presentation of the current Portland flora. The floristic treatment is based on the authors' own botanizing, extensive data from herbarium records compiled by the Oregon Flora Project, and several other sources. The book is an important reference for Oregon and Washington botanists, and establishes a well-documented baseline for future studies of the region's flora.
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