Recreating a functioning forest soil in reclaimed oil sands in Northern Alberta: an approach for measuring success in ecological restoration

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During oil-sands mining all vegetation, soil, overburden, and oil sand is removed, leaving pits several kilometers wide and up to 100 m deep. These pits are reclaimed through a variety of treatments using subsoil or a mixed peat-mineral soil cap. Using nonmetric multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis of measurements of ecosystem function, reclamation treatments of several age classes were compared with a range of natural forest ecotypes to discover which treatments had created ecosystems similar to natural forest ecotypes and at what age this occurred. Ecosystem function was estimated from bioavailable nutrients, plant community composition, litter decomposition rate, and development of a surface organic layer. On the reclamation treatments, availability of nitrate, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur were generally higher than in the natural forest ecotypes, while ammonium, P, K, and Mn were generally lower. Reclamation treatments tended to have more bare ground, grasses, and forbs but less moss, lichen, shrubs, trees, or woody debris than natural forests. Rates of litter decomposition were lower on all reclamation treatments. Development of an organic layer appeared to be facilitated by the presence of shrubs. With repeated applications of fertilizers, measured variables for the peat-mineral amendments fell within the range of natural variability at about 20 yr. An intermediate subsoil layer reduced the need for fertilizer and conditions resembling natural forests were reached about 15 yr after a single fertilizer application. Treatments over tailings sand receiving only one application of fertilizer appeared to be on a different trajectory to a novel ecosystem.

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