Over much of northern Canada, there is little more than trees, rocks, lakes and wetlands. But in northeastern Alberta, the landscape is changing dramatically as strip mining peels off the forest and soil to reach a molasses-like viscous oil mixed with sand and clay 40 to 60 metres below the surface.
About 40 percent of the area is wetlands, some of which have been drained and rivers diverted to prevent flooding of the mine sites. One of the world's most spectacular wetlands is found here, and despite its recognised ecological importance, is now slated to be strip mined.
The McClelland Lake Wetland Complex is about 120 kms north of the oil sands boom town of Fort McMurray Alberta. The complex is comprised of McClelland Lake, 12 sinkholes, and a remarkably beautiful and intricate, ancient patterned fen. The complex is home to numerous rare plants, including five insect-eating species.
Scientists like Richard Thomas consider the fen to be a world-class natural heritage site.
"McClelland Fen will serve as the lightning rod that focuses world attention on the ecological holocaust now taking place in the SMA (Surface Mineable Area) of northeast Alberta," said Thomas, a boreal ecologist working for the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), in a statement.
Because of its ecological importance, the region had been off-limits to mining until an oil company successfully lobbied top Alberta politicians in the late 1990s, says Ian Urquhart, a political scientist at the University of Alberta and spokesperson for the AWA, an environmental group.
Now 40 percent of the fen and 50 percent of the entire complex will be destroyed by mining. A mere 0.1 percent (4.13 sq km) of the 3,450-square-kilometre oil sands in what is called the Fort Hills Surface Mineable Area will be protected.
"We're trying to secure protection for a 200 sq km area that includes the complex and surrounding lands as a buffer -- not very much considering the size of the SMA," Urquhart told IPS.
However, conservation and environmental preservation is the furthest thing from government officials' minds.
Late last fall, the Alberta government set off a public firestorm when released its "Mineable Oil Sands Strategy" (MOSS) document. It effectively declared that thousands of square kilometres of boreal forest and wetlands with oil sands underneath were only good for one thing: extracting oil.
"For the first time, the government openly said they were writing off more than 3,000 sq km for oil," said Urquhart, who is writing a book on the oil sands.
That had been the unstated but de facto government policy since the first oil sands were mined in the late 1960s, he said.
Growing unease about the speed, scale and impacts of oil sands development led to widespread public protest over the MOSS document. Now a one-year review of the strategy involving industry, the public and NGOs has begun.
Oil companies have spent millions of dollars reclaiming mined lands by planting grasses and trees, says Greg Stringham, vice president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
"Twenty percent of the land mined by Syncrude and Suncor (two of the largest oil sands companies) has been reclaimed," Stringham said.
But although trees are now growing on about 5,000 hectares of land mined up to 40 years ago, no ecologist would call these lands restored as boreal forest, said Urquhart.
"It's impossible to recreate the boreal ecosystem," he said.
Companies do not have to even make the attempt to restore the boreal forest. All they need do is fix things up so that the land could be used for other purposes in the future. Despite that low bar, not one hectare has yet to be officially reclaimed, according to the government of Alberta.
It will take 300 or more years before reclaimed areas become functioning forest again, says Rick Schneider of the Canadian Parks and Wildness Society in Edmonton.
The wetlands may never return. One report estimates that nearly 10 percent of the region's wetlands will be permanently removed from the landscape, even after reclamation efforts.
Despite Alberta's huge size of 661,848 sq km, inhabited by just 3.3 million people, industrial logging and oil and gas development have reduced its vast forests to less than 40 percent of their original extent, according to a recent study by Global Forest Watch Canada.
The rate and extent of forest loss has been comparable to the losses in the Amazon rainforest, the group says.
Its study found that much of the remaining forest is heavily fragmented by industrial activities, which has had a significant impact on woodland caribou and grizzly bears.
Most of the woodland caribou herds are in decline or threatened with total extermination, including those in Athabasca oil sands region.
Caribou and grizzly bears, along with lynx, martin and some forest birds, are particularly sensitive to human disturbance, said Schneider.
"No one has quantified the impacts of industrial development on these species until now," he said.
Such studies have come late and are more about how to adapt mining techniques to minimise the damage on species rather whether such activities should be done in some areas at all, said Urquhart.
And it will be difficult for science to keep up.
"The pace of oil sands development is absolutely frenetic," he said.
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