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Exploring drivers and dynamics of early boreal forest recovery of heavily disturbed mine sites: a case study from a reconstructed landscape


Ecological processes driving tree success in the early stages of succession are complex and often poorly understood, involving direct and indirect relationships among multiple agents modulated by legacies. Reclamation areas of open-pit mines provide a unique opportunity to study these relationships, as these sites are often homogeneous and have few ecological legacies. Our study evaluated the early performance of three boreal tree species planted at different densities over a large reclaimed landscape (57 ha) in northern Alberta, Canada, that varied in landscape topography, surface soils, and coarse woody material. A range of soil, topographical, and seedling characteristics were measured over five growing seasons. The two surface soils had stark differences in their physical and chemical properties. Overall, seedling survival was high (> 80%) for jack pine (Pinus banksiana) and white spruce (Picea glauca) and somewhat lower (60%) for trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides). All three species grew taller in the fine-textured than in the coarse-textured soils. Linear models identified simple relationships among some of the monitored variables. To further explore more complex relationships, we built a structural equation model for jack pine growth, 2 and 5 years after planting. On coarse-textured soil, the factors controlling pine growth shifted from intrinsic factors of seedling quality in the second growing season to more complex interactions in the fifth growing season, driven by soil nutrients, water availability and colonizing vegetation. We believe these models have the potential to be useful in forest reclamation, by identifying driving factors that could be monitored to indicate reclamation success.

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We would like to acknowledge the funding support provided by the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Syncrude Canada Ltd. and the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). We thank Carla Wytrykush and Jessica Piercey for their logistical support and all those who provided field support for this project over the years (Lynnette Allemand, Alexander Goeppel, Jessica Grenke, Ashley Hart, Elizabeth Hoffman, Robert Hetmanski, Caren Jones, Adam Kraft, Shaun Kulbaba, Angeline Letourneau, Mika Little-Devito, Michelle McCutcheon, Katharine Melnik, Sarah Thacker, and Alison Wilson). We also thank two anonymous reviewers for their comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Morgane Merlin.

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Merlin, M., Leishman, F., Errington, R.C. et al. Exploring drivers and dynamics of early boreal forest recovery of heavily disturbed mine sites: a case study from a reconstructed landscape. New Forests 50, 217–239 (2019).

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  • Forest restoration
  • Pinus banksiana
  • Populus tremuloides
  • Structural equation model
  • Seedling survival
  • Environmental drivers of growth