Environmental Applications of Poplar and Willow

Working Party meeting 18th-24th September 2011, Edmonton, Canada

The 2011 WP6 meeting was organised in conjunction with the Annual General Meetings of the Poplar Council of Canada and the Poplar Council of the United States, which met between 18 and 24 September in Edmonton, Canada. The conference opened with a field tour followed by two days of presentations and a second one day field tour. The final element of the meeting organised for participants was a two day visit to northern Alberta to visit poplar related activities in the oil sands region around Fort McMurray. WP6 would like to thank both the Poplar Council of Canada for the invitation to join their annual meeting, and the local host team led by Barb Thomas for a lively meeting and superb study tours.

The Environmental Applications Working Party session opened with two keynote speakers:  Alistair McCracken of AFBI, Northern Ireland talking on the topic of “Short rotation coppice (SRC) willow:  a multifunctional crop” and Michel Labrecque of the Montreal Botanic Gardens, Canada talking to the title “Potentials and limitations of willows to address environmental concerns.”  There were seven further presentations on environmental applications topics ranging from oil sands reclamation, global warming and its effects on plantings, combining woody biomass production for bioenergy feedstocks with treatment of biosolids and wastewater, brownfield redevelopment, phytoremediation assisted with endosymbionts of poplar, willow impacts on water and soil quality, and water uptake by willow on the prairies. The slides from the talks and the abstracts for both the presentations and the posters can be accessed below in the Meeting Documents section.

Working Party Business Meeting
A short business meeting was attended by individuals already involved with WP activities and those new to the working party. Topics discussed were plans for future meetings, the need to update the WP6 website and the difficulty of getting messages from the research and technical world into the realm of policy makers to facilitate take up.  A suggestion was made that policy makers should be specifically targeted and invited to attend at least part of future meetings. Current WP Chair Jud Isebrands and Technical Secretary Drusilla Riddell-Black indicated their intention to step down at the next IPC session to be held at the Forest Research Institute, in Dehradun, India in October 2012 and meeting participants were asked to consider if they would like to become formally involved in the running of WP6 at this time. A proposal was put forward that the next WP6 meeting following the 24th IPC Session in India be held in New Zealand. Ian McIvor of Plant and Food Research indicated a willingness in principal to host such a meeting and undertook to explore this possibility with colleagues. Possible timings suggested included February or March 2014 or 2015. In the light of the discussion concerning research uptake by practitioners, the suggested theme for the New Zealand meeting is “Extension and Dissemination – sharing what we know and the practical benefits of research activity”. Plans for the meeting will be further developed in Dehradun.

Field Tour Visits
An extensive programme of field visits was available at the meeting. A range of public and private organisations in Canada are undertaking wide ranging programme of research, field trials and demonstrations with the aim of developing short rotation woody crop systems appropriate to Canadian conditions. Participants visited production field trials, nurseries and clonal selection trials. Those reported on here are those most relevant to environmental applications of poplar and willow. The full meeting report compiled by Jim Richardson of the Poplar Council of Canada can be accessed here . All the presentations from the Edmonton meeting may be accessed here

Whitecourt Short Rotation Intensive Coppice Willow and Poplar Wastewater Irrigation Site: The two hectare site comprising 5 willow and 2 poplar clones was established in 2006 as a partnership project between the town of Whitecourt, Natural Resources Canada, Alberta Environment and other national agencies to research the potential of wastewater and other waste products to increase biomass production. Planting density is 15,000 stems per hectare and annually 7 million litres of treated municipal wastewater from an activated sludge STW is applied to half the site using subsurface irrigation. Subsurface irrigation is used to protect the pipework from the severe winter conditions typical of Alberta and due to the close proximity of the site to the community baseball park. The goal is to increase the production of biomass for bioenergy and bioproducts while using treated wastewater that would otherwise be discharged into the neighbouring river. Early results from two harvests indicate that irrigated areas are yielding around 30% more than unirrigated, and that seven hectares of plantation would be sufficient to handle wastewater from 200 people. The site aims to provide information on suitable clones, loading rates and costs for installation and operation which may be used in other locations. Six other sites using either wastewater or biosolids or both are underway or planned.

Weyerhaeuser Tree Improvement Centre and Genesee Power Station: The tree improvement centre supplies rooted cuttings for land restoration activities as well as for mainstream poplar production activities. Genesee coal fired power station is supplied from neighbouring open cast mining areas and poplar, aspen and willow are among the species planted following restoration of opencast land.  Once production is sufficient the intention is to co-fire wood grown on restored land with coal in a rolling programme of harvest and replanting. Fort McMurray Oils Sands: the focus of the two day visit to the Fort McMurray area was the restoration of forest land impacted by oil industry activities. Impact took several forms – the complete removal of natural vegetation in areas of open cast bituminous sand extraction, forest felling along way-leaves for surveying purposes and the targeting felling of forest associated with exploration and subsurface extraction activities. The tour also visited the Alberta Pacific Forest Industries Inc (Al-Pac) poplar farm and development centre. Al-Pac operates a single line kraft pulp mill in north eastern Alberta based on Forest Management Agreement (FMA) area of 66,000sqkm. Fibre is supplied to the mill from both natural forest and from the poplar farming programme. Oil extraction related activities have had considerable impact on Al-Pac’s operational area, though in recent years, closer co-operation between the forest sector and the oil industry has meant greater co-ordination of fibre harvesting and oil related activities.

The Poplar Farming Programme aims to deliver 12.5% of high quality fibre to the Al-Pac kraft mill from poplar and aspen. Land is leased from farmers and land owners within a 200km radius of the mill. Approximately 1200 ha of land are recruited  and planted annually until the first rotation of 18-25 years. The tree improvement programme that supports the poplar farming is looking at selecting fast growing, high quality fibre trees with good disease and insect resistance and tolerance of extreme temperatures, drought and a short growing season.

The tour visited two open cast oil sand extraction sites and viewed areas at different post-restoration stages. A major challenge is to reinstate the hydrology typical of the region to create dry uplands, ponds and bogs to facilitate the development of ecosystems that mirror the natural environment. White and black spruce and aspens are the dominate tree species. Aspen spreads by suckering rather than by seed production which is typically stimulated by fire, and has a generally poor rate of germination. Conifers generally do better than aspen on restored areas. Grass and herbaceous species competition is problematic, though there is some suggestion that they may provide some shading and wind shelter in the first few years after planting. During the early years of opencast restoration, there was a tendency to block plant trees species to ease future felling. However, greater attention is now given to landform and hydrology resulting in a more random mixture of planting typical of the natural forest.

Opencast oil sand extraction is limited to areas close to the Athabasca River where the sand is relatively close to the surface. Elsewhere extraction is done at depth via steam injection and other techniques. Surveying to locate deposits and drilling to determine depth also impact on forest land and forest management. Temporary platforms built for drilling rigs are often based on clay lifted from neighbouring land, termed borrow pits, doubling the felled area and zones of damaged, compacted soil. Likewise, the zones where wellheads have operated and been removed are similarly compacted presenting considerable challenges for restoration of the forest cover. The tour visited a number of locations where different techniques had been tested to remediate soil conditions to improve the rate and quality of the forest cover recovery, such that it can provide both a natural ecosystem and contribute to forest industry activities in future years. Al-Pac has developed considerable expertise in this topic in relation to its logging activities and it is working with the oil industry to try to introduce these practises such that they become part of the normal procedures adopted during oil exploration and extraction activities. A document produced by Terry Oska and Maggie Glasgow of Al-Pac describing wellhead recovery practices may be accessed here 

Poplar and aspen saplings planted on restored open cast coal extraction site neighbouring the Genesee Power StationOil sand extraction facilities at Fort McMurray
Newly restored and mature restoration areas following open cast oil sand extraction activities
Mixed planted and natural regeneration of aspen on an oil sand exploration landing site
Terry Osko of Al-Pac describing activities to restore mixed aspen and spruce woodland to full productivity at former landings used for oil sand exploration.

Meeting Documents
The slides of the presentations from all the topic sessions at Edmonton can be found at the website of the Poplar Council of Canada

Presentation slides from the Environmental Applications session
Keynote speakers:
Alistair R McCracken Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Northern Ireland
‘Short rotation coppice (SRC) willow: A multifunctional crop’
ichel Labrecque, Institut de recherche en biologie végétale, Montréal
‘Potentials and limitations of willows to address environmental concerns’

Yue (Bobby) Hu, University of Alberta
‘Nutrient loading of aspen seedlings for potential out-planting in oil sands reclamation’
Ian McIvor
, Plant & Food Research, New Zealand
‘Global warming and extreme weather events - consequences for soil conservation plantings’
Richard Krygier
, Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Wood Fibre Centre
‘Production of short rotation woody biomass for energy feedstocks as a cost-effective solution for the treatment of industrial and municipal biosolids and municipal sewage wastewater’
J G Isebrands
, Environmental Forestry Consultants, Chris Slattery and Laura Coyne
‘Poplar community forests for brownfield redevelopment and economic recovery in Elkhart County, Indiana, USA’
haron L Doty, University of Washington
‘Endophyte-assisted phytoremediation of PAHs and TCE with poplar and willow’
Jaconette Mirck
and Bill Schroeder, AAFC-AESB Agroforestry Development Centre, Indian Head
‘Water uptake by native willows on the Prairies’
Ioannis Dimitriou
, Blas Mola and Pär Aronsson, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences,
The impact of willow and poplar short rotation crops grown on agricultural land on water and soil quality 

P Hurdle, R Krygier and M Blank, Natural Resources Canada
‘Development of a decision support tool comparing traditional engineering solutions to short rotation woody crop plantations for treatment of municipal sewage wastewater’
Natalia Startsev
, Martin Blank and Richard Krygier, Natural Resources Canada
‘Water and solutesfiltration through soil after municipal biosolids application’
Ronald S Zalesny Jr
, Jill A Zalesny, Bruce A Birr and Adam H Wiese, US Forest Service
‘Chloride uptake of Populus energy crops grown with high-salinity irrigation’

last updated:  Friday, October 19, 2012