The seeds of something great: inside Alberta’s Reforestation Seed Bunker

Photo of the Alberta Reforestation Seed Bunker

Concrete bunkers: not just for criminal masterminds anymore.

This is the second post in our four-post series about how we work to support re-forestation in Alberta. Take a look at the first post here.

Deep in a nest of trees about 15 minutes outside the town of Smoky Lake sits a large concrete bunker, built into the hillside. With 16-inch walls and no windows, it looks foreboding – passerby would be forgiven for assuming that it housed high-tech weapons or state secrets. But in fact, something less tantalizing lurks behind those walls – unless you’re a squirrel, in which case the bunker might as well be Fort Knox.

Housed inside the bunker, in freezer compartments held at -18°C, is 53,000 kilograms of tree, shrub, and grass seed. Like any  bunker, it is locked down tight and has a top-notch security system – monitored 24/7 by the Alberta Government Protection Services for temperature changes, mechanical failure, fire, intruders, and anything else that might disturb the safety of the precious cargo stored within.

Photo of lodgepole pinecones on the tree.

Protecting little seeds and cones is a surprisingly big job. These are from a lodgepole pine. Photo credit: Walter Siegmund.

This might seem like overkill – but in fact, this high-tech security is protecting a serious asset. Almost 32,000 kilograms of the seed housed in the bunker belongs to logging, oil sands, and mining companies – and will ultimately be used to turn public land impacted by industry back into lush, green forest.

Little seeds with a big purpose

By law, public land that is clear-cut for logging must be reclaimed – replanted with native vegetation – within two years, and many other industrial operations are required to reclaim disturbed areas with native vegetation as well. Successful reforestation and reclamation requires that companies properly harvest and store enough tree, shrub, and grass seeds to meet their land’s reforestation needs, and that those seeds are native to the region and ecosystem being reclaimed.

To make things even more challenging, the process also requires genetic diversity – meaning that companies can’t just harvest hundreds of seeds from a single tree before it’s cut down and use them to re-plant an entire forest. Re-planting requires a representative sample of seeds, from a diverse number of plants, to ensure forest health.

The Alberta Tree Improvement and Seed Centre (ATISC) – which operates the bunker – doesn’t do this work themselves; that’s the responsibility of industry. But they do enforce standards that ensure seed used for reforestation is harvested appropriately, stored properly, and – finally – planted successfully. Few of us are aware of the work they do – but we’ve probably all seen the results. In just a couple of years, reclamation can turn a completely clear-cut area into an oasis – stay tuned to see exactly what this looks like.

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