Where the Buffalo Roam

If you could hop into a time machine and go back 30 years, the Manitoba maples in my back yard would be a lot shorter than they are today, but the shape of the yard and the physical appearance of the house from the street would probably be pretty similar to what it is today. Go back those same 30 years on the spot where the bison roam on the Syncrude site and the change in vistas would be dramatic.

The bison paddock just past Gateway Hill and around dead man's curve is a rolling, lush meadow-home to an award winning herd of over 300 wood bison. Set off against a small pond brimming with birds and vegetation, 7 to 10 bison were in our sights yesterday as we made the requisite stop at the Wood Bison Viewpoint (a brainchild of former Syncrude public relations luminary Darcy Levesque) during a guided tour.

Go back 30 years, looking south on the same spot that we sat gazing at these majestic and beautiful bison-gazing back at us with curiosity mere feet beyond the protective fence-and you would be gaping at an enormous hole, deep and dusty with a complete absence of colour. A gigantic bucketwheel would be off in the distance, inhaling pile after pile of oil sand gathered and heaped up by the leviathon of the tarsands called the dragline.

The recoverable oil from this particular spot was harnessed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over time, the holes were filled in with tailings sand, shaped and contoured, then topped with overburden, planted with native grasses, shrubs and trees, and left to re-establish its connection with nature.

Walking around the reclaimed portions of Syncrude, now almost 5,000 hectares (100 metres x 100 metres x 5,000), evidence of what is natural and what is reclaimed is hard to come by. According to Cheryl Robb, Syncrude Media Relations Advisor, she often asks visitors to this park to try and spot the difference. Apart from trees that might be a little too strategically planted, and a forest floor that might be in short supply of decaying organic material, it's incredibly difficult to tell the difference.

You can travel anywhere in the world and see countless examples of mining operations where the earth was raped and left to fend for itself, huge tracts of land scarred and ruined. And despite the protestations of environmental groups about the Athabasca Oil Sands, 50 years from now, that massive hole in the ground the size of Fort McMurray, teeming with some of the biggest trucks and shovels on planet earth-Syncrude's North Mine-will be rolling, beautiful boreal forest again.

The non-renewable resource business is never pretty. As a developer, you're put into a situation where you're tasked with taking something that you can never replace. The oil that is coming out of the north eastern corner of Alberta is fueling cars, heating homes and making life livable for millions upon millions of people around the globe. Companies like Syncrude are not only securing Canada's energy future, but they are also using everything in their power to put the earth back to as close to the way it was as is scientifically possible. We demand it of them, and they demand it of themselves.

One day, long into the distant future, when my children's children's children are enjoying life in Wood Buffalo, it is quite conceivable that this region will be the northern Canadian paradise where the bison truly roam, wild and majestic, like they did long ago. At that same point many years from now, the suburbs of Toronto will still be the suburbs of Toronto, only the concrete sidewalks and sprawling homes will be a little less shiny than they are today.

June 23, 2010 - 194.2 pounds, 28.2% body fat


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