PRS Publications

High-carbon wood ash biochar enhances native tree survival and growth on sand-capped mine tailings

Williams, J. M. and S. C. Thomas. 2024.


Use of waste wood biomass for bioenergy produces wood ash as a by-product; this ash is typically landfilled, but can potentially play an important role in soil improvement and forest restoration. In particular, high-carbon wood ash biochar (HCWAB) could supply nutrients, improve substrate water-holding capacity and pH, and emulate the ecosystem benefits of wildfire residues. Thickened tailings sites at metal mines across Canada are subject to stringent restoration regulations that entail planting of native trees to promote rapid reforestation. While HCWAB may prove beneficial in this context, field trials have been very limited to date. We conducted a large-scale, replicated field trial on sand-capped tailings at an operational gold mine in the Canadian boreal forest to assess the impact of HCWAB (at dosages of 0, 6.4, 12.8, and 19.1 t/ha) on survival and growth of four native tree species, as well as substrate chemical properties and element uptake in tree tissues. After 2 years, the survival of planted, native trees was highest at low to moderate application rates; HCWAB dosages above 13 t/ha presented reduced tree survival to levels comparable to unamended substrates. Tree growth was higher across all HCWAB doses relative to growth in samples planted on untreated substrates; tree species and initial size also had large impacts on final tree survival and aboveground growth. The survival of Betula papyrifera was significantly higher than other species, while smaller transplanted trees in general survived in greater numbers compared to larger size classes. Volunteer herbaceous vegetation significantly increased at the higher HCWAB application dosages and tree performance was negatively correlated with vegetation cover, consistent with a resource competition effect. HCWAB additions to sand-capped mine tailings did not significantly alter tree tissue concentrations or substrate availability of potentially toxic metals (Cd, Cu, Al). We conclude that low to moderate dosages of HCWAB on sand-capped tailings, particularly between 6.4 and 12.8 t/ha, may offer benefits to early tree survival, growth, and substrate nutrient status without causing significant risks of phytotoxicity and recommend future field trials focus on strategies to reduce tree competition with competing vegetation.