From its beginning in 1939 until it was shut down in 1979, a major oil refinery and later, a bitumen plant, operated on this 32 ha area of land.
As a result of years of refinery activities, including spillage, hydrocarbons were found to be present in the surface and subsoils and on the groundwater plane beneath the site. The presence of these substances limited the future, potential use and development of the property.
The last owner of the refinery and land, Petro Canada, became engaged in lengthy and unresolvable discussions with the Inglewood community over the future and use of the site. Ultimately, with the intervention of a Rotary club member, a former employee at the refinery, and the offer that Rotarians would become voluntary partners with the owner and the community in the project, it was resolved that the land should become a park.
What kind of a park? It would be an urban wilderness comprising elements and features natural to land in the plain of the nearby Bow River. Its development would demonstrate reclamation of land impacted by industrial use, the setting in motion of natural processes by human hands. It would be a complement to, yet different from the adjacent Inglewood Bird Sanctuary in that it would be a wild and free place with few restrictions on use and access, along with it being uniquely suited to experimentation and education with its historical natural state having been completely altered.
Development of the Wildlands would be unique also in the extraordinary partnership of the corporate owners, the local residential and business community and the combined Rotary Clubs of Calgary. Petro Canada, would carry out the basic ground work on the site. The City of Calgary would take on the long term operation and management of the park. Petro Canada would continue its monitoring and mitigation of the subsurface hydrocarbons.
With plans prepared with the participation of all the partners development began in 1992. The first step in the process was the determination through scientific testing that the surface of the site was free of substances that could inhibit the growth of vegetation. The surface soils had been removed after the dismantling of the refinery. In summer of 1992 the remaining topography was moderately reshaped to create landform features. The most notable of these was the reshaping of an existing engineered hydrocarbon recovery ditch into a naturalistic pond basin at the centre of the site, with a valley to drain overflow water to the southeast. The spoil materials from the excavation were placed to form a “lookout hill” on the east and the “west knoll”, both adjacent to the pond.
Some 58,000 cubic meters of clean, “brown” soil (the transitional soil layer between surface topsoil and subsoil) were hauled from a development site in south Calgary and placed in varying depths on the barren surfaces of selected areas of the park. The plain in the north area of the site was left as found with emerging vegetative cover, as were, for experimentation and observation, areas around and south of the pond basin. The basin was lined with clay to retain water while sustaining a riparian growth zone.
The first planting of what would eventually total some 30,000 trees and shrubs began in early summer of 1993. These plants were available from, and later contract grown by specialized nurseries. Funds for the plants was arranged through a national program, Tree Plan Canada. All of the plant species are native and common to the area. They included mainly Balsam poplar, various Willows, Chokecherry, Saskatoon, wild roses, Buffalo berry, Wolf willow, Gooseberry, Potentilla and some native Spruce. The plants were set out according to habitat conditions and in natural associations.
All of this planting was carried out by volunteers organized by Rotary Club representatives. The planters were from the Inglewood community, other Rotarians, as well as those from throughout the city: school groups, Boy Scouts, energy industry employees, organizations of disabled persons, and participants from all over who were simply interested in the idea of the Wildlands.
Until 1996 the establishment of the new plantings was maintained by a dedicated individual contracted by Petro Canada using a movable agricultural irrigation system. The trees and shrubs flourished in this period, beginning the formation of the landscape features of the park.
To further sustain growth and to make the pond a focal feature a system was put in place to pump water from the hydrocarbon recovery process back into the pond. It would be a further, visible demonstration of the reclamation and vitality of the site. It would become a central resource for the highly successful Wildlands Education Program, conducted by science educators and enjoyed by schools in Calgary.
Ducks Unlimited Canada, the well-known conservation organization, carried out the collection, transfer and establishment of wetland plants at the pond. Again in 1996 Ducks Unlimited Canada seeded native grasses to add to what would become a mosaic of natural and cultivated ground cover vegetation on the hills and in the northerly plain of the site. The south “field” would remain an area for the demonstration of soil rebuilding through agricultural techniques.
Also in 1996 the park was officially opened to the public and Calgary Parks assumed the responsibility for maintenance.
The next “chapter” in the making and the life of the Wildlands began when, for three or more years after its opening, the park, and especially the developing vegetation, were impacted by unusually severe drought.
The Inglewood Wildlands Project - Revitalization
The natural growth and progress of the Inglewood Wildlands as envisioned, consequent to the period of drought, languished for over a decade. An estimated half or more of the new plantings had been lost, the emerging landscape features became indistinct, the pond went dry.
In 2010 Petro Canada merged with Suncor Energy.
In the later years of this period, not accepting the potential loss of the aspirations for the Wildlands and the extraordinary efforts that had gone into it, Rotarians, as they had at the conception and beginning of the project, once again led the initiative to revitalize the park.
In time the members of the partnership, including both veteran and new participants from the community and the corporate owner, discussed what should done for the park and rallied around plans for its renewal and improvement.
In the meantime, even with the diminished developmental resources of the plantings and the water supply, the site continued to become “green” with a complete vegetative ground cover advancing throughout the formerly barren landscape. In the early years of the Suncor ownership the active hydrocarbon recovery was effectively complete and as a result of changing environmental regulations this source of sustaining ground water, including that for the pond, was unavailable.