In Coal Basin -- a narrow drainage that meets the Crystal River at Redstone, Colo.-- roads wind high into snow-capped peaks. In the early 1900s, and again starting in the 1950s, miners pried coal from these mountains, easing 100-ton loads down the switchbacks. Now the mineshafts are closed, but the tangle of roads, along with 100 acres of waste-rock piles, remain major erosion problems.
"If the (Crystal) River is turning black, I know it's been raining in Coal Basin," says Bill Fales, whose ranch is about 11 miles downstream of Redstone. Last year, when the Forest Service proposed using cattle to help heal the mining scars, Fales and other local ranchers who run their cattle on public land in Coal Basin got involved. They call it the "Cow Stomp," and if it's successful, the project could become a model for restoration efforts around the country.
The Crystal River naturally runs thick with sediment because of the erosive geology of the area, so runoff from Coal Basin is an extra stress on the river's fish, says Mark Lacy, a Forest Service fish biologist at the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest. Local conservation groups like the Roaring Fork Conservancy have long pushed to restore the basin. Last year, they organized a meeting in Redstone to get a project rolling. What emerged is a collaboration between the Forest Service and local ranchers, with conservation groups and local governments pitching in funding.
The project "picks up where the state left off," says Forest Service soil scientist Brian McMullen. Mid-Continent Coke and Coal Company, which operated the mine before going bankrupt in the early 1990s, demolished its buildings when the mine closed. But the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety was left with most of the reclamation task. It decommissioned some roads and seeded the waste rock piles to help stabilize them, but Mid-Continent's reclamation bond ran out before the agency could fully stem erosion.
"You can't really mess this area up any more (than it already is)," says McMullen, who's leading an effort to use compost and bio-char (a smoldered wood product), along with native seed, to revegetate decommissioned roads. The basin has become a "laboratory for reclamation," says Ben Carlson, the Forest Service range technician who's leading the Cow Stomp experiment. On a 40-acre waste-rock pile near Coal Creek, Carlson and others fenced off a few one-acre plots. Some of the plots are being used to test how native grasses, flowers, and shrubs respond to compost and bio-char. But the center of the action is a plot where Fales and other ranchers ran about 80 cattle for a day-and-a-half last summer.
On that plot, the Forest Service spread native grass seed, then a layer of wheat straw and feed hay. The Forest Service provided a watering tank, and the ranchers herded their cattle onto the plot. As the cattle grazed the hay, they stomped the grass seed and straw into the soil, providing natural fertilizer with their cow-pies.
"It felt like trying to reclaim a parking lot," recalls Fales. But already, the experiment is showing hopeful, if subtle, results. The native grass is a thicker and healthier compared to the neighboring "control" plot where the treatment wasn't applied. And the layer of straw paid off immediately by helping shield the bare soil from the rain, reducing erosion. As the straw and cow-pies work their way into the dirt, they will increase the amount of organic matter, which helps retain moisture and supports vegetation.
It will be a couple years before the results show clearly, says Carlson. If the project is successful, it could become a model not just for reclaiming mine sites, but pads of scraped earth left from oil and gas drilling, which also cause erosion problems.
Meanwhile, the Cow Stomp may be helping ease divisions between conservationists and ranchers. "The fascinating part of this is that the Cattlemen's Association, Forest Service and environmental groups are all working together," says Dorothea Farris, treasurer of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association, one of the groups funding the project. Carlson and Fales hope to demonstrate how cattle can heal the land, not damage it. Putting lots of cattle onto the small plots is high-intensity, but the ranchers are letting the land rest and regenerate afterwards, which provides key benefits. Overgrazing is usually caused by having cattle in an area for too long, says Carlson.
Fales, who remembers when the Cow Stomp site was an aspen grove before it was buried in mine tailings, says his cattle are a tool, like a hammer: "Just 'cause you hit your thumb, doesn't mean you throw out the hammer."
Marshall Swearingen is a High Country News intern.