A few plants love mine waste

  • Miracle Worker: Plant physiologist Ray Brown

    Ray Ring photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Gazing around old diggings just outside Yellowstone National Park, Ray Brown says, "The ecosystem hasn't been damaged, it's been destroyed. It's typical on these sites."

Yet he points to a small grasslike plant and says enthusiastically, "This is the miracle!'

Brown is a plant physiologist who heads the Forest Service's disturbed-lands ecology program on the campus of Utah State University. By painstaking trial and error, he and his team have established a method for reclaiming such high-altitude mines.

Treating areas of the crushed rock like a farmer's field, the ecologists added fertilizers and lime to neutralize much of the acid. Then they tried to establish an array of plants. At first, even aggressive grasses that succeed almost anywhere couldn't grow; a growing season of less than two months didn't help.

Yet nearby, a core community of six native species had adapted to both the climate and level of acidity. These plants took hold on the treated rock, and as the plants lived and died for generation after generation, they built up organic matter, so that other native plants could invade by natural seeding. More fertilizer was added naturally by lightning strikes that create nitrogen compounds.

Now, 21 years after the initial jump-start, the crucial acre-and-a-half test plot is home to 56 species of plants - roughly the same number as grow in nearby ground that wasn't mined - including wildflowers that host butterflies, and tree seedlings that represent a young climax forest.

"We restored the natural succession," Brown says. "The principles we're learning here, we can apply at other sites in the West."

Brown estimates he's directly spent about $17,000 an acre to restore the plant life - a fairly good cost-benefit ratio, thanks to the plant he calls a miracle: Payson's sedge. It led the natural succession on the test plot. Even with no assistance, it takes root and thrives on the edges of the orange seeps. Moreover, Payson's sedge not only tolerates the pollution, it also conducts a small-scale cleanup.

"We've discovered that the sedge is complexing the heavy metals, tying them up (so they don't spread farther)," Brown says. "There's a chemical bond between the plant material and the metals that are floating around in solution. The plant is altering the chemistry of the mine spoil."

Brown suspects there are other plants around the West that can help with the cleanup. Support, though, is hard to come by. He says he's the only person in the Forest Service researching such reclamation, and over the course of his project here, his funding from the Forest Service has been cut 80 percent, to about $150,000 this year, which he says is "just enough to pay my salary and keep the lights on" back in his Utah lab. The rest of his team works on soft money - grants from other agencies that can dry up overnight.

"We don't have the staff we need; we have volunteers working for us. We're just piecing (the research) together."

Even the miraculous sedge can't grow on the blackened ground of the Killing Zone, where some seeps are still so acidic that a steel fencepost driven into the ground rusts through at its base in a couple of years.

As Mike Amacher, a researcher who works with Brown, says frankly, "No one should be under the illusion that complete restoration (of a natural ecosystem) is going to happen here, with today's technology or even in our lifetime."