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
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
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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
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."