Cow stomp: using cattle to reclaim mine land

 

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.

Ben Carlson and Brian McMullen of the White River National Forest, at the Cow Stomp site in Coal Basin

"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.

Old mining roads still marked with snow, high on the peaks in the background

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.

Cow-pie and straw on their way to becoming soil

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...