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Cows Help Repair Land Damaged by Coal Mining

Cathy, Sam, Max and Mai
Flickr - Creative Commons

An effort is underway in the far reaches of Pitkin County, to repair damage from an abandoned mine.

The Coal Basin mine outside Redstone stopped operating 20 years ago – Now local agencies are cleaning up the mess that has damaged nearby rivers. And, the groups are using a unique clean-up method.

High above a busy highway, in a picturesque alpine basin, a group of cows ambles across a plot of land. At first glance, it’s hard to see – but these cows are actually helping repair the land. The fenced plot they’re walking on is covered in straw and hay, with seeds underneath…As they saunter across, their hooves push the seeds into the soil, making fast vegetative growth possible.

"We’re hoping with the straw and hay and the cows churning the soil up that we can create a soil structure that can hold more water in the soil, and we can get better nutrient cycling," says Ben Carlsen, a range technician with the Forest Service. The land the cows are on is an old refuse pile. When the mine was active, waste was thrown here. Now the dirt is hard-packed, almost like a parking lot, Carlsen says.

"When they process coal, they get a bunch of waste rock out of it, and they just put it into a pile, throw a little bit of topsoil onto it, and seed it."

The Coal Basin mine is one of more than 20,000 abandoned mines statewide. Many leak toxins into local watersheds. The concern here is about sediment – leftover mine workings turned the soil into an impenetrable sheet. Now it refuses to soak up water. Sharon Clarke with the Roaring Fork Conservancy says when it rains, dirt flows across the landscape and into streams. The results, she says, show up in local rivers.

"This year, I think anyone who’s looked at the Crystal River, has seen just massive amounts of sediment."

Increased sediment is bad news for the aquatic life in these streams. She says, "All that sediment’s going to hurt the fish, the macro-invertebrates and reduce the complexity of the system, so there’s nothing good about it."

Across the state 1300 miles of streams are impaired because of past mining activities, according to the Colorado Division of Reclamation Mining and Safety. Funding to repair these lands and improve the watersheds is minimal, so collaborations like this one are often essential. In Coal Basin, the Forest Service, Roaring Fork Conservancy and the local cattleman’s association are working together.

Still, the work is happening on a small scale, on just one acre. Clarke says much more work is needed here. She points to another big waste pile across the way, on the property.

"That whole pile across the way there, that all needs re-vegetation, you can see that there has been some attempts at re-vegetation, but if you look at some of those trees there they were probably planted 10/15 years ago, and they’re just over your knee, it’s not the best conditions for growing."

On the land parcel being worked by cows, the hope is grass will grow high here by next year. It’s an experiment – But, if it works, much of this scarred landscape could be repaired.

The Forest Service is paying for the $10,000 Coal Basin cow project. The agency purchased the land after mining activities ended there in the 1990’s.

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