REDSTONE - Help is being harnessed from an unlikely source to repair a damaged and desolate landscape in the White River National Forest in the mountains west of Redstone.
Cows were enlisted to help break up the thin layer of soil covering waste-coal piles in Coal Basin, roughly six miles from Redstone. The ground on a 1-acre test plot on the massive pile has been covered with straw mixed with grass and hay seed. The cows' split hooves till the hard ground and work in the seeds, while their waste provides the fertilizer.
The hope is that the grass germinates, takes hold and allows the slopes to hold water better, said Ben Carlson, a range technician with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the Forest Service. That way rainfall won't immediately run off the hardened soil and carry sediment into Coal Creek and ultimately to the Crystal River.
Cows will be kept off the test plot next summer to help the grass establish itself. Grass on the test plot will be compared to an adjacent "control plot" that was fenced off and won't be seeded or have cows on it. If grass comes in thick enough on the test plot, the project will likely be expanded, and cows will be used to revegetate more of the waste piles, Snelson said. The ground eventually will be available for grazing on a rotating basis for the Coal Basin Cattlemen's Association - which consists of Bill Fales; the Jacober brothers, of Crystal River Meats; and three members of the Nieslanik family. About 400 cows are already grazing in other parts of the basin.
Thirty-five cows and their calves along with 20 yearlings were enlisted for the experiment. They will be allowed to graze on the land for a few days. Fales said the ranchers want to see two huge piles of waste coal cleaned up and put to more productive use, so they were happy to lend cows for the experiment.
"Cows can be a fantastic tool," he said. "You could come up here with a lot of yellow-painted machines for the work, but the cows can do it better."
Some environmentalists are critical of grazing on public lands in the West because of the damage to the ecosystem. However, ranchers have been embraced in many quarters in recent years as cows are seen as a better alternative than condos. Many conservationists support well-regulated cattle grazing on public lands in recognition of the benefits of ranching.
Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson said cooperative efforts such as the restoration in Coal Basin are how the cash-strapped agency must get projects accomplished. The revegetation experiment is relatively inexpensive at $10,300, in large part because the cows were enlisted to help speed the nutrient cycle and get the grass growing, Carlson said. The project expenses include fencing, hay and grass seed, straw and some weed spraying.
Coal Basin is an area that was mined for decades, most recently from the 1950s until 1990. Material pulled from five mine openings at the 10,000-foot elevation was brought down into a vast flat area, where it was sorted and washed. Coal was trucked out; waste was left in two massive piles. The smaller pile, where the revegetation project is taking place, is 60 to 80 acres.
When the mines closed, the piles became their legacy. A 10-year, $3 million first phase of the rehabilitation of Coal Basin started in the mid-1990s. That focused on removing many of the buildings and equipment left behind. Snelson said it's important to address the waste piles now because they are the main blemish in the 18,000-acre basin. Some sedimentation of Coal Creek is happening naturally, said Sharon Clarke, of the Roaring Fork Conservancy, but the waste piles make a significant contribution to the problem.
"There's nothing healthy about Coal Creek," she said. "There's just not much riparian vegetation."
Coal Creek pumps tons of sediment into the Crystal River, wiping out the insects that fish depend on and severely degrading the capacity of the river to support fish.
By preventing the torrent of water running off the waste piles into the creek, sedimentation could be reduced.
"It's never going to look like a pristine stream like Castle Creek or Maroon Creek," Clarke said. "But it definitely can be improved."