A reclaimed area of Coal Basin, but without the cow stomp project
A reclaimed area within the cow stomp project.
Coal Basin Mining History
The history of mining in Coal Basin started with the discovery of major coal deposits in 1886. Then, following a decade of exploration, an investor and entrepreneur named John C. Osgood opened the first Coal Basin mine portal in 1900. To support the mine, a railroad up the Crystal and then from Redstone to the mines in Coal Basin was also completed in that year, allowing the Coal Basin mines to hit full stride.
Financial problems had plagued Osgood for some time, and in 1903 he lost control of his CF&I company to John Rockefeller. The mine continued under Rockefeller, but compounding financial troubles, combined with a decline in the demand for coke, eventually triggered the mine’s bankruptcy and closure in 1909. The mine had a history of financial problems causing it to sit idle for 4-decades from 1912 to 1956 when Mid-Continent Resources gained ownership, undertook a major upgrade and expansion of the operation, and resumed mining.
The impact of Mid-Continent Resources’ mining activities in Coal Basin from 1956 to about 1990 dwarfed the early mining activities of the Osgood era. Mid-Continent’s operations ceased in 1991, and the company declared bankruptcy in 1992, closing the books on a century of mining in which over 58 million tons of coal was removed from Coal Basin. The bankruptcy left behind an area of about 5000 acres that was essentially abandoned, leaving massive scars from a century of intense mining, as well as a number of buildings, various pieces of mining equipment, and two enormous piles of coal debris. What was left was a major environmental disaster.
In 1995, the Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety (CDRMS) undertook a 4-million dollar restoration effort that lasted through 2002. This reclamation changed upper Coal Basin from a massive industrial waste dump into a respectable forest but left behind much to be done.
The Coal Basin Revegetation Project
As the years passed after the completion of the CDRMS reclamation project, some areas defied revegetation. These areas have become a source of major erosion, which in turn degrades the water quality in the Crystal River in spring runoff and from summer rain and thunder storms. In 2011, the United States Forest Service, Sopris District, (Scott Snelson, District Ranger) proposed a revegetation program using a selected technology to deal with this problem and pump new life into areas still left barren by previous coal mining.
The selected revegetation program, called the Cow Stomp project, is a collaborative effort of the United States Forest Service, the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association (CVEPA), the Coal Basin Cattlemen’s Association, and local jurisdictions designed to find a viable method to promote vegetation growth on the rocky soils in Coal Basin. The project was structured so that funds for the project were obtained from local jurisdictions, (Pitkin County, Garfield County, Carbondale, Aspen, Basalt, Glenwood Springs (in-kind) and Heartland Environmental Services), the USFS supplied the technology, manpower and equipment necessary to implement the project in the field, and the Coal Basin Cattlemen’s Association provided the cattle.
The project employs a large herd of cattle, contained for a period of a few days to selected one-acre sites, to hoof-in (stomp) various, carefully selected mixtures of seed, straw, hay and compost/biochar into the barren soil in late summer. Hence the name, Cow Stomp project. When applied in the fall, initial germination will occur through the fall weeks, with full growth occurring in the spring and summer of the following year.
The study site for this project is located about ½-mile above the end of the pavement on the Coal Creek road. Vehicle access is closed to the public, but the trail is open for pedestrian, horseback and bicycle users.
Field work was initiated in the fall of 2012 with the fencing of two adjacent one-acre parcels. In the first parcel, a mixture of native grass seeds, straw, and hay was spread for a herd of about 90 cattle to stomp into the soil on which the cattle were confined for approximately 1 ½ days. The other acre is a control site in which cattle are fenced out so that direct side-by-side comparisons of before-and-after conditions can be made between the two sites.
The first year of the Cow Stomp project did not produce the vegetation growth on the sterile rocky soil that was anticipated. The summer of 2012 was unusually dry with Coal Basin receiving little precipitation in the months preceding the September seeding and stomp. The hard dry soil prevented the stomp action from adequately mixing the seed and straw into the soil in the test site. These two factors worked to inhibit the expected germination and root development through the remaining month of fall, and consequently limited normal growth in the spring of 2013.
However, much valuable information was gathered from the first year’s effort, which was then applied in the 2013 phase. It was recognized that more cattle were needed to produce an adequate stomp action, and the mix of straw, seed and compost/biochar was needed to be adjusted to correct the germination problems encountered the previous year. The number of cattle-stomp days was extended from 1 ½ to 4, and the number of cattle was increased from 90 to about 240.
In 2013, three more one-acre parcels were added to the two that were originally created the previous summer. These new one-acre parcels use various combinations of straw, hay, seeds and compost/biochar. As before, the cattle were provided by the Coal Basin Cattlemen’s Association. An additional bonus this year was the significant precipitation that fell during the cow-stomp week. This allowed the seed, straw and mulch/biochar to be stomped much deeper and more completely into the soil.
The spring of 2014 then produced the expected results with a rich growth of native grasses on the parcel that had received the revised mixture of seeds, hay, straw and compost/biochar. The precipitation in the 2014 summer was normal, and no new plantings were done in the study six areas. At the end of the summer, revegetation data was again collected with direct on-site transect measurements.
In the fall of 2015, final transect measurements were taken on the study parcels. This, combined with data taken over the three previous seasons allowed the USFS staff to determine the best combination of treatments for the degraded Coal Basin lands. The results of the study are documented in a comprehensive final report entitled “Coal Basin Restoration Project using Livestock as a Restoration Tool” dated November, 2015, authored by Wayne Ives (USFS retired). The photos at the top of the article show the lush final product compared to that from the unmodified control parcel. The final conclusion is that the rocky soils in Coal Basin that remain after decades of coal mining, can be re-vegetated using a mix of a eco-typical grass seed mix with straw, compost/bio char and soil amendments, along with cattle to stomp this mixture into the degraded soil.