Mine Collaboration Sparks Award-winning Reclamation Project
Five years after the last coal was taken from the Squaw Creek Mine near Chandler, Indiana, more than 162 hectares (400 acres) of warm-season prairie grasses are providing refuge to myriad wildlife and serving as an example of an award-winning reclamation success.

The 3,237-hectare (8,000-acre) mine, a joint venture between Alcoa and Peabody Energy Company, opened in the early 1960s to provide coal to Alcoa's Warrick Operations. As various sections of the surface mine were closed, Alcoa began reclamation activities that resulted in more than 1,619 hectares (4,000 acres) of forestland, fish and wildlife areas, cropland, pastureland, water impoundments, and residential areas.

After the mine closed in 1998, Alcoa began planning its final restoration work. A discussion with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources first sparked the idea of using native warm-season prairie grasses on 162-plus hectares (400-plus acres) of the mine area, which would make it the largest warm-season prairie grass site in the state.

"I recognized the similarities between the Squaw Creek Mine and another Indiana mine that successfully used warm-season grasses on lands with similar soils, slopes, post-mining land usage practices, and surrounding vegetation," said Tim Corn, senior reclamation planning specialist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. "I was convinced that prairie grasses, if integrated into the re-vegetation plan as wildlife ground cover, would work well in meeting and exceeding Indiana's reclamation requirements."

Corn adds that warm-season grass usage is not typical in mine reclamation efforts since it requires different management practices than are typically used in his part of the United States. His proposal was met with open-mindedness salted with a healthy dose of skepticism from his Alcoa contacts.

"Kevin Rayburn at Alcoa thoroughly researched the feasibility of using native grasses by interviewing suppliers, farmers, resource specialists, and others and came to the an independent conclusion that prairie grass would fit into Alcoa's long-term management objectives for the property," said Corn. "That was the first win. From the first day the proposal was aired to today, Alcoa representatives have always been open to suggestion and helpful in sharing what they've learned in the process. That's win/win. This reclamation project is also a partnership to restore lands to a higher and better use for wildlife than would otherwise exist and transcends regulatory/permittee relationships that are often exhibited in mine reclamation situations. Win/win/win. A trifecta."

Planting of the warm-season grass areas began in April 2000. Throughout most of the scattered plots, Alcoa used a variety of six native grasses: Indiangrass mix, big bluestem mix, little bluestem mix, switchgrass mix, and Quail Unlimited #1 and #2. Some plots, mostly about 4 hectares (10 acres) in size, contained only one variety of grass so Alcoa could harvest seeds to continue planting other areas. Along an access road, Alcoa planted one-acre plots of every variety so each could be distinctly viewed by organizations interested in evaluating the grasses' performance.

"Representatives of the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Indiana Division of Soils, along with interns from Ball State and Western Kentucky universities, have viewed these plantings and remarked how effective these areas are as outdoor classrooms," said Corn. "There are limited opportunities to see these species and their growth aspects up close and personal."

Since planting was completed in May 2000, the native grasses have continued to increase ground cover and have produced seed and hay crops. Alcoa harvested approximately 907 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of seed in 2001, but dry conditions in 2002 prevented further harvesting of the expensive seeds. In 2002, hay harvested off much of the big bluestem seeds areas was used for mulch at the Warrick Operations and feed for the plant's 150 cows.

"The establishment and growth of the native grasses planted at Squaw Creek have exceeded even my most optimistic expectations," said Corn. "While my wildlife assessment is only cursory, the numbers and varieties of birds and mammals the property sustains are impressive. Coyotes, deer, rabbits, small mammals, turkeys, hawks, owls, and a host of non-game birds populate the area. All the place needs is some free-range bison and maybe a pronghorn or two."

In spite of its lack of bison and pronghorns, the Squaw Creek prairie grass project received the 2002 Indiana Excellence in Mining and Reclamation Award from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Reclamation.

Hay harvest from big bluestem grass