RECLAMATION — GIVING BACK
One thing we take great pride in and enjoy very much is completing reclamation and restoration of the dig sites from which we extract the beautiful Pikes Peak Batholith specimens. I grew up in Idaho and have lived my entire life with a strong connection to the “woods.” To be able to return the land to a productive wildlife habitat is one of my family’s foremost goals.
We have been using heavy equipment since 1993 on our mining claims. Serious work began in 1999 after completion of our mining permits. Prior to that time we worked with other permitted miners and did some mechanized prospecting. Since 1982 we have been seriously prospecting and recovering mineral specimens. During all these years we’ve diligently completed reclamation on all our sites.
As of 2020 we had about 4.5 acres that were disturbed and in various stages of mining. We have completely reclaimed and returned to wildlife habitat about 6 acres. Considering that we have been at it for over thirty years, this is a minor impact.
We approach a dig by first removing any timber, most of which was fire-killed during the 2002 Hayman fire. This is placed below a dig site in order to stop any possible overburden from rolling downslope, but most of our sites are small and little timber is ever removed. Secondly, we scrape off about a foot of topsoil and immediate subsoil and store this to the side.
After site preparation, we begin our dig. Most digs are less than 2,000 square feet, about the size of a house footprint. We move the overburden away from the working face but always within our permitted disturbance area and within reach of the excavator bucket. This cuts down on furthering the disturbance size. When the excavation is complete, usually within one or two seasons, the reverse procedure occurs. We return the rock and overburden. We contour the dig to match the original contour as closely as possible, and simultaneously we bring the topsoil back. We keep the soil rough to help catch moisture and provide a better seedbed. Finally we bring any timber back and place it cross-slope to provide wildlife habitat and possible protection against heavy cloudbursts.
Since our operating area is in decomposed granite, the soil is generally very shallow and porous. Runoff is nearly non-existent. Nevertheless we construct berms downslope especially along low-lying areas. These remain until reclamation has taken hold.
We also take out and reclaim roads that were used for access, any unauthorized dig sites, and any campsite or equipment storage pads. These are all graded and reseeded.
The seed mix we use is a native mix that contains eight different species of seed suitable for the montane semi-arid locations where we are mining. We also add a rapidly growing annual grass that is quickly replaced by native grasses. We use this seed to make certain rapid growth covers the slopes as soon as possible to prevent any possible erosion or soil movement. We also seed in the fall for better growth.
The following season, after a year of growth, we plant a mixture of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. We also plant some chokecherry, wax currant, mountain mahogany, and/or wild rose. If the area is suitable, we also plant aspens. Although these trees and shrubs will naturally seed in over a period of several years, we have found it returns land more quickly to highly productive wildlife habitat.
We believe that it is especially important to get trees and shrubs established on any slopes where the preexisting soil was naturally shallow. Although gasses will eventually become reestablished on these slopes, it will take many years. Grasses are naturally widely scattered and thin under conifers because their growth is inhibited by needle drop. In short, by going the extra step, the trees and shrubs get about a six to ten-year jumpstart and the land can more quickly become more productive wildlife habitat.
No, it does not look pretty like a golf course or city park, but that is not our standard. Our standard is no erosion and rapid return to productive wildlife habitat.
At present, in addition to reseeding each area, we have planted over two thousand trees and shrubs. Some of the ponderosa pine and Douglas fir are now producing cones and reseeding.
Hayman Fire, 6 June 2002. Scott and I were north of our claims when the fire broke out. We high-tailed it out of the country by nightfall and encountered a line of fire. We were able to reverse our course and come out another direction. By the next day, the fire had jumped to approximately 15,000 acres. Here are some photographs of our claims. Unfortunately the photographs are low resolution because those were the days when digital cameras were just making the scene.
I thought someone had an illeagle campfire and went over the ridge to tell them to put it out. This is what faced me.
Looking northwest from Lake George at the Hayman Fire a few days after it was ignited by a part-time Forest Ranger reputedly buring letters from her ex-husband.
These four photographs were taken in late July 2002 when I was permitted to go back to the Smoky Hawk. You will recognize some of the landscape from operational photographs that depict later mining.
This is looking across what would become Site A at the Smoky Hawk. Notice the profile of Old Man Rock. It is recognizable in future excavations and reclamation photographs.
GENERAL COMMENTS ON ARTISAN MINING ON NATIONAL FOREST LANDS
Although I have been in the mining business for over thirty years, my background is biology and it is important to me that we be good stewards of the land. Currently, however, much of the message regarding proper conservation (use of the land) is currently lost by the overwhelming emphasis on environment, and quite bluntly, a war against mining. I do make a distinction regarding the type of mining we do.
We search for crystallized mineral specimens and gem material that some refer to as artisan minerals. Except for cutting gems and cleaning and preparing mineral specimens, the materials we mine are not incorporated into other products. They are not “ore” in the sense of excavating rock, processing, and refining a metal. We use recognized mining techniques and therefore are governed by the same sets of seemingly endless and more restrictive laws, rules, and compliance regulations that impact traditional mining operations. I do not say these aspects should go away, for example the requirement for a reasonable reclamation bond, but these aspects should be tailored for the type of mining operation we are. We are not at the same level and often these requirements make what we do untenable and it becomes impossible to recover these artisan materials for people’s use and enjoyment. The small “mom and pop” mining operation cannot be successful.
That having been said, we have “grown up” with these increasing requirements and have been able to survive.
All our mining claims are on national forests, which are public lands. The forest lands were specifically set aside to produce products for the American people. These products include timber, watershed, leasing for ranching, wildlife (hunting and fishing), and mining. These products are primary products which directly enter the economy of the country and are then converted to refined food, industrial products, building materials, and so on. Secondary uses are recreational. (We set aside other lands for recreation, primarily wilderness, national parks, and monuments. Their primary purpose is not production of product.)
In sum, the public lands, primarily BLM and National Forests are managed primarily for sustained and ongoing production but to do so in balance with the environment.
Of course we need to be concerned with irresponsible and damaging mining projects. We’ve come a long way since the days when we believed the land could quickly heal itself, and today, America does a better job in reclaiming and mitigating the effects of mining than any country in the world.
The most negative aspect of our projects is the unsightly pit or disturbance that will be present for from one to ten years but after which the land will again be returned to productive wildlife habitat (That’s the standard that we choose and is more rigorous than some standards.) In many cases the evidence of mining has completely been obliterated. In our larger projects the past evidence of mining will remain because of the overall changes to the landscaper. (Queens Canyon near Colorado Springs will never have a mountain on top of the reclaimed disturbed area.)
Most importantly, the minerals that we mine are essentially like mining gravel. We mine silicates. There is no breakdown of these minerals into any toxic materials or acids. There is also no runoff because of the type of operation we do.
Our “ore deposits” are very small and widely scattered. Once we have opened up a pegmatite and discovered any pockets, we will normally exhaust the pegmatite within one or two seasons. (The main excavation on the Smoky Hawk is the singular exception in the District.) From a normal pegmatite deposit we can expect to recover a couple of hundred pounds of crystals and that is it. We do not remove any significant amounts of “ore,” and thus, no pit is going to remain behind. Instead, at the completion of a dig, we quickly return the overburden rock, replace the topsoil, and reseed the site. Generally the dig site is no longer noticeable after the third season.
The two photographs below show one of our dig sites on the Qui-Buc No. 1 Claim. In the photograph on the left you can just see crass coming in. This is at the close of the season in which it was reclaimed. The photograph at the right was taken five years later looking slightly downslope to the right and from a little more distance. You can see the ponderosa pines that we planted are about three feet tall. The other shrubs are wax currant and meadow rose.
Most of our small excavations are completely unnoticeable at this point in time. I have had rangers and state mine inspectors on some of these sites and had to show them the specific areas because they are so completely unnoticeable. Perhaps I’ll put up some photos at some point where you can decide where we’ve mined and where we haven’t. This is not the case, however, for sites larger than a half of an acre, of which we have reclaimed four and have active, two. The next section shows how we treat these sites.
COMMENTS ON WILDLIFE AND THE FOREST
The following information is not designed to be a course on wildlife management and forestry but rather intended to share some general knowledge on land disturbance, reclamation, and recovering wildlife habitat. I have learned much of this from my father who was a game warden and my family, some of whom were foresters. Additionally, I studied biology and environmental science (the conservation type).
All healthy wildlife populations will reproduce at rates higher than the environment’s carrying capacity; and therefore the numbers that survive winter will be nearly the same as the previous season. It is uncommon for a disturbance to upsets this cycle to any extent and then if so, it is temporary. A forest fire is the most common exception. (Manmade exceptions include roads, housing developments and cities and are not temporary.)
Disturbances within a climax grassland community or coniferous forest are essential to a healthy and more diverse ecosystem. A disturbance essentially resets the succession clock and establishes different ecosystems for different plant and animal ecosystems. Climax communities have limited species and diversity. For example, a climax coniferous forest, is almost a desert for big game such as elk, moose, and deer. Big game need riparian habitat, shrubs and forbs, as well as shelter that is offered by the timber.
Disturbances that reset the ecosystem clock on a significant scale in the forest is generally a forest fire. Other events can be erosional events from wind, rain, and snow and include avalanches and rockslides for example. But even minor disturbances reset the clock.
Each stage of succession after a disturbance has its own wildlife communities. For example, shelf fungi lose their symbiotic hosts after a forest fire and then produce the fruiting body and essentially move on. Woodpecker populations increase due to the better habitat that supports them. Succession plants, mostly wildflowers, repopulate the area since the grasses have been temporarily set back. Forbs and shrubs come in which encourages greater big game animals to return and so on.
The two photographs below show wildflowers coming in after the Hayman Fire of 2002. The photograph on the left is in a burn area and was taken in 2003, one season after the fire. You will note the willows were burned. The photograph of the right was taken in 2004 and shows an abundance of flowers. You will note that in both these cases, the fire did not take out the grasses so it was a lightly burned area. It is still remarkable at how the fire encouraged growth of the other plants, some of which we would term weeds (fleabane for example).
People generally understand a forest fire disturbance is part of the natural cycle but often miss disturbances of a smaller scale that also contribute to a healthy forest cycle. A ground squirrel digging a burrow, a rock rolling down the hill, or a tree uprooted in a windstorm all create disturbances which reset the clock. Hobby collectors and forest users also reset the clock when they are scratching around for crystals or hiking or hunting. (Hobby collectors are obligated to fill any holes and should trench cross slope and use downed tree limbs or rocks to prevent any possible erosion, etc.) Of course our artisan mining creates a disturbance. Artisan mining is on a much smaller scale than traditional mining (the total authorized disturbances for mining crystals on the Pike National Forest [over 1.1 million acres] is about 50 acres of which 4 acres maximum will likely be disturbed in any given year.) In comparison, the Hayman fire of 2002 disturbed about 134,000 acres. There is never a year where forest fires disturb less than what artisan mining disturbs.
It is important to understand that succession plants and animals support different wildlife communities. Some of the insects that come in after a disturbance and when the first succession plants return include some of our threatened moths and butterflies. This is similar for some of the bird species. (There is a larger and more diverse bird population on fire succession areas than within an established forest. These species will again disappear when the climax community returns.)
Often each species’ contributions are overlooked on the scale of small succession in particular, but each contributes in some way to its specific succession point and habitat. For example, mullein, which is a biennial plant, usually comes in during the second year after a disturbance and will be replaced usually the fourth or fifth season by the ordinary return of grasses and other forbs. During the time it is growing on a disturbance area, it is exceptionally effective in anchoring the soil and covering the surface of exposed soil. The seed bolt it puts up the second year is one of the few sources of seed and more importantly, accompanying insects, for birds, for example the downy woodpecker, mountain bluebird, migrating songbirds, and even chickadees. This is especially important for after a snow covering. Mullein is also one of the few plants that has a stalk high enough to provide safe perches for these birds. However, it is also considered a noxious plant, largely because of this unsightly seed stalk. In high density populations, it certainly is a noxious plant but in low populations, it serves a good purpose.
Both forest fires and mining create disturbances but what is important to understand is that neither is permanently detrimental but rather can be viewed as a chance to reset the clock by adding fringe areas and increasing species diversity. In one respect, recovery from a forest fire is largely haphazard and uncontrolled. Recovery from a mining disturbance is predictable and controlled.
More permanent disturbances are not as easily controlled nor will they ever be productive. Hard-packed and well-traveled roads serve as an example. Obviously, nothing grows on such a surface; runoff cannot sink in but erodes the edges of the road and surrounding land; and traffic constantly generates dust. (Incidentally, our mining access roads are far less traveled and are continuously monitored and corrected when necessary.)
In a natural succession into a disturbance area, the annuals and biennials (the weeds and wildflowers, predominately) begin returning as early as the same season of the disturbance but will be in force (depending on the severity of disturbance, for example, a severe burned area) by the end of the second and third year. Grasses begin coming in along with shrubs and forbs from season three and up through season six. After season four, the grasses have come in strongly and have begun replacing the early succession plants (and corresponding animal communities.) This is the point when the thistles and mullein become replaced. It is also at this point the conifers begin returning. After season ten or longer, the grasses, forbs, and shrubs begin to be replaced by increasing conifer growth, until eventually a climax coniferous forest has returned. (If it is not suitable soil or topography for conifers, it will become a climax grassland community.)
Of note: Conifers do not readily reseed themselves. They are almost entirely dependent on some type of disturbance to reseed themselves. This is most often a forest fire. You can do a quick observation to prove this point to yourself. How many small pine trees do you observe under any given conifer canopy? Now, how many small pine trees do you see on the graded slopes of forest roads or along borrow pits that cut through the same conifer thicket? Similarly, grass outcompetes conifers. You will not generally find conifers in level, grassy parks, even in well-drained soils. Try planting a conifer in a grassy field. It is unlikely to live unless you pull the grass until it reaches a size where its needle drop retards the grass growth. Conifers grow better on well-drained gravely soils on hillsides, where, incidentally, grasses do not grow well.
In the photograph to the right, taken 2020, you will note a bunch of small ponderosa pines. These have come up from seed that either grew from seed at the time of the Hayman fire or that has subsequently come into the area from surviving conifers. The seeds were able to germinate because of this disturbed soil. These pines are approximately six to seven years old. This is not a particularly good reforestation, however, because they are clumped too closely together. Some will eventually be choked out.
These three photographs are of Site A on the Smoky Hawk. The upper left photo was taken about a year after reclamation. You can see all the still standing fire-killed timber downslope. The photo directly left was taken 2020, about fifteen years later. The largest of the small ponderosa pines is now producing cones. The other pines that survived the fire are more easily seen because the dead timber has fallen. The photo above is looking upslope toward Old Man Rock. This photograph was taken three years after reclamation.
This photograph above shows Site B on the Smoky Hawk in 2010 when the main excavation was filled. The photograph to the right shows reclamtion recovery the fourth year after some of the pines and firs had been planted. We stagger the planting to vary the ages.
The photograph above shows recovery the third year after reclamation. The photograph to the right shows recovery at nine seasons.
Grass recovery will appear slow because the grasses consist predominately of bunch grasses which are short, widely scattered clumps.
Photograph to the right shows comparable land with natural cover and which has not been reseeded. You can easily see the nature of bunch grasses.
The photograph to the right shows the far right edge of Site B on the Smoky Hawk. The trees were planted nine seasons ago from this photograph. The current dig site can be seen downslope to the right. Site A is directly between this photograph and adjacent to the current dig site.
We will continue to monitor all our sites until full reclamation is completed. At that point we will request release of the reclamation bond and transfer the bond to future projects.
When we complete reclamation on one of our mining sites, we change the equation slightly by adding trees and shrubs to the mix during the second year. We have similar succession except the grasses are growing during the second season after sowing and the trees and shrubs are growing the third season after reclamation. This gives our sites a six- to eight-season jumpstart over disturbances that are naturally recovering. Our sites will return to productive wildlife habitat six to eight years sooner. This is based on similar slope, soils, and geology, of course.
Understanding these principles of disturbance and succession is why we do our reclamation in the manner we do. We leave a rougher surface with a mix of downed logs, rock piles, and varying topography. We reseed with native grasses but also a regreen seed that quickly establishes ground cover. We plant trees and shrubs the second year after reclamation which then greatly reduces the time to a fuller recovery and a more productive wildlife habitat.
In the meanwhile we are operating at different dig sites and hopefully pulling out some more incredible Pikes Peak Batholith specimens.