Reclaim, restore, UW center expandsWritten by Christy Hemken
Laramie – “The advances in technology to reclaim disturbed sites are making leaps and bounds all the time,” says reclamation expert Peter Stahl.
Stahl is a professor and director for the Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center (WRRC), based in the College of Agriculture and School for Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.
Along with reclamation research, the WRRC is also expanding. In Fall 2009 it held its first Reclamation 101 workshop in Rawlins, and this spring plans two more – one in Pinedale and one in Buffalo. The Center will also host its first Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Symposium in Laramie April 6-7.
“The workshops will feature reclamationists from various industries and regulatory agencies around the state, discussing current issues,” says Stahl.
The WRRC’s goal is to establish a premier regional center for restoration, reclamation and rehabilitation of disturbed ecosystems based on sound ecological, agricultural and economical practices. The Center focuses on teaching, research, extension and service.
“The idea for the Reclamation Center was conceived around 1999, and it bumped along for six or seven years informally, without even an office,” says past WRRC Director Steve Williams, who’s also a professor in the UW Department of Renewable Resources.
Williams says, “A lot of people come to the state thinking reclamation is kind of like farming, and it’s not like farming, as we who are on the natural resource end are well aware.”
Stahl says one of the biggest issues that continues to face reclamation is weeds, and cheatgrass in particular. “Another issue is restoring wildlife habitat, and especially sage grouse habitat,” he notes. “Sage grouse core areas have made the whole issue of restoring or reclaiming sage grouse habitat even more important. So much industrial activity in Wyoming is dependant on the health of the sage grouse.”
Williams says reclamation related to wind energy is something the Center is just getting into. “They tend to like to put wind generators on the tops of ridges, and there are a lot of plants that occupy those ridges that are slow-growing and are often very old,” he explains. “We don’t even know much about their fundamental biology to know how to reclaim those areas.”
Williams also adds that identification of suitable soils is something that’s been problematic. “We have areas that should not be disturbed because the soils are so problematic and difficult to reclaim,” he says. “We’ve got research into how to identify those sites, and often if an energy producer will move a proposed well even 100 to 300 yards, they can get away from those areas.”
Stahl says the upcoming spring workshops are aimed at anyone involved in reclamation and restoration, whether they are from agencies, companies, private contractors or landowners.
“Wyoming is a super-stressful environment,” says Stahl in a UW interview. “It has high elevations and cold temperatures, and it is dry with shallow soils. It’s not easy to reclaim lands in Wyoming. One of the things we try to do is provide good reclamation practices. We try to teach people the importance of reclamation planning before they even create a disturbance.”
While the WRRC is beginning with the basic Reclamation 101 workshops, Stahl says in the future the Center plans to offer more advanced courses.
Regarding the Laramie symposium, Stahl says it will be the first time reclamationists from all the different industries get together, including oil and gas, coal mining, coalbed methane development and trona mining. “We’re hoping to get everybody,” he says.
On the collegiate side of things, the WRRC offers an undergraduate minor in reclamation, as well as a certificate in reclamation and restoration ecology for graduate students.
“We’ve graduated many students with knowledge of reclamation and many of them are now working in Wyoming,” says Stahl. While most of the students are studying range ecology and watershed management, he says he’s got a variety of departments involved, including a few students with wildlife majors. Classes in the reclamation department include a general land reclamation course, as well as classes like rangeland restoration ecology, offered this spring.
“We also teach a course in the spring that’s a reclamation seminar, where we invite reclamation experts from industries in Wyoming and surrounding states to come and give seminars to the students about what they’re doing and the job opportunities,” adds Stahl.
Stahl says the Center recently gained more substantial funding, which has enabled it to become much more active with programs around the state. The WRRC was first funded by the Governor’s Office, with $2 million from the Abandoned Mine Lands Program money that was returned to Wyoming by the federal government.
“We’re trying to get an endowment based on funding from industry groups now, and we’re hoping to increase that part of our funding,” he adds.
This semester the WRRC has around 25 undergraduate students involved, as well as about 15 graduate students.
“We’re trying to spread information about reclamation and good techniques to people,” says Stahl of WRRC’s goal. “We have made great strides the past 20 to 30 years, but we still have to keep going. We’ve been building on a lot of work already done.”
Williams adds that UW has done reclamation research for decades, and is now taking the opportunity to organize the effort more completely and share what they’ve been doing.
“Wyoming is the number one producer of energy for the U.S., providing between 11 and 12 percent of energy used by the country,” says Williams. “We make substantial marks on the land, but our Department of Environmental Quality has been vigilant in surface mine reclamation, the BLM, Petroleum Association of Wyoming and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have jointly assisted with identification of problems related to other areas of energy development. We can easily say we’re at the forefront of reclamation research, outreach and education. We have to be because we’re at the forefront of energy production.”