Reclaiming Mined Land

by Sue Ann Kendall

Our June Chapter Meeting speaker was Marty Irwin, who had a long and successful career doing range conservation for Alcoa and other companies who performed strip mining for coal in this area. After Gary Johnson introduced him, Marty shared some pretty fascinating details with us, so I thought I’d summarize them for any who were unable to attend. (I was so busy writing that I didn’t get my usual zillions of blog photos. Oops.)

So, here’s his Facebook picture, appropriately enough, with a large buck.

If I get any facts wrong, I apologize in advance. Also, note that his presentation wasn’t compatible with our laptop, so we all imagined what he was talking about as he went along. Thank goodness he was good at describing.

Mike Conner got his 1,000 volunteer hour milestone pin, too. Congratulations!

All about the Alcoa Land

According to Irwin, he and his crews reclaimed over 32,000 acres of land once Alcoa was finished mining the areas for its aluminum plant near Rockdale. This took 28 years!

The Alcoa plant near Rockdale opened in 1952 and was the oldest coal mine in Texas. Each year miners dug up more dirt than the Panama Canal as they looked for lignite. Now there are only three coal mines still operating in Texas.

Starting in 1986 strict reclamation laws were enacted, which said that mining companies had to restore all land mined in this way to its natural state or better, using native plants. In fact, for every acre of wetlands they dug up, they were required to create two new acres. Due to the amount of red tape, inspections, and rules, it was sometimes hard to actually do the work, but Irwin sounded pretty creative.

He planted 42 different types of trees, hardwoods for the most part, along with lots of coastal Bermuda grass (not native, as we all know), but also some clover and native grasses. They were “helped” by feral hogs digging up the dirt, because that encouraged the growth of early forbs. Somehow, this created great quail habitat, and they had more quail in this area than anywhere else in east Texas while the habitat was right.

Irwin noted that they couldn’t fertilize the trees, because then they tried it, hogs would come in and dig up every single baby tree to eat the fertilizer tabs. He is sorry to say that no one took him up on his idea of spiking tabs with piggy birth control, or worse.

Good old Bullwinkle’s antler.

Many deer also showed up, who enjoyed the post oak thickets and nice grazing areas with switchgrass and coastal. They thrived, as is evidenced by the antler of Bullwinkle, a buck who lived there 7.5 years and ended up with over 30 points. He must have been amazing, but could not avoid that last car he ran in front of.

Most of the wildlife, including many bobcats and coyotes, showed up when they found the lovely land devoid of human intervention. The only wildlife they actually imported was fish for the lakes (’cause they can’t walk or fly in) and some Eastern turkeys. Those turkeys didn’t work out, but Irwin thinks there may have been some Rio Grande turkeys brought in later.

The highlight of the wildlife that showed up to enjoy the newly restored land, for Irwin, were the bald eagles. The very first bald eagle nest found in Texas was in a cottonwood tree he planted at the Alcoa property. That’s something to be proud of! Now there are eagles near lakes all over the state, but they started here in Milam County.

Here’s some additional reading for you:

Alcoa honored for its management of wildlife habitats, Temple Daily Telegram, June 9, 2002

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