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Reclaiming the spoils of mining : An unremarkable plant turns acid-laced soil into fertile ground. It holds promise for an industry but environmentalists are skeptical.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For more than two decades, U.S. Forest Service research scientist Ray Brown has made an annual journey to the flank of a jagged Rocky Mountain peak in search of the secret of Payson’s sedge.

To any back-yard gardener, Payson’s sedge looks rather unremarkable. Thin shoots jut like prairie grass from the plant’s matted base, holding tiny buds that are dull compared to flaming red Indian paintbrush and other mountain wildflowers.

But from Brown’s view, the sedge is a miracle-worker. Close to 10,000 feet up, in a wind-scoured zone covered by snow 10 months of the year, the plant has mastered a skill beyond human reach: It transforms barren, acid-laced mining spoils into fecund ground that would please even the fussiest green thumb.

If Brown had his way, he would mimic Payson’s sedge, harnessing its expertise to rejuvenate mine wastelands throughout the West. Such valuable know-how may not only fix old wounds, but also may influence the progress of future mines--including one proposed here, just two miles outside Yellowstone National Park.

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While heading one of the longest-running mine reclamation projects anywhere, Brown has found that it is far from simple to replicate some of nature’s simplest talents. But it is not impossible.

“Look here,” orders Brown, a plant physiologist from the Forest Service’s Intermountain Research Station in Logan, Utah.

He crouches atop a rocky hillside the color of a rusty pipe, nearly devoid of anything green, and slips his pocket knife into dead leaves at the base of the native sedge. Twisting the knife, Brown unveils luxuriant loam about the color and consistency of potting soil.

“This dead plant matter accumulates and decomposes and it alters the chemistry of the ground,” he says. “This sedge manufactures soil like you would find in your back yard. Other seeds that can’t survive here normally can survive in this organic matter.”

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The sedge is building an oasis of life within a rocky realm nearly as lifeless as the moon.

Brown has no intention of turning these alpine hillsides into any kind of manicured garden. Plants disappear and return in a certain progression all the time, whether a gopher, glacier or mine gouges the ground. Brown wants only to understand that routine so he can hurry it up once a mine has come and gone.

Dreams of a gold rush here on the serrated heel of Henderson Mountain produced little but piles of corrosive rock that, mixed with air and water, spew a lethal stew of sulfuric acid and heavy metals that sterilizes streams below and stains their bottoms orange.

By getting native plants like Payson’s sedge to take hold, he figures, he can spur a natural succession that will someday return the land to its original state.

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That won’t be easy. The ground is as acidic as vinegar. Winter avalanches rip away anything in their path. The growing season is just 45 to 60 days long.

Environmental groups quote such lopsided odds as one reason why a Canadian firm’s plans to mine this mountain will fail. But the mining company, which partly funds Brown’s work, touts his findings as reason why its plan to extract nearly $1 billion worth of gold, silver and copper can steam ahead.

“Not only can we reclaim land we mine, but we know we can certainly leave it in better shape than it is now,” says Dan McLaughlin, manager of the New World Project, an ambitious high-altitude mine backed by Noranda Minerals of Canada.

Reality falls between the two extremes, Brown says, walking to a series of research plots where he raises his crop.

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First, Brown and his crews add tons of lime to neutralize the acid rock. They then spread fertilizer, peat moss and, finally, seeds from native plants on nearby slopes. Each step erases one natural obstacle--acidity, climate, lack of nutrients--and in a crude sort of way copies the strategy of Payson’s sedge.

An environmental group called the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a staunch opponent of the mine, “wants everyone to believe reclamation’s impossible,” Brown says. “Noranda wants everybody to believe it’s a piece of cake. It’s neither.”

On a hillside Brown seeded 17 years ago, he measures progress by how much bare ground remains. Today, there is more green than ground and 42 plant species, nearly the same diversity as on other, untouched slopes. Three trees have even sprouted. Healthy vegetation seals oxygen out of rust-red rocks below, so acid cannot form and leach into streams. Someday, perhaps, trout will return, with grizzly bears and eagles in tow.

“We’re not just trying to re-vegetate--that’s a simple process,” Brown says. “What we’re trying to do is restore the ecosystem.”

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For every ton extracted from the earth, mining operations yield as many as 100 tons of tainted waste. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the nation’s more than 550,000 abandoned mines will cost from $32 billion to $72 billion to clean up.

That is why Brown thinks mining today may do some good. Bombed-out slopes like this one may be stitched back together only if companies extract extra minerals that help pay for restoration.

Yet secrets don’t come easy. After years of trying, Brown still cannot get Payson’s sedge to grow from seed.

“If we’re going to mine, we’ve got to clean up after ourselves,” he says, watching tinted water course from a dark mine shaft. “The whole key to that lies in what this plant is doing. We don’t know why nature can do it so easily, when for us, it’s so hard.”

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