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Restoring The Restoration: Refuge Gives Wildlife Habitat New Life

Restored oak savannah at the Columbia Mine Preserve in Patoka National Wildlife Refuge. The dead, brown bushes scattered throughout are invasive species that have been treated with herbicide.

Vigo Coal Company surface mined about 700 acres of the Columbia mine in southern Indiana in the 1990s. The company then “reclaimed,” or restored, the area: it filled all the rocks and dirt back in and planted some trees and grasses.

“But then it sat there for about 10 years,” says Bill McCoy, manager of the Patoka National Wildlife Refuge east of Princeton, Indiana.

“And [invasive plants] are not just, like, quietly doing their thing. They’re taking over, they choke out everything.”

Coal companies are required to restore former mines, to make the area look like it did before they mined it. But those companies are not required to manage the land after it’s restored. And invasive species often take over.

“In that time period, nothing had been done to it,” says McCoy, and invasive plants like Callery pear, autumn olive, and tall fescue started to grow.

Some of those are familiar to Hoosiers. People like to plant them in their backyards and they’re even sold at home improvement stores.

But once these plants get a foothold, they run wild. Plants and animals spread their seeds, but they were a real problem at Patoka.

“And they’re not just, like, quietly doing their thing,” says Abby Perfetti, communications director for Sycamore Land Trust, a Bloomington land preservation group. “They’re taking over, they choke out everything.”

Patoka and Sycamore decided they needed to restore the restoration. So, in 2012, Sycamore Land Trust purchased the Columbia Mine. And McCoy says the federal government bought the right to manage the property, basically forever.

“Our goal is here and now: habitat for wildlife that doesn’t have habitat elsewhere,” says McCoy.

Fast forward to 2017 and the group just got a $20,000 grant from Alcoa, the big aluminum producer, and American Forests to continue the restoration.

It’s hard to tell what’s invasive and what’s not when you go out to the old mine. One side of the gravel road we’re on is dense, shrubby forest; it would be tough to walk through. The other side looks more like a prairie, with a handful of oak trees and some dead, brown bushes — invasives McCoy and his team killed with herbicides.

McCoy gets excited when he talks about the wildlife that comes back when invasive species are cleared out. Birds, crawfish, amphibians, even bobcats all have a place to live.

“We know what it’ll be like if we manage it right,” says McCoy. “It’ll be totally unique and special and we’ll have those species here that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

As if to demonstrate his point, McCoy spots some milkweed, a plant Monarch butterflies depend on to lay their eggs.

“But right next to it is autumn olive! And if we wait until next year, it’ll completely wipe out the milkweed,” McCoy says.

Patoka makes sure those invasives don’t go to waste. McCoy and his team wrap the removed plants in a big bundle and toss them in nearby lakes along with some boulders. This creates habitat for fish and other aquatic life.

“Just picture yourself if you have an aquarium in your house and you wanted to provide hidey holes for the little fish,” McCoy explains. “You create a pile of pebbles and that gives them shelter. That’s what we’re doing, only we’re doing it on a natural scale here.”

It’s a pretty efficient process, and that’s important. Habitat management and restoration is expensive, time consuming, and labor intensive. Coal companies reclaimed about 125,000 acres of mined land since 1990; only a fraction is restored further for wildlife habitat. And most of that work is done by private landowners.

McCoy says his group will put the new grant to work later this year. He’ll remove invasives and use them to build lakeshore habitat, a practice he says is unique to Patoka. Workers from Alcoa’s Newburgh plant will also come out to the old mine to plant native trees. McCoy says it’ll take about three years before they know if the restoration succeeds.

Sycamore’s Abby Perfetti says if Hoosiers want to see more habitat management on reclaimed land they have to fight for it, like Sycamore, Patoka, Alcoa and American Forests did.

“It’s a choice and it’s a conscious effort that people have to make. What we keep emphasizing is that it’s a collaboration, because none of us can do this alone,” Perfetti says.

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