Local non-profit For The Forest and the U.S. Forest Service next week will begin an attempt to restore a riverside area on Castle Creek, where a century-old silver mine has caused ecological damage.
The effort at Hope Mine could mark a new, carbon-negative approach to reclamation projects on the 23,000 abandoned mines in Colorado’s forests.
Carbondale’s Flux Farm Foundation and Axe Trucking are providing technical assistance for the undertaking, which will use biochar to re-vegetate the area and restore soil ravaged by tailings and heavy metals left behind by miners. Biochar is a charcoal-like substance made from heated biomass. It is used to both increase the health of the soil it’s mixed into and to sequester carbon emitted by grass, shrubs and trees.
For western Colorado’s unhealthy forests, converting dead trees to biochar has been hailed as a way to sequester carbon that would otherwise go into the atmosphere as they decompose naturally.
“Our project intends to show, for the first time, that biochar can be successfully used at scale to reclaim a former mine site,” said Flux Farm director Morgan Williams. “This is a big opportunity for Aspen to make a meaningful contribution to the science of biochar.”
The Hope Mine project is being funded with $90,000 of For The Forest money. The non-profit, founded by former Aspen Mayor John Bennett, for the last two summers also has partnered with the forest service, City of Aspen and Pitkin County to treat and remove trees on Smuggler Mountain hit by bark pine beetle infestation. Bennett said he hopes eventually to process local beetle-killed trees into biochar for local mine reclamation projects — essentially using one forest problem to solve another. (The 16,000 pounds of biochar to be used at Hope Mine didn’t come from the Smuggler trees).
That model that could potentially be transferred to communities throughout the West facing the dual forest health threats of beetle kill and toxic abandoned mining materials, while also reducing carbon emissions and climate change impacts.
Though the city of Aspen’s water department has not found any dissolved mining materials spilling into Castle Creek from the mine in local drinking water — which is treated downstream of the mine — forest officials are touting the project as a protective measure against contamination. The steep slope and rapid erosion of the bank on which the mine sits has left it vulnerable to sliding into the river. The reclamation project would strengthen the soil and prevent a potentially calamitous slide.
“The way I look at it, this is being proactive,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said at an on-site press conference Wednesday. “If we had a more catastrophic event, the price tag just goes up.”
Work on the site begins Sunday, with a volunteer effort launched to coincide with the “10/10/10 Global Work Party,” an outreach campaign by the climate change awareness website 350.org. A geochemist will assist volunteers and Flux Farm’s Williams with laying out 10-foot-by-10-foot “test plots” on the site, trying out various recipes of biochar, compost and other materials in the soil. They have planned seven days of work to follow, including more compost/biochar mixing, treating mine tailings and hydro-mulching.
The Hope Mine was founded in 1911 and apparently never turned a profit. Its ownership through the years included “Charlotte’s Web” illustrator Garth Williams and Given Institute founder Donald King, according to a history provided by For The Forest. Today, the mine entrance has been dynamited shut, but the tunnel is said to run nearly three miles into Aspen Mountain. The site, wedged between Castle Creek and Castle Creek Road, is now managed by the forest service.