Convincing Evidence

Story and photos by Dan Dagget, author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book "Beyond the Rangeland Conflict"

The first time I saw the results of Terry Wheeler's ingenuity I almost fell out of the truck. I knew he had pioneered the practice of using cattle to reclaim mine tailings but I wasn't ready for anything of this magnitude. What I saw when I drove over the hill into Miami, Ariz., home of the longest continuously operating project of this sort, didn't look real. It looked like one of those computer-generated backgrounds used in movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. A three-hundred-foot-high pile of mine tailings stood on one side of Miami's main street and dwarfed the restaurants and discount stores on the other. And all three hundred feet of that slope were covered with grass, put there by an agent most of the inhabitants of these United States will tell you with absolute certainty is the planet's most effective destroyer of grass. That grass was put there by cows.

As a stark testimonial to what this entire area must have been like before Wheeler's innovation, a stiff wind blew hundred-foot-high plumes of rock dust off another unreclaimed pile of tailings beyond those grass-covered ones. No wonder locals had joked that the Mexican restaurants across from the Miami mine served "tailings tacos".

Wheeler has been a range manager and consultant most of his working life: on ranches, on Indian reservations and even internationally. After returning from a trip to Africa, where he had taught range management at the National University of Lesotho and had seen the extent of the desertification problem facing that nation, Wheeler said that he was at the low point of his career. "I'd been in range management for 28 years, and I was convinced we were losing the battle, and I didn't know what we could do to change it."

While consulting for a corporation out of Phoenix, Wheeler was offered an opportunity to attend a class on Holistic Resource Management in Albuquerque, N.M. He went, and as he heard how cattle could be used as a tool to restore rangelands, his years of experience on the range suddenly began to make more sense than they ever had before. "Over in Africa I'd been making the desert bigger and doing a real good job of it. Now, if this stuff would work, I saw how I could make the desert smaller."

Since Wheeler had been doing a lot of reclamation work for his new employer (using machinery and technology), his mind went to those piles of tailings - rocks pulverized as fine as talcum powder and made sterile by chemicals used to extract copper and other minerals. "I stopped thinking of that stuff as toxic waste and started thinking of it as the most basic building block of soil-rock dust. And then I started thinking about natural succession and about what would have to happen to turn that raw material into real living soil. That's when I realised that animals were the key."

The process, as Wheeler imagined it, was simple. "Soil's a living thing," he said. "There's over a billion micro-organisms on one square inch of it." Wheeler believed that by enriching the tailings with organic material in the form of hay and by having cattle not only trample that hay into the tailings but add the microbes from their gut to jumpstart the process of decay that is the essence of a living soil, he could come up with a way to reclaim mine tailings that wasn't just a bandage. He believed that would actually turn those piles of sterile particles into a living ecosystem.

When Wheeler explained his idea to Jesse Mitchell, his friend and sometimes co-worker, Mitchell took Wheeler to see something that he had noticed but hadn't realised as significant. They went to the edge of a tailings dump and looked at where cattle and deer had strayed onto the barren surface. "There were footprints out there," Wheeler said, "and manure had blown into some of them, and that was the only place anything was growing."

Confident that they could turn this accidental, natural effect into a useful reclamation tool, Wheeler and Mitchell made their pitch to several mining companies. Finally, they were given an opportunity to try their idea on the Cyprus Miami Mining Company's 1,100-acre tailings pile just a short drive from Wheeler's home town of Globe, Ariz.

"We started out in August, and in Arizona that's no time to hang out on top of a pile of rock dust," Wheeler said. The temperatures of the Arizona summer were well over a hundred, and as the dust storms swirled, and the dust turned to mud in their sweat, they began to wonder if they hadn't bitten off more than they could chew. "Every day we'd go up there to check things out," Wheeler remembers, "and we'd wonder if we hadn't gone just stark-raving nuts."

Days and then weeks went by until one day Mitchell came into Wheeler's office and said, "I found one."

"One what?" Wheeler asked.

"Our first seedling," Mitchell answered.

"We almost burned that sucker up taking photos of it," Wheeler joked.

As the pair increased the effectiveness of their process by increasing the number of animals, decreasing paddock size, and moving the animals more rapidly from paddock to paddock, their cow-based reclamation approach became successful enough that it was being compared to the technology-based remedy all mines used to do this work. The question was raised: Could cows out-reclaim the hydroseeder? Could flesh and blood critters that are roundly considered to be destroyers of grass be more effective at making it grow than a machine that sprayed a carefully measured mixture of seeds, fertiliser, and plasticised mulch?

The answer came via a crisis that could have been straight out of a Hollywood Western. In 1992 the rains fell so heavily on the Miami mine that slabs of the skin-thin layer of hydroseeder-planted grass washed off the steep slopes of the tailings pile. At the same time, people working for the mine noticed that erosion on slopes reclaimed by cattle was minimal. Those slopes were more stable because cows not only plant grass and fertilise as they reclaim, they push the mulch deep into the tailings and terrace the slopes with a tight network of trails. The cows were moved onto the area to repair the damage, and it worked. And since one of the slopes that slipped faced Miami's main business strip, everyone in town knew that the cows had saved the day.

Cattle have since become the main means of reclamation at the Cypress Miami Mine. "We've never found anything that works better on steep slopes," says Gary Jones, Cyprus Miami project engineer for the cattle-based reclamation project since its inception. "It seemed innovative at the time, but it's pretty common now," Jones continued. "Most of the mines I know of [in Arizona] are using cattle in some way."

Jones says he has had just about every group that's willing take a field trip out to the tailings to come and see the results of using cattle as a reclamation tool. And, he says, the verdict has been almost unanimously positive. Some die-hard cattle-free advocates, however, aren't willing to concede even this beneficial impact to their sworn enemy. "Anybody can spread cow shit over a hillside and get grass to grow," wrote one critic. Others raise concerns about the health of the cows and the quality of the beef they produce. But the cattle's blood and tissue are tested for toxins and unusual concentrations of trace elements, and in eight years none have shown up.

For a tool as powerful and as simple as this there are obviously going to be plenty of challenges, and some, no doubt, will be downright exotic. A couple of years ago Wheeler received an inquiry from the Philippines where someone wanted to know if cows could be used to stabilise the ash from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. "I told them, you bet they can," said Wheeler, who enjoys challenges and seeks them out. His goal is to someday take on the "Toxic Twinkie" (a pile of yellow mine waste in Leadville, Colo.).

After one urban environmentalist toured a Wheeler project, he commented, "I would assume native grasses could be re-established on the prairie in much the same way." Wheeler is doing just that on a ranch he has acquired north of Globe where he is adapting his mine-proven restoration methods to return apparently overworked rangelands to productivity and profitability.

"My goal is to create functioning ecosystems, not just grow grass on mine tailings," says Wheeler, who views the beneficial application of cow-based restoration, both on mine wastes and on degraded rangelands, as a means toward the revitalisation of rural western communities. Most of all, however, Wheeler sees the method he has created as a powerful learning tool.

"Everybody I've taken out and showed this to has been completely amazed," he says. "When they see the results they all say something like, 'I never even knew anything like this was possible; all we ever hear about is how everything is in such terrible shape.' Maybe the most valuable thing these cows can do is wake people up to the fact that humans can use nature's own processes to heal the scars we have to make to be able to live."

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